Cheng Yong Tan
C. Y. Tan. (2022). Research brief: Empowering teachers to enhance student learning. Academy for Leadership in Teacher Education.
The quest to unravel critical factors underpinning school effectiveness since the Coleman Report has led to the development of a robust scholarship involving two groups of researchers.
The first group of researchers affirms the role of school leaders, especially principal leadership, in exercising influence in the school community towards identifying and realising the school’s vision and goals. In an allusion to the strategic role of school leaders, Leithwood et al (2008) famously claimed that “School leadership is second only to classroom teaching as an influence on pupil learning” (p. 28).
The second group of researchers foregrounds the importance of enhancing teachers’ capacity for school effectiveness. In a strong statement of support for the importance of teachers in teaching and learning, Andreas Schleicher, OECD Director for Education and Skills, categorically asserted that, “The quality of an education system can never exceed the quality of its teachers.”
The opposing perspectives or emphases represented by the two group of researchers underscore an intellectual contestation of views on what really matters within the school in student learning. To inform this debate, findings from a recently published study by Tan et al (2021) are instructive.
In the study, Tan et al (2021) set out to investigate the effect of a research-based set of nine school leadership practices, for different levels of school leaders, on different types of student outcomes. The school leadership practices comprise within-school categories (instructional management, enhancing teacher capacity, organisational responsibilities) and those involving individuals external to the school (i.e., engaging external stakeholders). Three-level meta-analysis was employed to examine 493 independent effects from 108 studies published since 2000.
There are two sets of results from the meta-analysis that can inform the debate in question.
First, school leadership practices related to instructional management (building shared vision and values, enhancing teaching and learning) and enhancing teacher capacity (providing professional development to teachers, empowering teachers, motivating teachers) are both significantly associated with student learning. Therefore, it will be naïve for school leaders to just focus on the technical aspects of instructional management and not leverage on the potential of teachers to improve student learning.
Second, among the three school leadership practices related to enhancing teacher capacity, empowering teachers stands out as having the largest influence on student learning. The effect size of teacher empowerment is almost double those for providing teacher professional development, motivating teachers, and enhancing teaching and learning.
The study begs the question of whether it is meaningful to ask whether school leaders (and leadership) or teachers make a larger contribution to student effectiveness defined in terms of student learning. Tan et al’s (2021) study indicates that it is the intersection of the work of school leaders and teachers that make the most contribution to student learning. Specifically, student learning benefit when school principals seek to enhance the school capacity by empowering teachers, and also providing professional development to teachers and motivating teachers.
How then can school principals empower, develop, and motivate teachers?
School principals can empower teachers by establishing collaborative processes, inculcating shared accountability, and distributing leadership. With empowerment, schools can make better-quality decisions that are informed by teachers’ professional inputs.
Schools can professionally develop teachers by facilitating opportunities for the entire faculty to learn, providing intellectual stimulation, fostering staff responsibility for learning, creating communities of practice, and embracing continuous learning. When teachers are professionally developed, they are more efficacious and equipped to contribute to the school’s academic capacity.
School principals can motivate teachers by providing individualised consideration and support; building trusting relationships; supporting, buffering, and recognising staff; and providing contingent rewards and incentives. Motivated teachers feel recognised and supported, so they are more committed to achieving school goals to improve student learning.
In summary, when school principals are able to fix their gaze beyond the technical processes of teaching and learning to also enhance teacher capacity via empowerment, professional development, and motivation, students are more likely to benefit from learning in effective schools.
Associate Editor: Andrew Pau Hoang
Cheng Yong Tan is Associate Professor and Research Leader in the Academic Unit of Social Contexts and Policies of Education (SCAPE), Faculty of Education, The University of Hong Kong. He is also International Associate at Robert Owen Centre for Educational Change, University of Glasgow and Associate Editor of Frontiers in Psychology. His research programme critically examines the influence of school and familial factors on student learning. His research has employed a comprehensive suite of methodological approaches, including multilevel modeling and latent class/profile analyses, three-level meta-analysis, and meta-ethnography for integrative, systematic reviews of empirical studies.