Skip Navigation
archived information
Skip Navigation

Back to Ask A REL Archived Responses

REL Midwest Ask A REL Response


April 2020


What research is available on the role of school leadership in developing an aligned system of curriculum, instruction and assessment?


Following an established Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest protocol, we conducted a search for research reports, descriptive studies, and policy overviews on the role of school leadership in developing an aligned system of curriculum, instruction, and assessment. For details on the databases and sources, keywords, and selection criteria used to create this response, please see the Methods section at the end of this memo.

Below, we share a sampling of the publicly accessible resources on this topic. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. The search conducted is not comprehensive; other relevant references and resources may exist. For each reference, we provide an abstract, excerpt, or summary written by the study’s author or publisher. We have not evaluated the quality of these references, but provide them for your information only.

Research References

Council of the Great City Schools. (2017). Supporting excellence: A framework for developing, implementing, and sustaining a high-quality district curriculum. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “In the ongoing effort to improve instructional standards in our nation’s urban public schools, the Council of the Great City Schools has released resources to help districts determine the quality and alignment of instructional materials at each grade level; to ensure that materials for English language learners are rigorous and aligned to district standards; to help districts provide targeted professional development for teachers, principals, and district staff; to assist districts in their outreach to parents, the media, and the community; to coordinate the adoption and implementation efforts of various central office departments and stakeholder groups; and to self-assess their progress in implementing college- and career-readiness standards systemwide. In the summer of 2016, the Council of the Great City Schools gathered a team of school and district academic leaders, along with representatives from Student Achievement Partners (SAP), to develop a curriculum reference tool that lays out the criteria for developing a coherent curriculum aligned to district- and state-defined college- and career-readiness standards and capable of guiding instruction in the district. The teams also met in smaller groups to discuss key components of a quality curriculum and to address issues of implementation. Based on these discussions, as well as the experience and expertise Council staff have developed over the years working with scores of academic departments in large urban districts, this guide aims to present instructional leaders and staff with a core set of criteria for what a high-quality curriculum entails. This guide includes annotated samples and exemplars from districts around the country. It also provides actionable recommendations for developing, implementing, and continuously improving upon a district curriculum, ensuring that it reflects shared instructional beliefs and common, high expectations for all students, and that it focuses the instructional work in every school throughout the district.”

New Leaders. (2014). Prioritizing leadership: New Leaders’ federal policy platform. New York, NY: Author. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Principals are critical to the success of any school improvement effort—from increasing academic rigor toward college- and career-ready standards to teacher evaluation and support. They ensure this success by building a strong, shared vision and leading effective implementation for staff, students, and families. The federal government has an important role to play in supporting the development of leaders who are preparing students for success in college, careers, and citizenship. Investments in principals are the best long-term investment in effective implementation of other federal policy priorities. Smart federal policies champion the importance of principals, set the conditions for strong state and district policies, support innovative models and promising practices, promote accountability for results, and build on-the-ground capacity to support effective leadership. All smart principal policies—including those at the federal level—should be grounded in the actions of effective leaders. Principals are expected to meet an increasingly complex set of expectations. And the best principals do so by playing three critical roles: (1) Instructional Leader; (2) Talent Manager; and (3) Culture Builder. These crucial roles are supported by operations and systems that support learning and are enhance by a principal’s personal leadership characteristics. In this five-part series, policymakers are encouraged to consider how various policies—as part of a comprehensive school leadership reform agenda—will impact a principal throughout her career.”

Olson, L. (2019). The path to instructional excellence and equitable outcomes. Oxford, OH: Learning Forward. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “This report explores District of Columbia Public Schools’ innovative approach to supporting teaching instruction, called Learning Together to Advance our Practice, or LEAP. LEAP is based on research that has found the most effective professional learning is school-based and content-specific, grounded in the instructional materials and strategies that teachers will use with their students. It is based on the belief that, by establishing a clear vision for instructional excellence across a district grounded in standards-aligned curriculum and giving teachers a safe space in which to learn and collaborate, students will experience less variability in expectations and the quality of instruction from classroom to classroom, grade to grade, and school to school.”

Perry, R., Marple, S., & Reade, F. (2019). Educators collaborating to improve mathematics: Three structures that mattered in Math in Common districts. San Francisco, CA: WestEd. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “For school districts in California, just as one set of revolutionary new content standards is beginning to feel familiar, another deep change is brewing. Districts have now had more than five years to wrestle with how they implement the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics (CCSS-M) (NGA Center & CCSSO, 2010). Many have made large-scale changes in their systems. However, state math assessment scores have remained flat, suggesting that many districts may still be in the early stages of understanding and implementing changes that are necessary to support instruction. This report describes how 10 districts participating in the Math in Common (MiC) initiative have approached implementation of the CCSS-M somewhat differently. To implement their district visions of the CCSS-M, each MiC district’s MiC leadership team developed three critical collaborative structures. These structures enabled these districts’ practitioners, administrators, and thought partners to meet to learn, interpret, and refine the ways they wanted to shift the dynamics of classroom instruction so that the new math standards could come to life in their classrooms.”

Strunk, K. O., Marsh, J. A., Bush-Mecenas, S. C., & Duque, M. R. (2016). The best laid plans: An examination of school plan quality and implementation in a school improvement initiative. Educational Administration Quarterly, 52(2), 259–309. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Purpose: A common strategy used in school improvement efforts is a mandated process of formal planning, yet little is known about the quality of plans or the relationship between plan quality and implementation. This mixed-methods article investigates plan quality, factors associated with plan quality, and the relationship between plan quality and implementation, drawing on the first 3 years of a Los Angeles Unified School District school improvement initiative that relied on formal school planning. Research Design: Our research team rated all 206 school plans submitted to the district in the first 3 years of the initiative and drew on surveys of applicant teams and principals implementing the plans. We use these data in descriptive analyses to explore relationships between plan quality and various inputs and outcomes. We also utilized school- and system-level qualitative data to contextualize and explain our findings. Findings: We find that, although average plan quality was relatively low throughout the reform, quality increased during the first phase of the initiative but decreased in the second phase. The two critical elements of the reform intended to drive plan quality, competition and technical support, were negatively or not associated with higher quality plans. However, we find positive relationships between plan quality and reported implementation outcomes in the first phase of the reform, but not in the second. Conclusions: We explore possible explanations for these patterns using qualitative case study and interview data. In the conclusion of the article, we discuss the implications for future school improvement initiatives and research.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Whitenack, D. (2015). Equitable education of English learners in the Common Core age: Implications for principal leadership. Educational Leadership and Administration: Teaching and Program Development, 26, 68–74. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “This paper highlights the importance of school principals in English Learners’ academic achievement in the age of the Common Core State Standards. Revising the curriculum of administrator preparation programs to include a greater emphasis on curriculum and instruction is one approach to enhancing principal leadership for English Leaners. Another approach is to reculture site-level instructional leadership through professional development to address the academic learning needs of English Learners.”

Additional Organizations to Consult

Center on Standards, Alignment, Instruction, and Learning –

From the website: “The Center on Standards, Alignment, Instruction, and Learning (C-SAIL) examines how college- and career-readiness standards are implemented, if they improve student learning, and what instructional tools measure and support their implementation.”

C-SAIL Implementation Study –

From the website: “To generate a more complete picture of how states are implementing new English language arts and math standards, C-SAIL has partnered with five states—California, Kentucky*, Massachusetts, Ohio, and Texas—to compare and contrast their approaches to implementation. …

*Kentucky was a partner state during Years 1 and 2 of the study (July 2015 through August 2017).”


Keywords and Search Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

  • Alignment leaders

  • Alignment leadership

  • Alignment principals

  • Curriculum alignment principals

  • “System alignment”

Databases and Search Engines

We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of more than 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). Additionally, we searched IES and Google Scholar.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

  • Date of the publication: References and resources published over the last 15 years, from 2005 to present, were included in the search and review.

  • Search priorities of reference sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations.

  • Methodology: We used the following methodological priorities/considerations in the review and selection of the references: (a) study types—randomized control trials, quasi-experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, policy briefs, and so forth, generally in this order, (b) target population, samples (e.g., representativeness of the target population, sample size, volunteered or randomly selected), study duration, and so forth, and (c) limitations, generalizability of the findings and conclusions, and so forth.
This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the Midwest Region (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL Midwest) at American Institutes for Research. This memorandum was prepared by REL Midwest under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0007, administered by American Institutes for Research. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.