MA – Critical review: Harris, A. (2008) ‘Distributed Leadership: The Evidence’

Harris argues that leadership is indirectly linked to learning by influencing the context in which teachers operate. The argument concedes that, if we accept distributed leadership ‘can positively impact on these organisational conditions’ (p44) then we need to examine the evidence about the direct relationship between distributed leadership and learning outcomes. Harris sees this as the root of sustainable school improvement and sets about documenting the evidence. A significant number of academic works are cited from which Harris concludes ‘improvement is more likely to occur when there are opportunities for teachers to work together and to lead development and change’ (p46). This is further justified and developed by examining research into formative leadership and how formal roles can be used to support and facilitate the distribution of responsibility, beyond those formal key roles, to create networks of teacher collaboration that improve organisational learning. Although the evidence does not identify a direct link between this collaboration and learning outcomes it does point us toward success: ‘the data that does exist highlights a positive relationship between increased teacher collaboration… and organisational development’ (p48).
The examination of the evidence also brings our attention to studies that point out potential flaws of distributed leadership. When applying the principles of sharing leadership across the school community you are in danger of setting people up to fail by giving them a leading role and not backing that up with hierarchical authority which might lead to tension and low morale. Also, the choice of who leads what is prone to error because it is quite possible to appoint individuals for the wrong reasons and bypass expertise within a group. Harris shows balance here by contextualising distributed leadership between more focussed formal styles and an extreme democratic approach, both of which have evidence to suggest they do not work as models of sustainable improvement. From this position Harris starts to look at the available evidence that might provide a more solid base of case studies of distributed leadership in action. These are few but do actually point to some interesting work conducted over several years to examine the leadership techniques employed to improve student outcomes. Harris identifies that ‘some’ outcomes are positively influenced where teachers were more included in the decision-making processes of the school, but, most significantly, it is the morale of staff and students that is at the core of these improvements. This indicates that good distributed leadership occurs when the immediate situation is taken into account; when the people are involved in the things that are designed to impact upon them. Harris attempts to determine the key factors in good leadership by looking at the rewards of money, public acknowledgement and clarity of roles.

All the evidence Harris collates serves to open distributed leadership to scrutiny and understanding by starting to expose the detail of successful distributed leadership implementation. The author ultimately leads their argument into theoretical territory by trying to assimilate the evidence into categories of distributed leadership that might explain how it works and how it fails. The patterns of distribution are helpfully aligned to common school practice, for example, assembling temporary working parties to pool expertise (p53). It is in illustrations such as this we start to see how Harris has drawn upon well-reasoned discussions and actual school practice to help further the evidence gathered by others. A working party can be set up but this does not mean definite success for the policy that group will be discussing and developing. It does mean, however, that we now have the beginnings of a theoretical structure that justify the use of such school-wide tools and might provide formal school leaders with the framework and evidence they need to hand over the reigns of certain school decisions to teachers. For this, Harris must be given credit. However, Harris mistakenly omits any attempt to distinguish distribution from delegation which is a necessary step if distributed leadership is going to be used in schools. Credit must be given to the author for addressing the barriers to implementing distributed leadership. It must also be noted that until it is clearly set apart from delegating responsibility outside the formal leadership structure, distributed leadership will be a phenomenon Headteacher’s will continue to resist.

References

Harris, A. (2008) ‘Distributed Leadership: The Evidence’, in Distributed School Leadership: Developing Tomorrow’s Leaders, London: Routledge.

MA – Critical review: Harris, A. (2008) ‘Distributed Leadership: The Evidence’

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