Learner‐centered Leadership: Research, Policy, and Practice

Jonathan Lightfoot (Hofstra University, Hempstead, New York, USA)

Journal of Educational Administration

ISSN: 0957-8234

Article publication date: 9 May 2008



Lightfoot, J. (2008), "Learner‐centered Leadership: Research, Policy, and Practice", Journal of Educational Administration, Vol. 46 No. 3, pp. 427-430. https://doi.org/10.1108/09578230810869356



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

School leadership preparation programs are often challenged to find the right design, the best pedagogical approach and the most capable students who will use their learning to facilitate change and transformation in schools that need it the most. We live during an era when the half life of the latest educational reform gets shorter by the day. Our sometimes‐desperate search for answers to the problems faced by school leaders impels us to quickly latch onto the next reform waves, particularly those supported by high profile, politically driven, marketing campaigns. For example, educational reform packages that promote school choice, standardized testing and punitive accountability measures seem to create more stifling tension among partisan lines than improve schools and student learning. Nihilism is the worst enemy of concerned educators, however. Learner‐centered Leadership: Research, Policy, and Practice encourages educational leaders to remain hopeful in their search to find the right program model, proven pedagogical strategies, and leadership candidates who can improve schools and student learning. That hope is founded in the American school of philosophy, pragmatism, which stresses “becoming” rather than “being” and searches for truth in what works.

The editors draw from the wisdom and experience of an impressive array of academics and practitioners of school leadership. Their work coalesces around the fundamental idea that if learning is at the center of leadership activity then dynamic and naturally evolving learning communities will result. Reflective school leaders make vital connections between teacher efficacy and student learning. Instead of blind compliance with the current data‐driven models of school improvement, learner‐centered leaders (LCL) encourage dialogue and analysis around what the numbers mean for their particular schools. In addition, LCL administrators deny authoritarian and power oriented approaches in favor of a non‐authoritarian, shared governance style of leading which is believed to better effect school transformation and student learning.

Arizona State University Regents' Professor, David C. Berliner, succinctly captures the essential message of learner‐centered leadership in his foreword. He targets pragmatic beliefs, ideas and theories as the logical response to our current era of evidence‐based approaches to education. Since pragmatic theories depend on proven strategies that work, evidence that this is so is required, he suggests. Increased tax payer demands that public schools are producing educated youth are now responded to with evidence such as higher standardized test scores. Teaching and learning strategies that, sooner rather than later, result in higher student test scores are chosen over teaching and learning strategies that may not immediately translate into higher test scores. Longtime educator Jonathan Kozol recently cited those teaching to the test strategies as the reason for high teacher burnout and turnover and student apathy and disengagement. His dismay over teachers who lose their joy for teaching and students who are burdened by continuous high stakes testing led him to embark upon a very personal and dangerous form of public protest – fasting. Berliner acknowledges the fact that whereas this multiple authored volume lacks uniformity of approach, it brings them together around the common theme that administrators can create school systems in which there is no loss of the intrinsic motivation that students and teachers initially bring to the classroom. One wonders if Kozol can be persuaded to end his fast in light of the promise of learner‐centered leadership.

Contributing authors explore learner‐centered leadership by placing the issue of professional development for principals in such schools in historical context and following the shifts in educational policy over time. Child‐centered educators and theorists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who believed that schools should be observant of children's interests and responsive to their needs are credited with providing the philosophical roots of learner‐centered schools. Included among the cadre of education thinkers are Dewey, Piaget, Vygotsky, Maxine Greene, and Lillian Weber. Although many of their methods of children's education differed as did their guiding principles, most believed in an education that would develop full student potential and thought schools should be part of a progressive learning community built on a foundation of democratic values. It is interesting to note that while a century of great advances were being made in child development and learning, the educational administrative leadership of schools remained steeped in an authoritarian, top‐down management mode. It appears as though schools leaders are ready to adopt new ways of leading schools based on many of the principles and values developed by the pioneers of non‐authoritarian child‐centered education. In addition, contemporary school leaders show signs of being ready to embrace many of the concerns trumpeted by leaders of the Civil Rights and Human Rights movements, such as honoring diversity, listening to the voice of youth, distributed leadership, and attention to research. The fact that educational policy has become increasingly national and less locally driven requires school leaders to renew their focus on learning, not only to improve their understanding of policy and how it affects them but to be able to effectively implement policy at the school and classroom levels.

In the chapter that deals with conceptual foundations for principal leadership, the authors chart the selected effect sizes associated with accomplishments in the framework for school leadership. From meta‐analyses of research on how various interventions affect student learning, the accomplishment of school renewal support was moderately attributed to principals who act as change agents and are willing to actively challenge the status quo. One of the most far‐reaching federal educational policies to become law in recent history of the USA is No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Since its introduction to schools across the country six years ago, growing opposition to its punitive nature, high demands, and questionable funding has occurred. NCLB symbolizes the status quo. Learning‐centered school leaders who openly challenge such powerful mandates risk a lot, federal funding and community support among others.

Another interesting part of the book deals with research and practice on school leadership and professional development where student data are often viewed as the answer to student learning and school improvement. The problem, however, is data use or more accurately, misuse. Again, NCLB is credited with requiring schools to use student data to inform school practice. The authors note that the concept of data use is found in the research literature over the past 30 years and appears to suggest that effective schools exercise thoughtful use of student data. Today, school leaders have to know something about disaggregation of data whereby data are broken down according to subgroup populations (i.e. race, class, ability, language, etc.) and then analyzed for compliance with criteria established to gauge their relationship to the standards and dominant normalized group. The book does not argue against the current movement towards data‐driven decision making. Instead, it advocates the use of student data to inform reflection on educational practice and encourages school leaders to use dialogue around data to strengthen participation in community learning.

The final section on how learner‐centered school leaders can better engage social justice and urban reform issues raises several important concepts and related concerns. Under the heading of “pedagogical awakening” the authors note scholars in the field who insist that only preparation programs with a social justice orientation can instill in aspiring school leaders the urgency to be guided by a moral and ethical obligation to foster equitable and socially responsible learning for all students. As an academic who agrees with Brown (2004), the perspective of this reviewer of preparation programs across the country does not offer much encouragement that others will awaken to the importance of embedding social justice in their curriculums. I identified with much of the research recorded by the authors, particularly some of the stories and narratives involving “race” and colorblindness. In my own research I discovered students in leadership preparation programs who witnessed professors who lacked the requisite knowledge and skill to discuss “race” in their classrooms. There is often a general dis‐ease that students and teachers feel when sensitive and controversial topics and issues are discussed. Many prefer to adopt colorblindness (deny that they see color or that is “colors” their perception of people's differences and worth) as a way to avoid in‐depth dialogue on why racism and other forms of oppression continues to be a problem in our society and schools. LCLs who welcome personal reflection and recognize that their leadership preparation programs may not afford them the opportunity to effectively engage social justice issues are admonished to seek professional development opportunities to learn how to lead for social justice.

This is a book that challenges readers and educators in several ways. The format is probably the foremost challenge. It has multiple editors, multiple authors and multiple presentation styles. To overcome these obstacles, readers and educators should begin by carefully reading the introduction and then selectively reading different parts of the text until it becomes apparent that it has something to offer in terms of informing one's professional practice. It is bound to serve as a handy reference volume that will long provide useful service to the school leader in need of greater insight. The material presented can be useful fodder to foster debate too. For example, in the introductory chapter the authors state (p. 8), “Increasingly, education has become the single most important mechanism for achieving success in the global society”. Depending on the degree to which we agree on how to define “success”, this reviewer would argue that education is limited in its ability to foster success in favor of wealth, income and class orientation being more dominant and predictable determinants of success. The final chapter, “Moral issues in a test‐driven accountability agenda: moral challenges for learning‐centered leadership”, makes a convincing argument for the need to spread the word about learning‐centered leadership as a way to fathom the current world of educational leadership. It is perhaps the easiest chapter to read and neatly guides the reader in understanding the lessons, implications and ultimately the essence of learning‐centered leadership: success occurs when proactive leaders seek balance between instrumentalist approaches to learning and more authentic approaches to learning grounded in moral integrity. The book is a highly valuable and recommended volume. It is especially recommended as a comprehensive resource for school‐based and district leaders and for university professors involved in educational leadership preparation programs.

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