Distributive Leadership

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Distributive leadership spreads decision-making authority throughout the school, creating a “flatter,” more representative governance structure. Unlike traditional, principal-dominated school leadership models, distributive leadership provides opportunities for everyone—including teachers, students, parents and community members—to participate in key decisions. There are many advantages to this type of organization. It fosters community engagement, provides opportunities for professional and personal growth, and enables sustained progress despite inevitable changes in leadership over time.

Effective small schools avoid traditional “top-down” organization and instead create a shared sense of community that nurtures active engagement in learning and collaborative problem solving at all levels. With more people involved, everyone quickly learns that there isn’t a “somebody else” who will make decisions for them. The result is greater involvement and ownership. Creating a flat leadership structure is not a guarantee of effective governance; leaders need to establish clear structures and guidelines to function efficiently.

What are some methods for establishing distributive leadership?

  • Define new leadership roles. Part of establishing distributive leadership is letting go of traditional notions of how schools should be run.

    • Principal. Many schools have an authoritarian-style of leadership, with the principal determining the course for the school, and teachers and staff adhering to directives. Principals in successful small schools are inclusive and flexible. They provide opportunities for staff, students and community members to gain necessary skills to be effective leaders and assume leadership roles on site councils, action research teams and committees. These principals model collaborative learning and decision making through the way they engage and empower others.

    • Research by Kathleen Cotton reveals that this type of shared decision making is inversely related to student achievement and success. Students in schools run by principals with more collaborative approaches do better than their peers in schools run in a more authoritarian manner. Whether the influence of principals is direct or due to other variables (such as teachers’ increased authority to make decisions concerning curriculum and instruction) is unknown. But the evidence is clear: the most successful principals are visionary leaders, who focus their staff and community on continuous instructional improvement and who pursue ways to increase their own learning.

    • Teacher leaders. Teacher leadership brings decision-making authority close to the classroom and gives teachers a new sense of responsibility and ownership in the school. Teacher leaders have responsibilities ranging from setting agendas and facilitating regular staff meetings to documenting the work of the small school and keeping statistics on overall student development. Teacher leaders are important liaisons between staff, parents and administrators and keep stakeholders abreast of all information related to action research, professional development, events and policies. Teacher leaders generally receive a stipend and additional training to assume these responsibilities.

    • Campus manager. In converted small schools that share space a campus manager is responsible for site-wide issues. The manager ensures that the schools are able to operate in ways that are consistent with their vision, mission and beliefs by overseeing issues regarding facilities, services and safety. The campus manager also plays an important role in monitoring each school’s approach to issues such as student enrollment, curriculum, or schedules to ensure that no aspect of one school’s operation hampers the success of the others.
  • Provide structured leadership opportunities for all stakeholders. A successful school cannot flourish (at least not for long) on the actions of one charismatic leader; schools need to develop leadership capacity in people who reflect the demographic diversity of the community. Effective small schools provide teachers, students, parents and community members the chance to develop the skills necessary for leadership roles in the school. These schools then design and promote a variety of opportunities for all stakeholders to voice their opinions, participate in key decisions and take on leadership roles. For example, students participate in professional development days to learn the facilitation skills they need to lead community forums. Parents participate in training to learn to design surveys to collaboratively conduct action research with teachers. Community members learn to analyze data so they can effectively inform the work of the school improvement committee they are in charge of. 

    Effective small schools intentionally create opportunities to spread skills, knowledge, authority and influence throughout the school community. Leaders know the demographics of their school and encourage all members, especially those from traditionally underrepresented groups, to participate. In effective small schools, leadership development and professional growth pathways are intended to build everyone’s capacity. Building capacity in this way is enables sustained progress and support of the school, despite changes in leadership.

  • Redefine leadership as relationships. In traditional hierarchical schools, leadership is defined by what the persons in charge do for or to the other members of the community. In schools with distributive leadership, the focus shifts to how people interact with one another to make change happen. In successful small schools leadership is a collaborative and inclusive process; it is defined by people’s relationships to one another—their personal connections, mutual respect and shared knowledge. A person’s status in a small school—be it student, teacher, or parent—does not affect his or her legitimacy as a decision-maker. Anyone who supports the mission of the school and is committed to working collaboratively with a diverse group is valued and encouraged to participate. 

  • Create representative leadership councils. In successful small schools teachers, parents, students and community members representing diverse groups have high levels of participation in key leadership roles. They have voting privileges on committees and councils, a signal that their opinions are meaningful and their participation is welcomed. Creating representative leadership councils is an essential part of building community engagement. 
  • Gather feedback from stakeholders. Because not all stakeholders can participate in leadership roles, their opinions and perspectives should still be sought. Town-hall meetings, focus groups, home visits, surveys and one-to-one conversations are ways to collect feedback from the broader community. To ensure representative participation it is essential to ensure that materials and discussions reflect the cultural, ethnic, linguistic and socioeconomic diversity of the community.

Review this element on the Oregon Small Schools Initiative School Change Rubric Self-Assessment Tool.

This text is based on Oregon Small Schools Initiative fieldwork and the synthesis of ideas from the following source(s):

Cotton, Kathleen. (2003). Principals and Student Achievement: What the Research Says. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Availalbe: Click Here

Cushman, Kathleen.  (1997, March). Essential Leadership in the School Change Process. Horace, 13(4), 1-8.  Available: Click Here

DuFour, Richard & Eaker, R. (1998). The Role of Principals in a Professional Learning Community. In Professional Learning Communities at Work: Best Practices for Enhancing Student Achievement. (pp. 181-203). Bloomington, IN: National Education Service.  

Fullan, Michael. (2002). The Change Leader. Center for Development and Learning. Available: Click Here

Wagner, Tony. (2001, January). Leadership for Learning: An Action Theory of School Change. Phi Delta Kappan, 82(5), 378-383. Available: Click Here

Building Leadership Capacity in Schools

Principals and Student Achievement: What the Research Says

Leadership for Learning: An Action Theory of School Change