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Action research in school leadership programs.


Educational leadership programs are being challenged for not adequately preparing school leaders. Programs are too theoretical and totally unrelated to the daily demands on contemporary principals. The coursework is poorly sequenced and organized, making it impossible to scaffold the learning. The author argues that incorporating action research in pre-service school leadership programs is one way of narrowing the gap between theory while involving students in solving real workplace-based problems.


In 1987, the University Council for Educational Administration (UCEA) and the National Commission on Excellence in Educational Administration conducted a study on the training of educational leaders. They issued a report that identified several problems areas, including:

a) lack of a clear definition for good educational leadership;

b) inadequate preparation programs, including irrelevant curricula, mediocre course sequence, poor content and clinical experience;

c) poor quality of applicants to these programs;

d) absence of collaboration between school districts and higher education institutions;

e) scarcity of minority and female education leaders;

f) lack of systematic professional development;

g) need for licensure that promotes excellence; and

h) absence of a national sense of cooperation in preparing school leaders.

Although the report failed to prompt major action at the time, in 1996, the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) developed a set of standards for school leaders (Hale & Moorman, 2003). Nearly ten years after the standards were clarified, college and university educational leadership programs still experience intense scrutiny because of the apparent continuing deterioration in public education which creates demands for accountability for students' improvement. Meanwhile, the job of school leaders has changed dramatically during this time period. Principals are being required to multitask as never before. They must:

* serve as instructional leaders;

* know academic content and pedagogical techniques;

* work with teachers to strengthen their skills;

* integrate management, supervisory, financial and public relations issues with the priority of quality teaching and learning; and

* collect, analyze and interpret data to make high quality decisions.

However, professional development and formal preparation programs for educational leaders in higher education institutions are not preparing school leaders to perform these multiple roles adequately. Principals across the nation agree that school administrator training programs deserve an "F." They allege that the major flaws are:

* programs are too theoretical and totally unrelated to the daily demands on contemporary principals;

* coursework is poorly sequenced and organized, making it impossible to scaffold the learning.

Therefore, clinical experience is inadequate, and students do not have mentored opportunities to develop practical understanding or real-world competence (Hale & Moorman, 2003). This paper focuses on the issue of linking educational theory to practice. In my experience, action research (AR) is a highly effective way of connecting theory and practice. AR enables school leaders to:

* learn critical reflection, which enables any practitioner (as well as any researcher) to be both critical and creative;

* deepen both theory and practice by linking them in principals' real-life situations; and

* develop competence in problem-solving processes.

Using AR in this way is supported by the literature (Cardno & Piggot-Irvine, 1996). I will begin with an examination of research trends in educational leadership, define AR, show how I incorporate AR in school leadership training and discuss its challenges.

Research Trends in Educational Leadership

The leadership concept dates back to antiquity and appears in the works of Plato, Caesar, and Plutarch. Researchers assume that leadership is critical to the success of any institution or endeavor (Bass, 1981). Theories of leadership abound. They include the "great man" theory which suggests that great leaders are born; the "trait" theory, which contends that leaders are endowed with superior qualities that differentiate them from followers; and environmental theories, which suggest that leaders emerge as a result of time, place, and circumstances (Marzano, Waters, & McNulty, 2005).My experience teaching school leadership development to students with a wide variety of backgrounds supports both "trait" and "environmental" leadership theories. I have observed that individuals training to be better leaders can build on their strengths, and that AR is an especially effective tool for this. Currently, the most popular theme in education is instructional leadership. Smith and Andrews (I 989) identify four dimensions of instructional leaders and their functions as follows:

1. As a resource provider, the principal ensures that teachers have all the materials, facilities and budget necessary for instruction.

2. As an instructional resource, the principal support instructional activities and programs and giving them priority.

3. As a communicator, the principal communicates the school goals to faculty and staff.

4. As a visible presence, the principal engages in classroom observations and is accessible to staff and teachers.

Hess and Kelly (2005) conducted a study to discover how practicing principals were strengthening these functions in their jobs. They found that 96% of practicing principals say that on-the-job experience and guidance from colleagues has been more helpful in preparing them for their current position than academic training programs. The authors found little evidence that principal preparation programs are introducing students to a broad range of management, organizational or administrative theory and practice, sufficient to help them meet the challenge of improving students' academic achievements.

In addition to Hess and Kelly, Arthur Levine (2005), President of Teachers College at Columbia University in New York City, has criticized educational leadership programs for irrelevant curriculum, low admission standards, weak faculty, inadequate clinical instruction, inappropriate degrees and poor quality of research. He says that educational administration scholarship is overwhelmingly engaged in non-empirical research and disconnected from practice. Further, he alleges that research in educational leadership cannot answer a question as basic as this: Do school leadership programs have any impact on students' achievement in the schools that graduates of these programs lead?

However, Levine's findings have been challenged by those who claim that he failed to acknowledge all the initiatives that have been implemented in the field of education leadership development. Critics maintain that the national standards movement in leadership preparation has developed guidelines being used in many states and institutions to reform education leadership programs. According to the Education Commission of the States, since 2000 there have been 24 policy changes in 17 states regarding school leadership licensure and certification. In addition, critics point out that the Joint Research Taskforce on Educational Leadership Preparation is developing a coherent body of knowledge about education leadership on such issues as:

* the context of leadership education;

* models and theories;

* curriculum and pedagogy;

* student assessment;

* program evaluation; and

* professional learning, among other issues.

For a complete rebuttal to Levine see Young et. al., 2005. While I do acknowledge that improvements are being implemented, there is still a great deal to be done, and I maintain that AR has a major role in this ongoing work.

What is Action Research (AR)?

AR (also known as practitioner research) is a process by which participants examine their own educational practices systematically and carefully using the techniques of research (Watts, 1985, p. 118). It is "insider" research done by practitioners using their own site as the focus of their study (Anderson et al., 1994). AR is based on the following assumptions:

* People working in any responsible position (which in this case is teachers and principals) work best on problems they have identified for themselves;

* Such leaders become more effective when encouraged to examine and assess their own work and then consider ways of working differently;

*Leaders and workers (such as principals and teachers) help each other by working collaboratively;

* Working with colleagues helps everyone involved, in their professional development (Watts, 1985).

Ferrance (2000) points that AR is a quest for knowledge about how to improve. AR engages people in their own self-improvement, and effectively works to improve their skills, techniques and strategies. AR is about how we can do things better. AR framework includes five phases of inquiry;

1) identify the problem area;

2) collection and organization of data;

3) analysis and interpretation of data;

4) action based on data and;

5) reflection.

These phases except for action and reflection are similar to the traditional research steps. The five phases of inquiry are described as follows.

1. Identification of the problem follows some basic guidelines. The facilitator and the group must first determine--How significant is the problem? Would its solution bring about change in the organization? Is it worth time and effort? Is it anything of interest to the stakeholders? Do stakeholders have control over it? For example, a newly appointed school principal may want to develop a school improvement plan. Using AR she would bring teachers, school staff, parents and students representatives together to have a conversation on the subject. The conversation is an opportunity for the school principal to present her ideas and also to hear from staff. Perhaps the school improvement plan from the teachers and staff perspective is not the most urgent thing for the school and the principal should be ready to hear that. The teachers and staff meeting will determine the priority and the question that needs to be addressed.

2. Collecting and organizing data comes after identifying the problem. Participants collect information from a wide array of stakeholders. They use interviews, field notes, surveys, students' artifacts, questionnaires, focus groups, and cases studies etc., to collect and organize data. The data include responses, recommendations from various constituents to the question(s) identified by the participants. Upon collection, the data are organized in a way that makes it useful to identify trends and themes. In our case, data can be collected from students, teachers, school staff, and parents. It can then be organized under the categories like: students' perceptions (of major school problems); teachers' perceptions, parents' perceptions, staff-perceptions.

3. Data analysis and interpretation come next. At this stage, stakeholders examine the data collectively in an attempt to make sense out of it. They might require outside expertise for help, which is perfectly acceptable. This is an attempt to develop an explanation or an organic theory for what is taking place. This is the nexus between theory and practice and vice versa. This is where a ground theory emerges in an attempt to answer the questions what is happening here or how/why are things the way they are? It is a stage where a consensus is reached and the research question(s) answered.

4. Acting on evidence means using the organic explanation to develop a plan for action. This is in response to the question--What will we do about it? The action plan begins with a planning stage, followed by action, observation and reflection. In our school case, depending on what has been identified as the main issue, the original group will come together to work on solutions, plan its implementation and monitor it.

5. The reflection stage is the evaluation of the results and the opportunity to recycle results back into improving the action. At this point the stakeholders meet again to assess the impact of the implemented solution. Reflection is a critical process. It is about re-examining and thinking about the events or the action in order to analyze, evaluate and understanding it better. This stage heals the theory-and-practice dichotomy because it provides the opportunity to act on whatever has been learned experientially. This action learning develops the necessary skills and builds the necessary confidence to lead more effectively. Reflection is a learning stage, a process of distilling or drawing out the core lessons; moving from what actually happened to what tends to happen as a result of such circumstances. The insights generated by the previous steps must now be translated into decisions that will ensure improved practice. This is the continuous looping that enables sustainable improvement. (Taylor, Marais, & Kaplan, 1997). For example: a school leader who uses action research to advance a school vision, develop people, and change the organization is involved in experiential learning--a process whereby human development occurs. Through this process, the individual develops his or her own theories and applies them immediately, to solve problems, evaluate them and continuously improve. This personal development forms the basis for applied learning, and the gradual acquisition of skills to be effective school leader.

Endorsements of AR in School Leadership Programs

As we have seen in the school leadership example given above, AR is an effective tool for sustainable school leadership improvement and for effective training of pre-service and in-service school administrators. Workplace-based problem-solving with students working on real problems is becoming a better-known and more desirable approach in attempts to upgrade school administrator training. Awareness is growing, that direct student involvement in real situations impacts the quality of their work. Results of workplace-oriented training include:

* increased competence for dealing with rapid and continuous change;

* more effective team work and collaboration; and

* improved interpersonal and people management skills

(Gardno & Piggot-Irvine, 1996, p.16). Katzenmeyer & Moiler (2001) endorse AR as an approach to developing self-confidence and leadership abilities in education programs. Creighton (1997) concurs that until leadership competencies are addressed in education programs, we will continue to try to improve schools by changing the way they are governed and little effect will be realized. AR provides an academic and applied learning mix which integrates theory and practice in the same lessons. Johnson (1994) describes the incorporation of AR in the training of senior school administrators of schools at the University of New South Wales. The program emphases practical preparation for school management through the incorporation of cases studies, simulations and role plays. The goal of the program is to foster analysis, reflection, critical reaction and skills. The Education Management Centre at UNITEC Institute of Technology in Auckland, New Zealand, only awards diplomas in school management to candidates who have conducted an effective action research project which has been designed and executed with faculty supervision.

The Challenges In Using AR

AR is a worthwhile pursuit for educators for several reasons: AR allows school constituents to focus on an area of collective interest. AR is a form of professional development promoting collegial interactions and has the potential to impact school change. It gives an opportunity to reflect on one's own practice and improve communications (Ferrance, 2000). In spite of these and other numerous benefits cited above, there are also structural and human challenges associated with the use of AR. Structural challenges include initiation, authority and formalization, as follows.

a) A successful initiation process requires practitioner "buy-in" to the AR process; practitioners and the facilitator must find and share a mutual interest in solving the problem at hand. Agreement may be difficult to achieve. Some problems may be so compelling that they preclude having a free range of choices to focus on.

b) Another challenge is authority and control. Once AR starts, who controls the process, especially in situations where outside expertise is involved? There needs to be an agreement in place which defines authority in the process.

c) A third challenge is formalization which is the ability to renegotiate AR structures. There needs to be advance agreement on formal and informal mechanism that make renegotiation of authority possible (Avison et al., 2001).

Human challenges involve personal qualities, time, skills, commitment and varying levels of individual readiness to change. People involved in AR bring with them their strengths and weaknesses. Personalities and attitudes vary widely. Some commonly contrasting personalities are:

* Activist participants who get things done quickly and don't spend too much time thinking, vs. "navel-gazers" who spend tremendous amounts of time on "serious thinking," debating and intellectualizing and don't accomplish much.

* Impatient learners who want quick answers and ready made solutions vs. the blue print guy who believes in a Master Plan that needs to be followed to the letter.

Those kinds of contrasting personalities create challenges for the execution of AR. The most effective way to address these challenges and others is to create a team of individuals with different competencies so that the various segments of the cycle are equally addressed (Taylor et al., 1997)


A major criticism of educational leadership programs is that they do not appropriately train future school leaders because the coursework is too theoretical and disconnected from practice. This criticism misses the fact that classroom instruction as well as workplace training have inherent limitations. AR gives students the opportunity to combine classroom learning and workplace practice with the understanding that theory and practice both have their own limitations, and there is tremendous strength in combining them. Critical reflection allows for both theory and practice to be looped into continuous improvement as an habitual way of working. The workplace provides space for practice, and school offers a forum for critical reflection. Although not a panacea for every deficiency in school leadership education, AR is a thoughtful and highly effective way to bridge the gap between theory and practice.


Anderson, G.L., Herr, K., & Nihlen, A.S. (1994). Studying your own school. An educator's guide to qualitative practitioner research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press Inc.

Avison, D., Baskerville, R., & Myers, M. (2001). Controlling action research projects. Information Technology and People. Vol. 14, No. 1, pp 28-45.

Bass, B.M. (1981). Stogdill's handbook of leadership: A survey of theory and research. New York: Free Press.

Cardno, C., & Pigot-Irvine, E. (1996). Incorporating action research in school senior management training. International Journal of Educational Management. 10/5 19-24.

Creighton, T. (1997). Teachers as leaders: Is the principal really needed? Paper presented at the Annual national Conference on Creating the Quality School, Oklahoma City, OK, March 1997.

Ferrance, E. (2000). Action research. Providence, RI: Northeast and Island Regional Educational Laboratory at Brown University.

Hale, E.L., & Moorman, H.N. (2003). Preparing school principals: A national perspective on policy and program innovations. Washington, D.C.: Institute for Educational Leadership.

Hess, F.M., & Kelly, A.P. (2002). Learning to lead: What gets taught in principal preparation programs. American Enterprise Institute. PEPG 05-02

Johnson, N. (1994). Education reforms and professional development of principals: Implications for universities. Journal of Educational Administration, Vol.. 32, No. 2, pp.5-20

Katzenmeyer, M., & Moiler, G. (2001). Awakening the sleeping giant. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Levine, A. (2005). Educating school leaders. New York: the Education Schools Project.

Marzano, R. J., Waters, T., & McNulty, B.A. (2005). School leadership that works. From research to results. Alexandria, Virginia: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Smith, W.F., & Andrew, R.L. (1989). Instructional leadership: How principals make a difference. Alexandria, VA.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development,

Taylor, J., Marais, D., & Kaplan, A. (1997). Action Learning for Development: Use your experience to improve your effectiveness. Juta and Co. Ltd

Watts, H. (1985). When teachers are researchers, teaching improves. Journal of staff Development. 6 (2), 118-127.

Young, M.D, Crow, G., Orr, M.T., Ogawa, R., & Creighton, T. (2005). An educative look at "Educating School Leaders."

Nathalis G. Wamba, Queens College

Nathalis G. Wamba, Ph.D., is Associate Professor in Educational and Community Programs at Queens College in New York City.
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Author:Wamba, Nathalis G.
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2006
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