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A diffusion approach to study leadership reform

Curt M. Adams (Educational Leadership and Policy Studies, University of Oklahoma, Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA)
Gaetane Jean‐Marie (Educational Leadership and Policy Studies, University of Oklahoma, Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA)

Journal of Educational Administration

ISSN: 0957-8234

Article publication date: 5 July 2011




This study aims to draw on elements of diffusion theory to understand leadership reform. Many diffusion studies examine the spread of an innovation across social units but the objective is to examine diffusion of a collective leadership model within school units. Specifically, the strength of reform diffusion is tested to account for differences in instructional capacity and to explain the spread of leadership reform within Title I elementary schools.


A mixed method design was used to understand how social factors facilitated the diffusion of leadership reform, and to test for a diffusion effect. Qualitative data were derived from interviews, field notes, observations, and documents using a grounded theory approach. Open and axial coding techniques were used to develop coherent categories of major and minor themes. Quantitative data were hierarchical, with teachers and students nested in schools. A random‐intercepts, means‐as‐outcomes model was used to test for a diffusion effect on instructional capacity.


Strong principal leadership, a commitment to collective responsibility and shared influence, frequent and open communication, and time to build capacity were conditions that supported diffusion of the leadership model. Diffusion of the leadership model mattered for instructional capacity. Each indicator of instructional capacity was more prevalent in schools that had diffused the leadership model to the mentoring and sustaining stages.

Research limitations/implications

The study is limited to one type of reform and 36 Title I elementary schools from an urban and urban fringe district in a Southwestern state. Further, the study does not delve deeply into facilitative factors within various stages of the diffusion processes. It focuses on social factors that enable schools to bring the leadership reform to scale.

Practical implications

Framing reform as an intervention to be implemented in schools, rather than a social process that institutionalizes planned change, trivializes the actual complexity of transforming practice. Regular interactions among school members around the school's vision, coupled with leadership and time, contributed to reform diffusion and improved instructional capacity in this study. Reform diffusion, a process that takes time, strong leadership, and regular social interactions, needs to be given more consideration as a valuable process to improve school performance.

Social implications

The findings suggest that facilitative factors of diffusion can advance reform and improve capacity simultaneously. Successful reforms, defined as ones that disrupt traditional cultures and achieve goals, evolve through developmental stages that eventually lead to a changed culture. The rate of this evolution may vary, but the temporal process of establishing a shared understanding; designing, experimenting, and developing new tools; fostering expertise; and forming strong social networks are foundational supports for authentic and sustainable reform.


Reform diffusion offers an alternative framework to better understand the institutionalization of planned change in schools. The findings, while limited to elementary schools engaged in leadership reform, provide support for studying reform as an holistic social process that encompasses the design, adoption, implementation, and institutionalization of planned change.



Adams, C.M. and Jean‐Marie, G. (2011), "A diffusion approach to study leadership reform", Journal of Educational Administration, Vol. 49 No. 4, pp. 354-377.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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