26 SES 06 B, Distributed, Governance, And Beyond-School Perspectives On Educational Leadership
Since the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) first introduced educational leadership as a key means for improving the quality of education in the early 2000s, the organisation has written a number of reports and policy recommendations about how (1) schools are currently structuring leadership, and (2) what schools should do to mobilise leadership to drive school improvement. What has emerged most prominently are recommendations to decentralise leadership and distribute leadership across multiple stakeholders (e.g., teachers and school boards). Decentralisation is recommended to provide local actors the authority to make decisions about their specific contexts and their communities’ needs. This has been taken up widely across the world, such as with charter schools in the US, academies in the UK, and autonomous schooling in Australia. Such decentralisation has been recommended in conjunction with increased accountability and performance expectations. School principals, for example, have been afforded greater discretion in terms of hiring and financial control, but in exchange for high-stakes expectations for their performance on various testing and inspection schemes (e.g., Race to the Top in the US, Ofsted Inspections in the UK). These new forms of accountability have produced an exorbitant amount of responsibilities and paperwork for school principals (Holloway et al., 2018; Youngs, 2009), requiring new arrangements of leadership that can help manage the increased tasks. Similtaneously, distributed leadership, or the sharing of leadership responsibilities across multiple school actors, has also received new attention over this same period of time. Indeed, in their 2009 report titled Improving School Leadership Volume 1: Policy and Practice (Pont, Nusche & Moorman), the OECD named distributed leadership as one of the key levers for increasing student learning and achievement.
Like many countries, these conditions have produced massive changes to educational leadership in the US, including, but not limited to: (1) changes in practice related to school leader roles, responsibilities, and purposes; (2) changes in leadership preparation programs and licensure requirements; and (3) changes in local leadership structures. Most recently, educational leadership (broadly) and distributed leadership (specifically) has become the subject of federal policy initiatives, such as with the 2017 Teacher and School Leader Incentive Program Grant Competition. In a break from the traditional, single-leader structure, schools are encouraged to assume more distributed forms of leadership where leadership tasks are spread amongst multiple school actors, including teachers (Bolden, 2011; Gronn, 2002). This practice has been lauded by politicians as more democratically just (Duncan, 2014), yet many have warned that such distribution of leadership does not necessarily equate with the distribution of power (Lumby, 2013; Youngs, 2009).
This paper problematises the global campaign for distributed leadership as situated within prevailing accountability discourses that value data-driven orientations of schooling over democratic ones. It draws on multiple sources of data—such as policy documents and reports by the OECD and US—to trace the evolution of distributed leadership as a product of contemporary modes of educational governance. This historical analysis demonstrates how distributed leadership has emerged as a key element of the accountability era. Ultimately, it critiques the accountability-based promotion of distributed leadership as a missed opportunity to advance democratic ideals that might otherwise be achievable by including more participants in decision-making processes in schools. It should be noted that while the US is used as case study for this paper, the primary goal of this study is to understand how the global discourse of distributed leadership, and its relationship to accountability, has emerged and evolved over time. As a number of European contexts engage with similar policy logics and techniques (Torrance & Humes 2015), this paper has both practical and theoretical implications for a European audience.
Theoretically, this paper engages with Carol Bacchi’s (2000) notion of policy-as-discourse, which argues that ‘language, and more broadly discourse, sets limits upon what can be said’ (p. 48), and, in turn, thought and done. In other words, it presumes that policy does not solve some problem that already exists in an objective reality; rather, that policy works to constitute problems through the very act of specifying the solutions (Miller & Rose, 2008). As such, this paper avoids framing teacher accountability as a solution to a ‘real’ problem, but rather is problematized as a product of the high-risk discourse framework within which it has been produced. Analytically, the paper draws on policy documents and artefacts to map the evolution of distributed leadership at the level of the OECD and the USA. Data include (1) OECD meeting minutes and reports (i.e., Meetings of the Education Committee at the Ministerial Level 2001-2018), (2) OECD reports, toolkits and recommendation guides regarding educational leadership, broadly, and distributed leadership, specifically, (3) US policy documents related to distributed leadership (e.g., federal grant schemes), and (4) application materials for the awardees of the 2017 Teacher and School Leader Incentive Program Grant Competition (which prioritised distributed leadership). Throughout the data collection, coding, and analysis stages, Saldaña’s (2013) analytic memos were used for tracking ongoing sense-making and theorizing as high-level observations and questions evolved into patterns, trends and, finally, specific interpretations about the data. The first cycle of analysis focused on historicising distributed leadership in the OECD and US policy spaces. This historical tracing allowed for understanding the emergent definitions and rationalisations of distributed leadership, as well as the evolving stances on the topic. The third cycle of analysis focused on the ways in which ‘distributed leadership’ was positioned as a policy solution and/or lever. This was done in two stages—one for the OECD documents and one for the US grant applications. Each US application was first analysed individually so as to make comparisons between the cases without making generalised assumptions about the group as a whole. Then cross-sectional and categorical indexing was performed to build on the individual cases by noting similarities, contradictions, and other patterns (Mason 2002). Finally, bringing these analyses together helped identify how distributed leadership is a product of the prevailing data-driven discourses that constitute current educational matters.
The analysis shows that while notions of democratic practice are touted as important reasons for including teachers in decision-making processes, the current manifestation of distributed leadership is framed almost exclusively as a means for absorbing the added pressures of accountability, rather than promoting democratic practice amongst teachers and school leaders. After widespread changes to accountability (globally) and specific accountability changes (nationally) created ripe conditions for distributed leadership, the OECD and the US produced specific recommendations and incentive schemes to promote distributed leadership as a means for addressing the new challenges associated with accountability. According to a review of OECD records, it was not until February 2001 that the OECD emphasised school leadership as an area of focus for education systems. At that point in time, the recommendation was rather vague and pointed to a need for establishing leadership as a means ‘to help create a rich infrastructure of advice, knowledge, intermediaries, and networking opportunities’ (p. 9). At this time, there was also an intensifying focus on accountability and learning outcomes, but there was no direct link between these priorities and school leadership. However, by 2004, school leadership was directly implicated in the push for increasing student learning outcomes, which paralleled a simultaneous trend towards increased testing and accountability. Ultimately, analyses of the OECD and US documents suggest that the ‘problem’ that distributed leadership attempts to ‘solve’ is that the demands and responsibilities for principals are changing due to increased ‘burdens’ on principals. This is largely attributable to new and increasing demands related to accountability (e.g., data collection, analysis, reporting, etc.). The important thing to note here is that this push for increased accountability demands has been largely supported and promulgated by the OECD. Therefore, distributed leadership is a ‘solution’ to a ‘problem’ for which the OECD has advocated.
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