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Ask A REL Response

December 2021


What research has been conducted on the impacts of district office leadership on student achievement?


Following an established REL Southeast research protocol, we conducted a search for research reports as well as descriptive study articles on long-term school closures and the impact on student achievement. We focused on identifying resources that specifically addressed long-term school closures and the impact on student achievement. The sources included ERIC and other federally funded databases and organizations, research institutions, academic research databases, and general Internet search engines (For details, please see the methods section at the end of this memo.)

We have not evaluated the quality of references and the resources provided in this response. We offer them only for your reference. These references are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. Also, we searched the references in the response from the most commonly used resources of research, but they are not comprehensive and other relevant references and resources may exist."

Research References

  1. Epstein, J. L., Galindo, C. L., & Sheldon, S. B. (2011). Levels of leadership: Effects of district and school leaders on the quality of school programs of family and community involvement. Educational Administrative Quarterly, 47(3), 462–495.
    From the abstract: “This study tests key constructs of sociocultural and organizational learning theories with quantitative methods to better understand the nature and impact of district and school leadership and actions on the quality of programs of family and community involvement. Research Design: Survey data from a "nested" sample of 24 districts and 407 schools are used to measure theoretical constructs of district "assistance" to schools and "shared work" on partnership program development. Hierarchical linear modeling (HLM) analyses explore the independent and simultaneous contributions of district leadership and school teamwork on the implementation of basic structures and advanced outreach in partnership programs. Also, gap analyses compare supplementary data from 220 schools that had consistent district leadership for 3 years to 106 schools without this support. Findings: HLM analyses show that principals' support for family and community involvement and schools' reports of district assistance contribute significantly to schools' basic program implementation and to advanced outreach to involve all families in their children's education. Over and above school measures, district leaders' direct facilitation contributes to the quality of the school programs. Gap analyses indicate that schools with consistent district leadership take more basic and advanced actions to establish and improve their partnership programs. Conclusions: This study--with a large sample of districts and schools, appropriate quantitative methods, and a content focus on partnerships--provides strong empirical support for the importance of sociocultural and organizational theories in studying school improvement. Implications for improving district and school policy and practice are discussed. (Contains 4 figures, 2 tables, and 5 notes.)”
  2. Handford, V., & Leithwood, K. (2019). School districts' contributions to students' math and language achievement.International Journal of Education Policy and Leadership, 14(9).
    From the abstract: “Conducted in British Columbia, this mixed-methods study tested the effects of nine district characteristics on student achievement, explored conditions that mediate the effects of such characteristics, and contributed to understandings about the role school-level leaders play in district efforts to improve achievement. Semistructured interview data from 37 school administrators provided qualitative data. Quantitative data were provided by the responses of 998 school and district leaders' in 21 districts to two surveys. Student achievement data were district-level results of elementary and secondary student provincial math and language test scores. All nine district characteristics contributed significantly to student achievement. Three conditions served as especially powerful mediators of such district effects. The same conditions, as well as others, acted as significant mediators of school-level leader effects on achievement. This is among the few large-scale mixed-methods studies identifying characteristics of districts explaining variation in student achievement.”
  3. Honig, M. I., Venkateswaran, N., & McNeil, P. (2017). Research use as learning: The case of fundamental change in school district central offices. American Educational Research Journal, 54(5), 938–971.
    From the abstract: “Districts nationwide have launched efforts to fundamentally change their central offices to support improved teaching and learning for all students and are turning to research for help. The research provides promising guides but is challenging to use. What happens when central offices try? We explored that question in six districts using sociocultural learning theory to analyze 124 interviews, 499.25 observation hours, and approximately 300 documents. We found that central office administrators varied in their appropriation of five research-based ideas between and somewhat within districts. Prior knowledge and assistance from intermediary organizations proved necessary but not sufficient to support appropriation absent internal leaders who taught others how to use the research. These findings elaborate research use as a learning process that may require particular, intensive internal leadership.
  4. Johnson, P. E., & Chrispeels, J. H. (2010). Linking the central office and its schools for reform. Educational Administration Quarterly, 46(5), 738–775.
    From the abstract: “Purpose: This study investigates how linkages between a central office and its schools served as administrative controls while fostering professional accountability and organizational learning. Method: Using qualitative data sources (interviews, focus groups, observations, field notes, and document reviews), the study examines how resource, structural, communication, relational, and ideological linkages interacted in response to three reform efforts as perceived by 45 school leadership team members, 5 principals, and 10 central office leaders. Findings: Attending to relational linkages was central to initiating reform. Introducing external resources served to link central office leaders and schools enhancing relational and communication linkages but also increased controls. Initially, teachers viewed many of the structural linkages as constraining their ability to provide good instruction, and there was a lack of ideological agreement on instructional approaches. Central office leaders, principals, and school leadership teams recognized the important role that teams, with professional development, could play in supporting the district's efforts to improve teaching and learning. Conclusions: A major contribution of this research is that it begins to clarify how linkages need to be coordinated and which ones may need to be in place for reform success. Relational and ideological linkages are essential for enhancing commitment and professional accountability and for ensuring a coherent instructional focus and organizational learning. In contrast, the structural linkage was the primary vehicle used by the district to exert control, complete organizational tasks, and enforce desired changes. The communication and resource linkages can be seen as boundary spanners between these two theories of organizational change. (Contains 1 figure, 4 tables and 2 notes.)”
  5. Leithwood, K., Sun, J., McCullough, C. (2019). How school districts influence student achievement. Journal of Educational Administration, 57(5), 519–539.
    From the abstract: “Purpose: The purpose of this paper is to test the effects of nine district characteristics on student achievement, explored the conditions that mediated the effects of such characteristics and contributed to understandings about the role school-level leaders play in district efforts to improve achievement. Design/methodology/approach: Data for the study were provided by the responses of 2,324 school and district leaders in 45 school districts to two surveys. Student achievement evidence was provided by multi-grade provincial measures of math and language achievement. The analysis of these data included calculation of descriptive statistics, confirmatory factor analysis and regression mediation analysis. Findings: Seven of nine district characteristics contributed significantly to student achievement and three conditions served as especially powerful mediators of such district effects. The same three conditions, as well as others, acted as significant mediators of school-level leader effects on achievement, as well. Practical implications: District characteristics tested in the study provide a powerful framework for guiding the district improvement work of senior educational leaders. The organizational improvement efforts of both district and school leaders would be substantially enhanced by a better understanding of how to diagnose and improve the status of those conditions acting as significant mediators of the effects of both district and school leadership on student achievement. Originality/value: This is one of a very few large-scale quantitative studies examining the extent to which characteristics frequently identified by district effectiveness research explain variation in student learning. It is also one of the very few studies identifying classroom, school and family variables that mediate district effects on such learning. The study also adds to a growing body of evidence about variables which mediate school leaders' effects on such learning.”
  6. Rigby, J. G., Corriell, R., & Kuhl, K. J. (2018). Leading for instructional improvement in the context of accountability: Central office leadership. Journal of Cases in Educational Leadership. 21(1), 28–42.
    From the abstract: “This case was written to help prepare central office leaders who are expected to design systems and lead toward instructional improvement in the context of both educational accountability and implementation of standards with increased rigor. The intent of this case study is to encourage educators to examine the complex and multiple challenges of policy design and implementation when policy goals are far from current practice. Educators studying this case should examine the costs and benefits of bridging and buffering across organizational levels and how to best craft coherence between goals, needs, and resources at the central office and school levels.
  7. Stosich, E. L. (2020). Central office leadership for instructional improvement: Developing collaborative leadership among principals and instructional leadership team members. Teachers College Record, 122(9).
    From the abstract: “Background: This study addresses the nexus of two significant yet under-researched areas of instructional leadership: the role of central office administrators in developing principals as instructional leaders and the potential for the instructional leadership team (ILT) to serve as a structure for supporting administrators and teachers in working collaboratively to improve instruction and student learning in their schools. Purpose: Specifically, this study examines the efforts of principal supervisors--central office administrators responsible for supporting and evaluating principals--who aimed to develop instructional leadership broadly in high-poverty high schools by leading professional learning opportunities for principals and members of their ILTs. Participants: Participants included principals and ILT members (e.g., assistant principals, teachers) in three high-poverty high schools in the same urban district and the three principal supervisors responsible for supporting them. Research Design: Drawing on 36 interviews and approximately 80 hours of observation of ILT meetings and professional learning opportunities, the present study uses in-depth case studies of three focus schools to identify the specific practices principal supervisors use to influence the work of principals and ILTs. Findings: The findings suggest that principal supervisors contributed to ILTs' increased focus on instruction and encouraged principals to share leadership with teachers. Principals and ILT members viewed the support of principal supervisors as most helpful when they engaged in explicit teaching about the purpose and practices of ILTs, approached their work with principals and ILTs as joint work, and shared specific models that could be integrated into ILT meetings. Conclusions: The practices used by principal supervisors represented a significant shift in the role of central office administrators toward a focus on teaching as opposed to a more traditional focus on supervision.”
  8. Thompson, E.,& France, R. G.(2015). Suburban district leadership does matter. Journal for Leadership and Instruction, 14(1), 5–8.
    From the abstract: “The increased demand for educational reform and accountability has resulted in a renewed focus on the relationship between building leaders and district leaders, particularly on how district leaders can support principals to ensure the academic success of students. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) and Race to the Top (RttT) legislations hold both schools and districts accountable for setting high standards and establishing measurable goals that will improve school achievement. However NCLB, as noted by Marsh & Robin (2006), failed to outline the strategies for building and district level leaders, "instead leaving to the discretion of the school and district administrators the responsibility for identifying strategies that best fit their particular local context and address their specific needs" (p.2). Therefore an essential role of district leaders is to make educational reform a reality by translating policies into improved school practices that enhance the leadership of principals (Bottoms & Fry, 2009). While a majority of recent district leadership studies offer insight into practices that have worked toward meeting education reform and accountability expectations in urban school districts, there is limited research focused on district leadership in suburban districts. The question is whether these urban district leadership practices will work in suburban school districts. The purpose of this study is to examine whether successful urban research-based district leadership practices have applicability to suburban district leaders.”
  9. Waters, J. T., & Marzano, R. J. (2007). School district leadership that works: The effect of superintendent leadership on student achievement. ERS Spectrum, 25(2).
    From the abstract: “To determine the influence of district superintendents on student achievement and the characteristics of effective superintendents, Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL) conducted a meta-analysis of research on the influence of school district leaders on student performance. This study examined findings from 27 studies conducted since 1970 that used rigorous, quantitative methods to study the influence of school district leaders on student achievement. The authors found a statistically significant relationship between district leadership and student achievement, and that effective superintendents focus on creating goal-oriented districts. The authors also discovered that superintendent tenure is positively correlated with student achievement, and they identified five district-level leadership responsibilities that have a statistically significant correlation with average student academic achievement. The study concludes that school board members need to hire superintendents who skillfully fulfill key leadership responsibilities, support district goals for achievement and instruction, and support district- and school-level leadership in ways that enhance, rather than diminish, stability. (Contains 5 figures.)”


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

  • School district leadership that works
  • School district leaders, student achievement
  • School district leadership, instructional improvement

Databases and Resources
We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of over 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences. Additionally, we searched Google Scholar and PsychInfo.

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 for last 15 years, from 2003 to present, were include in the search and review.
  • Search Priorities of Reference Sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published and/or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations, academic databases, including ERIC, EBSCO databases, JSTOR database, PsychInfo, PsychArticle, and Google Scholar.
  • Methodology: Following methodological priorities/considerations were given in the review and selection of the references: (a) study types - randomized control trials,, quasi experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, policy briefs, etc., generally in this order (b) target population, samples (representativeness of the target population, sample size, volunteered or randomly selected, etc.), study duration, etc. (c) limitations, generalizability of the findings and conclusions, etc.

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the Southeast Region (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, and South Carolina), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory Southeast at Florida State University. This memorandum was prepared by REL Southeast under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0011, administered by Florida State University. 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.