Strengthening Instructional Leadership: 6 strategies to promote a culture of continuous improvement, close COVID gaps, and increase principal retention

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By: Michael D. Toth


3 Reasons to Invest in Instructional Leadership
6 Strategies for a Culture of Continuous Improvement
Instructional Leadership Institute


Why is instructional leadership development vital during and after the COVID-19 crisis?

School and district leaders already had a tough job – now it’s even tougher. As leaders try to understand best practices for virtual learning and support their staff in learning how to navigate unfamiliar learning environments, they also face potentially long-term impacts from unprecedented student learning losses.

How can investing time and energy into increasing instructional leadership effectiveness make a difference now and in the future?

Below, read:

    • 3 reasons to invest in instructional leaders and their teams
    • 6 practical strategies instructional leaders can use to improve their practice
    • How a 4-day professional development and community of practice series called Instructional Leadership Institute can improve leadership team effectiveness, ensure alignment to the district’s instructional vision, and ultimately lead to better districtwide results and a stronger leadership pipeline


3 reasons to invest in instructional leaders and their teams right now


1. Address the student equity and access crisis with a vision for high-quality instruction

Inequitable learning gaps were already a problem before the COVID crisis, and now studies warn that most students didn’t receive high-quality virtual instruction during school closures, which will likely lead to even greater gaps.

Black students are estimated to have fallen 10.3 months behind in their learning, with economically disadvantaged students 12.4 months behind. On average, all K-12 students are estimated to have lost the equivalent of 6.8 months of learning (Dorn et al., 2020).

How many months behind will students be after COVID-19 school closures?

Figure 1

Figure 1. According to research conducted by McKinsey & Company, COVID-related learning gaps will likely be severe and inequitable (Dorn et al., 2020).

In spite of the urgency of catching students up, the pandemic has forced leaders to spend additional time on operational details such as ensuring every student has access to devices for virtual learning and that all students and staff are physically safe during in-person learning.

Leaders know that addressing student learning losses must remain a priority, but in order to do that while still attending to urgent operational concerns, leaders need a structured process to support their instructional leadership team’s efforts (see the 6 strategies below for more on how to put that process into place).

Leaders know that addressing student learning losses must remain a priority, but in order to do that while still attending to urgent operational concerns, leaders need a structured process.

Leaders who do have a process in place can stay focused on executing an instructional vision and stand a much better chance of preventing further inequitable learning losses – and even reversing the losses.

Research supports the idea that setting an instructional vision can improve the quality of instruction and that the process for creating an instructional vision is more powerful when it is collaborative, rather than when principals attempt to work in isolation (Stosich et al., 2019).

Leaders can use their vision to drive increased equity and access for students despite the tumultuous situation.

What is an instructional vision?
An instructional vision describes the desired interaction between student, teacher, and content. Schools and districts use an instructional vision to stay focused and align their work.Example of an instructional vision:
We are committed to providing equitable, standards-based, rigorous instruction that will close gaps and accelerate the learning of every student. Students will have structures to take ownership of their own learning and collaborate with peers. Daily instruction will integrate social-emotional learning with academics to develop the whole child socially, emotionally, and academically.


2. Prevent burnout and build a leadership succession pipeline by developing distributed leadership capacity and peer and district support

45% percent of principals report that pandemic working conditions are accelerating their plans to leave the profession, according to a poll conducted August 14–19 (National Association of Secondary School Principals, 2020).

For districts already struggling with funding, principal turnover can have a severe impact. It costs $75,000 for districts to develop, hire, and onboard a new principal – by conservative estimates – and about 25% of principals leave their schools each year (School Leaders Network, 2014).

The price of turnover isn’t just monetary – it also hurts students. School Leaders Network highlighted the research. Principal turnover…

    • Negatively impacts student achievement
    • Impedes school improvement progress
    • Has profoundly dire effects on schools serving underprivileged students
    • Can affect a student’s future earning income

With many principals trying to heroically push through hardships and do everything themselves, it’s no surprise that they suffer from burnout. Great leaders need great teams to support them – yet, many education leaders have a difficult time creating the conditions for effective teamwork.

Figure 2. According to a survey by National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) taken August 14-19, 2020 with 1,020 principals, 22.8% are considering leaving the profession for the first time due to COVID-19 working conditions, 17.2% have sped up their plans to leave, and 5% decided to leave as soon as possible. This means 45% total principals are accelerating their plans to leave the profession (National Association of Secondary School Principals, 2020).

A study of instructional leadership teams found that leaders struggled to articulate a clear and compelling purpose for their team, to intentionally select the right members to accomplish that purpose, and to grant decision-making authority to the team (Weiner, 2014).

The most effective leaders use distributed leadership structures which are even more critical during a pandemic crisis. An analysis of 68 references spanning from the year 2001 to 2018 revealed that distributed leadership has a positive effect on students’ academic achievement (Jambo & Hongde, 2020).

In addition to the positive effects of student achievement, when leaders learn to develop leadership capacity in others it also lessens the burden on themselves and develops capacities of their leadership team forming a sustainable succession pipeline.

Another instructional leadership practice that can increase principal retention is peer and district leader support in communities of practice.

A study of five large districts with higher principal retention rates (taking into consideration student demographics) investigated strategies that encouraged principal retention. The study found that among the successful strategies were fostering a collaborative culture among principals and building and maintaining supportive relationships between principals and their supervisors at the district level (Cieminski, 2018).

The 6 strategies below will explain more about how to promote distributed leadership and peer and district-level support through a culture of continuous improvement.

Great leaders need great teams to support them – yet, many education leaders have a difficult time creating the conditions for effective teamwork.

3. Adapt to remote and hybrid learning and stay aligned to the instructional vision with communities of practice

When schools went virtual in Spring 2020, leaders had to help teachers and families use completely new instructional platforms – all while the leaders themselves were trying to learn these formats and keep everyone safe. They were faced with scenarios and decisions never before considered. The stress and pressure of this situation is likely what drove many principals to accelerate their plans for leaving the profession.

Understandably, many leaders have struggled to translate their vision for instruction to distance and hybrid learning formats. This is where school leaders need a community of practice and expert resources more than ever.

One study conducted during the COVID-19 school closures found that award-winning principals focused on professional learning networks as one way to leverage digital leadership and transform their schools into professional learning organizations despite the crisis (Sterrett & Richardson, 2020).

Many districts have benefited from professional learning communities. For example, one large urban district grouped 44 school leadership teams into 12 communities of practice around a shared problem of practice. These communities of practice gave leaders “the tools, time, and a defined process that clarified steps toward reaching their goals.” One principal reported, “It has been really powerful to use the strengths of each administrator to tackle a common problem. As a campus principal, rarely are you afforded opportunities to work with your peers and learn from each other” (Ebell et al., 2017).

Communities of practice give leaders “the tools, time, and a defined process that [clarifies] steps toward reaching their goals.”

Principal supervisors also benefit from communities of practice. A study of a different large urban school district found that principal performance improved after the district created a professional learning community for principal supervisors. Principal supervisors expressed that it was immensely helpful to define shared principal expectations, practice principal coaching techniques, share problems of practice, and get feedback from peers (Baker & Bloom, 2017).

When leadership teams have a support process with access to expertise in place, they can adapt to rapid changes that are outside their control and keep their schools moving forward.


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6 strategies for creating a culture of continuous improvement for core instruction


What is a culture of continuous improvement in schools and districts?

A culture of continuous improvement means that a school or district is united around their instructional vision for core instruction and shares a collective growth mindset as they strive to achieve that vision.

The instructional leadership team is at the heart of a continuous improvement process, and leading indicator data on core instruction is what drives the improvement process.

Leading indicator data on core instruction connects the work of the leadership team because it guides leaders to identify goals, measure progress to the goals, and set next action steps in a weekly cadence of small wins and continuous improvement.

The following 6 strategies can be used at both school and district levels.

These strategies were designed to create a culture of continuous improvement and build effective instructional leadership teams that can sustain even the most challenging environments.

A culture of continuous improvement means that a school or district is united around their instructional vision for core instruction and shares a collective growth mindset as they strive to achieve that vision.


Strategy #1: Design your instructional leadership teams with the right conditions for maximum team effectiveness

What makes a team effective? Harvard researcher J. Richard Hackman (2011) found that certain conditions significantly predicted team effectiveness – controlling 74% of the variation.

Teams that were well-designed using these conditions delivered better outcomes, increased their team’s capacity over time, and advanced each individual member’s skills – creating the foundation for a culture of continuous improvement.

The conditions for highly effective teams, derived from Hackman’s work, are:

      • Real team: Everyone knows who is on the team. The team forms social bonds and works together toward a common purpose.
      • Compelling purpose: The team’s purpose and instructional vision is clear, challenging, and consequential.
      • Right people: Team members have good teamwork skills and bring a diversity of perspectives and abilities.
      • Sound structure: The team is the ideal size, effectively uses norms, and engages in well-designed interdependent tasks.
      • Supportive context: The team has the structures, systems, and materials they need to do effective work.
      • Team coaching: Helpful coaching is readily provided by the team leader, a team member, or expert consultant.


Strategy #2: Develop an instructional vision and common language

Once a leadership team has the right conditions for team effectiveness in place, it’s important to focus on the instructional vision.

The vision will drive the school and district goals for improvement and the daily work of the team. This ensures the work of the team is always aligned to its purpose and the changes in leading indicators of core instruction result in increased student achievement on assessments.

As described above, an instructional vision of core instruction is the interaction between student, teacher, and content. In order to promote a culture of continuous improvement, leaders should clearly define the instructional vision and ensure that all stakeholders understand and use a common language and common set of indicators.

For example, leaders might consider the following concepts to include in their instructional vision:

      • Standards-based learning targets used by students
      • Students demonstrating agency over their own learning
      • Academic tasks that engage students in productive struggle
      • Relentless inspection of student evidence

Note that all of these concepts could apply to in-person, virtual, or hybrid instruction, so the vision can stay the same despite the circumstances. The methods and classroom routines must be adapted to the learning environment. (Learn more about virtual core instruction.)

Executing a clear instructional vision with a common language enhances the instructional team’s motivation, allows self-direction, and engages the team’s collective knowledge and skills.

Strategy #3: Use a metric to objectively measure progress to goals

Next, instructional leaders should utilize a leading indicator metric so they can objectively measure progress to their goals.

For example, if the school’s vision is to provide high-quality Tier 1 core instruction in order to raise student achievement, two research-based and reliable tools to measure this are RigorWalk® and Virtual RigorWalk.

Metrics are important because:

      • Data objectively identifies strengths and opportunities for growth
      • Leadership teams can be proactive by addressing root cause issues quickly
      • Leadership teams can track schoolwide and districtwide growth over time
      • Progress becomes tangible. It is more rewarding to celebrate wins and keep everyone engaged in the culture of continuous improvement.


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Strategy #4: Take action toward the vision with a plan and action board process

Once leadership teams gather relevant data and create a baseline metric for their school’s core instruction, it is time to create an agile continuous improvement plan and process to improve that data and to track progress toward achieving the instructional vision.

The agile plan can be broken down into an action board that keeps the team focused and moving forward in small increments of continuous improvement toward the vision.

What is an action board?

Action boards are a project management tool taken from the “agile” business philosophy. Action boards break down goals into tasks and track whether those tasks are getting done.

Tasks can only move to “done” when there is evidence that they were completed to the established standard.

Action boards help create a culture of continuous improvement by:

      • Operationalizing school improvement plans for in-person, virtual, or hybrid learning
      • Creating small wins that generate momentum and translate into larger gains
      • Demonstrating continual, gradual growth in schools
      • Promoting self- and peer-accountability for the members of the team
      • Spelling out clear goals and tasks to empower self-direction of team members


Strategy #5: Monitor progress to the vision and provide formative feedback

When the action board process becomes a daily habit, leadership teams will have a tool to constantly monitor their own progress to the instructional vision.

Teams should continue to use a reliable metric on a regular basis to gather evidence of whether their goals are succeeding.

At this point, leadership teams have what they need to analyze trend data and provide formative feedback. Consider sharing school-wide and grade-level trends with PLCs and empower them to set actions for improvement.

Tips for providing feedback to promote a culture of continuous improvement:

      • Be honest – Stick to the data and offer objective observations
      • Be formative – Remember this feedback shouldn’t be evaluative. Focus on the instruction, not the teacher.
      • Be practical – Offer concrete strategies for improvement
      • Connect feedback back to the instructional vision – Emphasize that improving your own practice means helping to achieve the collective purpose of the school or district
      • Celebrate progress – Recognizing growth encourages continued effort


Strategy #6: Form a leadership community of practice with other leaders and take advantage of expert and peer coaching

Finally, one of the most important aspects of developing a culture of continuous improvement is engaging in a community of practice for school leadership teams.

Districts should consider setting a schedule of meetings where school leadership teams and district leaders meet with protocols in a structured format with facilitation for an effective community of practice that is results-driven.

What makes an effective community of practice?

Aspects of a strong instructional leadership community of practice:

      • Support within leadership teams
        Communities of practice should include scheduled time for school leadership teams to come together, including teacher leaders and district leaders at strategic times. The structured approach of a community of practice allows for data progress monitoring toward the vision for instruction and progress monitoring of school improvement goals aligned to district priorities.
      • Time for strategic analysis and planning
        School leadership teams highly value time away from the interruptions and emergencies of school to step back and periodically reflect, analyze, and adapt their improvement plan throughout the year.
      • Support across leadership teams
        Communities of practice should also include skilled facilitation for leadership teams to share best practices and celebrate their progress with other teams. Teams should also share challenges and receive team-to-team peer support from colleagues. This is one of the most valued components of a community of practice that helps foster a culture of trust and collaboration.
      • Districtwide alignment
        District leaders should participate in communities of practice at strategic times to support their leadership teams, receive quality information of the struggles schools are experiencing in real-time, and to clarify the instructional vision and goals. As communities of practice advance, the entire district begins to experience the coherence and cadence of continuous improvement that translates into incremental progress to attaining shared goals. The shared momentum of leading and lagging data indicators improving contributes to achieving district priorities with progressively larger wins. Shared learning improves the competencies of the district as a whole and builds stronger leadership over time.
      • Expert facilitation
        When communities of practice consult with experts, they can gain an unbiased outside perspective and a trusted accountability partner. This is helpful for magnifying the learning and surfacing root cause issues. Expert facilitators can provide just-in-time learning examples, support and coach teams, showcase best practices and emerging practices, and further accelerate progress.

These 6 strategies for creating a culture of continuous improvement can benefit any school and any district and can be adapted for in-person, virtual, and hybrid learning environments. LSI’s Applied Research Center incorporated these strategies in the design of the Instructional Leadership Institute.

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What is Instructional Leadership Institute?

LSI’s Instructional Leadership Institute is a 4-day professional development series designed to build and improve leadership team effectiveness.

School and district leadership teams engage in Instructional Leadership Institute when they want to improve team effectiveness and get better results throughout their school or district through distributed leadership practices, ultimately creating a stronger leadership pipeline.

LSI’s Instructional Leadership Institute is available in both virtual and in-person delivery.

Why does Instructional Leadership Institute work?

Instructional Leadership Institute is very different from the standard one-off workshop that most leaders may be accustomed to, where they “sit and get.”

What makes it different?

Tailored to your school’s data, your goals, and your team
Instructional Leadership Institute is practical and job-embedded. It uses research-based leading indicator metrics of rigorous core instruction to create a baseline for continuous improvement.

The institute includes dedicated time to analyze your school’s data and improvement goals, think strategically with your leadership team and form trackable goals, and receive personalized coaching from experts.

Research-based strategies and metrics
The institute operationalizes the 6 strategies for creating a culture of continuous improvement. The institute can include one of LSI’s research-based metrics but is agnostic, as long as some metric is used to objectively measure the school’s progress.

Outside expertise with alignment to district initiatives
An expert facilitator leads the 4 days of professional development spread strategically across the school year. Facilitators do pre-work to tailor the content to the school’s needs and align to the district’s specific initiatives.

The facilitator is the same person every time, which means they can build a relationship with participants and personalize the sessions.

Real tools and practical structures to develop leadership team skills
The institute focuses on the tools, structures, and supports that actually help instructional leadership teams reach their goals. No time is wasted on theory or fluff – all the focus is on practical ways to improve instructional leadership now.

Brings leaders together in one community of practice
Most of the time, principals, assistant principals, and teacher leaders all train separately – Instructional Leadership Institute brings everyone to the table around a common set of goals and team framework.

Leaders have time to plan with their own teams, engage in peer coaching, receive support, and network with peers from other schools and in other roles.

What outcomes can you expect from Instructional Leadership Institute?
Concrete improvement plans that instructional leadership teams take ownership of and understand how to use.
tools Sustainable tools and structures that instructional leadership teams can keep using.
Continuous improvement of instructional leadership – which translates to better Tier 1 core instruction in any setting – virtual, in-person, and hybrid.
Quality assurance and alignment across the district as leadership teams share a collective instructional vision and common language.
Improved leadership capacity in the whole district, resulting in a stronger leadership pipeline – and increases the district’s knowledge of how to continue building and supporting effective teams.

In this time of crisis, it’s more important than ever to develop effective instructional leadership teams who can create and sustain a culture of continuous improvement.





Baker, J.A., and Bloom, G.S. (2017). Growing support for principals: Principal supervisors collaborate and problem solve in learning communities. Learning Forward, 38(2).

Cieminski, A.B. (2018). Practices that support leadership succession and principal retention. ICPEL Education Leadership Review, 19 (1), 21-41.

Dorn, E., Hancock, B., Sarakatsannis, J., and Viruleg, E. (2020, June 1). COVID-19 and student learning in the United States: The hurt could last a lifetime. McKinsey & Company.

Ebell, S., Hughes, H., Bockart, S., Silva, S., McBride, S. (2017). Principal communities of practice inspire learning in Texas district. Learning Forward, 38(4).

Hackman, J.R. (2011). Collaborative Intelligence: Using Teams to Solve Hard Problems. San Fransisco, CA: Berrett-Koheler Publishers.

Jambo, D. and Honge, L. (2020). The effect of principal’s distributed leadership practice on students’ academic achievement: A systematic review of the literature. International Journal of Higher Education, 9(1), 189-198.

National Association of Secondary School Principals (2020, August 21). “Overwhelmed” and “unsupported,” 45 percent of principals say pandemic conditions are accelerating their plans to leave the principalship. National Association of Secondary School Principals.

School Leaders Network (2014). Churn: The high cost of principal turnover. School Leaders Network.

Sterrett, W. and Richardson, J. W. (2020). Supporting professional development through digital principal leadership. Journal of Organizational & Educational Leadership, 5(2), 4.

Stosich, E.L., Forman, M.L., Bocala, C. (2019). All together now: Internal coherence framework supports instructional leadership teams. Learning Forward, 40(3).

Weiner, J.M. (2014). Disabling conditions: Investigating instructional leadership teams in action. Journal of Educational Change, 15, 252-280. doi:10.1007/s10833-014-9233-1


About LSI

Our vision for education is to close the achievement gap. Equip all students with the social, emotional, and cognitive skills they need to thrive in the 21st century. Expand equity by giving every child access to rigorous core instruction that empowers learners to free themselves from generational poverty.

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