Narrating the relationship between leadership and learning outcomes: A study of public narratives in the Norwegian educational sector
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In the last couple of decades improving student achievements has gained increased focus amongst policymakers. The increased focus on school leadership when discussing quality in schools has been especially evident in educational systems where success is measured and defined by student achievements, and in systems characterised by increased accountability, competition, and school league tables. At the same time, the influence of supra-national agencies on national policy-making has increased immensely and processes that frame education policy are often constituted globally and beyond the nation state. Today, the idea of a positive relationship between school leadership and learning outcomes in schools has also been taken up in national policy in educational systems where competition and accountability are less paramount. School leaders’ contribution and significance for student learning outcomes therefore seems be a travelling policy idea.
Still, although policy ideas and initiatives may travel amongst nations, they are reframed in the national and local contexts in which they are taken up. Policy ideas are therefore reframed differently amongst nations, and in the various local contexts in which they are in play. Consequently, although they might look the same at a surface level, policy ideas and initiatives may take on differing forms when they enter national policy systems, as the process of reshaping traveling policy initiatives and ideas into national and local policy is complex and multifaceted. This thesis investigates some of this complexity as it explores how ideas about the relation between school leadership and student learning outcomes are framed and expressed by significant actors within the Norwegian educational system.
The thesis could be framed as an interpretive narrative analysis. Rooted in a constructivist perspective, where policy making is seen as a communicative practice and a product of human interaction and meaning-making, the thesis explores how the school leadership is connected to student learning outcomes in contemporary public narratives presented by policy documents, school principals and teachers
Through three studies the thesis presents three public narratives about the relation between school leadership and student learning outcomes. Study 1 is based on an analysis of contemporary Norwegian White papers and an OECD report from the improving school leadership activity. In the narrative plot illuminated in this study, school leadership is connected to student learning outcomes in a causal chain, where influence and effect follows a hierarchical structure. As a consequence the most significant actor in this narrative is the individual school leader, whose actions, priorities and competence is seen to influence all the elements below in the hierarchy.
In Study 2 the school principals’ narrative connects school leadership to student learning through practices of quality assessment. In this plot, the different events and actions are connected through the conception of leadership and learning as relational work, underscoring the interconnections between school leaders, teachers and the task at hand. Further, the school principals narrate the teachers as the ones making instructional decisions, which consequently make teachers, and not school leaders, the most significant actors regarding student learning, as teachers’ decisions and teaching practices may not be ascribed to school leader influence, but rather be informed by school and teacher culture, teacher identity and competence. Accordingly, the most significant actors within this narrative are the teachers.
In Study 3 the plot in the teachers’ narrative describes the relation between school leader teams and students learning outcomes as mediated through teachers’ practice in the classrooms, teachers’ professional and instructional development, and the facilitation of a productive working environment for leaders, teachers and students. Further, a significant distinction between internal and external elements in the narrative is made, and emphasis is put on the internal working processes within each school, as these processes are narrated as more significant for student learning. However, one external element – the context of each individual student – is narrated as more significant for student learning than any of the other elements. Thus, student learning is mainly explained as dependent on elements that are beyond both teachers’ and school leaders’ control. Consequently, the most significant actors within this narrative are the students.
In the three narratives presented in the thesis school leadership is conceptualized in differing ways. In the policy narrative based on policy documents leadership is ascribed to the work, priorities and decisions made by those attaining formal leadership positions in schools. Further, this narrative presents leadership as a factory design, where the acts of school leaders are seen as having an explanatory effect on both organizational success and student achievements. In the school principals’ narrative as well as the teachers’ narrative, leadership is described as conjoint action, expressed as dynamic relationships between formal leaders and teachers, and amongst teachers. In these two narratives the significance of school leadership is hard to ascribe to the work of formal leaders as both teachers and school principals describe instructional leadership first and foremost attached to the work of teachers. Thus in these two narratives leadership is conceptualized in a more delegated and distributed way, as a multifaceted and relational process of shared responsibility, power, trust and authority.
Also, the concept of learning outcomes is described in different ways. In the policy narrative, learning outcomes is conceptualized as generic and school subject related knowledge that can be measured and documented through tests and grades, and accordingly as a measure for school efficiency and success. Both in the school principals’ narrative and teachers’ narrative on the other hand, a vague approach to learning outcomes is evident. These two narratives rather conceptualize learning outcomes in a constructivist sense where learning outcomes are narrated as what one ends up with after some sort of engagement.
The thesis therefore concludes that the three narratives presented relate school leadership to student learning outcomes due to different rational accounts: one (the policy documents) building on research-based accounts of school leaders’ effect and influence, and the other two (school principals and teachers) building on accounts of structural and cultural working conditions within schools. As such the analyses presented in this thesis poses somewhat conflicting perspectives on the relationship between school leadership and learning outcomes, and further they legitimize leadership practice in differing ways. Some of these varieties can be explained by the contextual nature of narratives. As contextual accounts they reflect the culture of the organizational and professional context of which they are in play at the same time as they reflect the tensions between two competing discourses; accountability and teacher professionalism. These tensions are what school leaders are faced with and need to balance in their everyday practice in schools.