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December 2017


What research has been conducted on distributed leadership in schools?


Following an established REL Southeast research protocol, we conducted a search for research reports as well as descriptive study articles on distributed leadership in schools. We focused on identifying resources that specifically addressed distributed leadership in schools. 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. 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. Bush, T., & Glover, D. (2012). Distributed leadership in action: Leading high-performing leadership teams in English schools. School Leadership & Management, 32(1) 21-36.
    From the abstract: "Heroic models of leadership based on the role of the principal have been supplemented by an emerging recognition of the value of "distributed leadership". The work of effective senior leadership teams (SLTs) is an important manifestation of distributed leadership, but there has been only limited research addressing the relationship between this model and leadership teams in education. This article reports the findings of research conducted for the English National College, on high-performing SLTs. The research adopted a case study approach with nine English schools (four secondary, three primary and two special). The schools were defined as "high performing" because they received "outstanding" Ofsted grades overall, "and" for leadership and management, in inspections conducted in 2008-2009. The research shows that high-performing leadership teams are characterized by internal coherence and unity, a clear focus on high standards, two-way communication with internal and external stakeholders and a commitment to distributed leadership. (Contains 1 note.)"
  2. Carbone, A., Evans, J., Ross, B., Drew, S., Phelan, L., Lindsay, K., Cottman, C., Stoney, S., Ye, J. (2017). Assessing distributed leadership for learning and teaching quality: A multi-institutional study. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 39(2), 183-196.
    From the abstract: "Distributed leadership has been explored internationally as a leadership model that will promote and advance excellence in learning and teaching in higher education. This paper presents an assessment of how effectively distributed leadership was enabled at five Australian institutions implementing a collaborative teaching quality development scheme called the Peer Assisted Teaching Scheme. The Scheme brings together expertise from teams of academics, coordinators, and institutional learning and teaching portfolio holders to the shared goal of enhancing learning and teaching quality. A distributed leadership benchmarking tool was used to assess the Scheme's effectiveness, and we found that (i) the Scheme is highly consistent with the distributed leadership benchmarks, and that (ii) the benchmarking tool is easily used in assessing the alignment (or otherwise) of teaching and learning quality initiatives with distributed leadership benchmarks. This paper will be of interest to those seeking to assess implementations of distributed leadership to improve teaching quality and leadership capacity."
  3. Devos, G., Tuytens, M., & Hulpia, H. (2014). Teachers' organizational commitment: Examining the mediating effects of distributed leadership. American Journal, 120(2), 205-231.
    From the abstract: "This study examines the relation between principals' leadership and teachers' organizational commitment, mediated by distributed leadership. Data were collected from 1,495 teachers in 46 secondary schools. Structural equation modeling indicated that the effect of principals' leadership on teachers' organizational commitment is mediated by the leadership of assistant principals and teacher leaders, cooperation within the leadership team, and participative decision making of teachers. Therefore, principals should stimulate assistant principals and teacher leaders to take part in leading the school, lead the school in a collegial way with other members of the leadership team, and empower teachers to participate in school decision making."
  4. Goksoy, S. (2015). Distributed leadership in educational institutions. Journal of Education and Training Studies, 3(4), 110-118.
    From the abstract: "In recent years, many studies are conducted about shared leadership process. Distributed leadership (DL) approach addresses leadership along with teams, groups and organizational characteristics. In practice, this approach objects the supposition that an individual should take the lead in order to ensure change. Proponents of this idea claim that shared leadership is required since educational institutions are too complex to be managed with only one individual. Responsibility for managing various complex tasks in organizations is distributed among a myriad of individuals with different roles. The basic principle advocated in this approach is based on the futility of efforts to ascertain a series of best single leader characteristics or best single leader behaviors. Current study aims to provide information on distributed leadership and discuss the applicability of the concept in educational organizations."
  5. Harris, A., & DeFlaminis, J. (2016). Distributed leadership in practice: Evidence, misconceptions and possibilities. Management in Education, 30(4), 141-146.
    From the abstract: "This article takes a contemporary look at distributed leadership in practice by drawing upon empirical evidence from a large-scale project in the USA. Initially, it considers the existing knowledge base on distributed leadership and questions some of the assertions and assumptions in recent accounts of the literature. The article also addresses some persistent misconceptions associated with the concept of distributed leadership and points out that certain fundamental misunderstandings still prevail. The article concludes by proposing that more evidence from practice would significantly enhance the current evidential base and that the future development of distributed leadership would greatly benefit from more input from practitioners."
  6. Harris, A. (2013). Distributed leadership: Friend or foe? Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 41(5), 545-554.
    From the abstract: "Distributed leadership is now widely known and variously enacted in schools and school systems. Distributed leadership implies a fundamental re-conceptualisation of leadership as practice and challenges conventional wisdom about the relationship between formal leadership and organisational performance. There has been much debate, speculation and discussion about its positive and negative aspects. This article considers the evidence. It examines the facts concerning distributed leadership. It does not claim to be a systematic review of the literature but rather draws upon the available empirical evidence to highlight what we know. The article considers the implications, arising from the evidence for those in formal leadership positions. It concludes by reflecting upon the role of the formal leader within distributed leadership and outlines some of the challenges and tensions associated with distributed leadership practice."
  7. Kelley, C., Dikkers, S. (2016). Framing feedback for school improvement around distributed leadership. Educational Administration Quarterly, 52(3), 392-422.
    From the abstract: "Purpose: The purpose of this article is to examine the utility of framing formative feedback to improve school leadership with a focus on task-based evaluation of distributed leadership rather than on role-based evaluation of an individual leader. Research Methods/Approach: Using data from research on the development of the Comprehensive Assessment of Leadership for Learning, we examine ways to design formative evaluation and feedback organized around distributed leadership practices. This study draws on qualitative data from iterative design research conducted with middle and high school principals, assistant principals, teachers, and staff in 2011. Findings: Many challenges in providing actionable, multirater feedback were addressed by using an assessment instrument that focused on measuring distributed instructional leadership practices. Users reported that task-based multirater feedback provided transparency in communicating a clear theory of action for school improvement and fostered formal and informal conversations around school improvement. Implications for Research and Practice: The study suggests that focusing on distributed leadership practices may help overcome some of the limitations to the use of evaluation feedback that is targeted to an individual leader. Key features of formative feedback design desired by school principals included transparency in the theory of action underlying assessment items to prime teachers and leaders for collaborative discussions of current and potential practices, and research-based guidance on next steps schools can take to build distributed instructional leadership capacity in their schools."
  8. Klar, H. W., Huggins, K. S., Hammonds, H. L., & Buskey, F. C. (2016). Fostering the capacity for distributed leadership: A post-heroic approach to leading school improvement. International Journal of Leadership in Education, 19(2), 111-137.
    From the abstract: "Principals are being encouraged to distribute leadership to increase schools' organizational capacities, and enhance student growth and learning. Extant research on distributed leadership practices provides an emerging basis for adopting such approaches. Yet, relatively less attention has been paid to examining the principal's role in fostering the leadership capacities of others to create the capacity for distributed leadership. In this article, we examine the specific practices of six high school principals who fostered the leadership capacities of 18 other leaders in their respective schools. Our findings illustrate the key steps these principals undertook in identifying potential leaders, creating leadership opportunities for them, facilitating their role transitions and providing them with continuous support."
  9. Lahtero, T. J., Lang, N., & Alava, J. (2017). Distributed leadership in practice in Finnish schools. School Leadership & Management, 37(3), 217-233.
    From the abstract: "The aim of this study is to explore what aspects the principals and the members of the management teams in the primary and upper secondary education schools in Vantaa support distributed leadership in their school and how necessary they see that distributed leadership is extended to the students in matters concerning the curriculum and the development of teaching practices. The research method was a survey based on a questionnaire of 48 questions, where the respondents evaluated the preconditions of distributed leadership in their school. The principals and members of the management teams in the primary and upper secondary schools in Vantaa see distributed leadership mostly as delegation of predetermined tasks than the interaction among leaders, followers and situations. The results strengthen the view of distributed leadership as a phenomenon which in its primitive form can be seen in the official structures of the school and as delegation based on a formal position in the more advanced view distributed leadership can be seen as interaction among the management team and in the situations in the official and unofficial structures of the school."
  10. Ross, L., Lutfi, G. A., & Hope, W. C. (2016). Distributed leadership and teachers' affective commitment. NASSP Bulletin, 100(3), 159-169.
    From the abstract: "Principals' responsibilities have escalated in quantity and complexity. Mandates to increase student achievement and improve school grades overwhelm one person. Hence, principals are obliged to enlist teachers to serve in leadership roles. This research sought to determine whether there is a relationship between distributed leadership and teacher affective commitment. One hypothesis, null and alternative, was formulated, and data were collected from 230 teachers. Results revealed that distributed leadership correlated with teachers' affective commitment."


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

  • Distributed leadership
  • Leadership effectiveness, distributed leadership
  • Distributed leadership in schools

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 2002 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.