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Educational Review Routledge Vol. 61, No. 4, November 2009, 407-432 i ‘lor Fanci Group School leaders’ opportunities to learn: a descriptive analysis from a distributed perspective James P. Spillane*, Kalen Healey and Leigh Mesler Parise School of Education and Social Policy, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, USA Most work on professional leaming opportunities in education focuses on classroom teachers and school principals. In this paper the authors take a broader look at school leaders” opportunities 10 leam from a distributed perspective. Using one mid-sized urban school district as their case, they examine the opportunities to leam (OTL) of school principals, administrators and teacher leaders, attending to both formal and on-the-job OTL. The analysis shows that an exclusive focus on the school principal substantially underestimates the school system’s investment in school leader learning. The authors argue that efforts to understand school leader leaming must move beyond an exclusive focus on the school principal to include the OTL of other formally designated school leaders - both administrators and teacher leaders. Further, they contend that analyzing school leaders’ opportunities to learn must also focus on both formal professional development as well as on-the-job learning, and the relations between the two. Keywords: school lcadershij learning; distributed leadershi \d management; professional development; leader school reform Professional learning, more commonly referred to as professional development, is a popular strategy among school reformers for improving classroom teaching and student learning. The theory of action is relatively straightforward; through learning teachers and school leaders acquire new knowledge and skills that enable them to practice in new, hopefully improved, ways that in turn contribute to improvements in student learning. Despite a widespread faith and tremendous expenditures, until recently the evidence that investing in professional learning made much of a differ- ence was slim. Over the past several years, a small but expanding literature, mostly on teachers’ opportunities to learn (OTL), offers evidence of some relationship between characteristics of OTL and classroom teaching and student achievement (Cohen and Hill 2002; Darling-Hammond 2000; Desimone et al. 2002; Garet et al. 2001; Goddard, Goddard, and Tschannen-Moran 2007; Hill 2007). Most work on professional learning as a strategy for school improvement, however, centers on teachers’ OTL with much less attention to school leaders. With the exception of a few recent works (e.g. Knapp, Copland, and Talbert 2003; Leithwood et al. 2004), the knowledge and expertise that school leaders need to perform well has received short shrift. Further, the literature on school leaders’ OTL rarely ventured to consider anyone aside from the school principal. As evidenced in the myriad of school leader professional development programs, the absence of robust * Corresponding author. Email: j-spillane@northwestemn.cdu ISSN 0013-1911 prinvISSN 1465-3397 online “© 2000 Educational Review DOE: 10,1080100131910903403908, hup:/www.informaworld.com 408 J.P. Spillane et al. empirical evidence has not shaken school reformers’ faith in the power of professional learning as a strategy for improving teaching and student learning. Still, some observers do not share the widespread faith in the power of professional preparation and development programs for school leaders (Hess 2005; Levine 2005; Tucker and Codding 2002). Their skepticism may be well grounded given that the empirical knowledge base on school leaders’ OTL is thin with most work centering exclusively on the school principal. In this paper we pursue modest descriptive goals in an effort to characterize school leaders’ OTL. The term OTL underscores that these opportunities have the Potential to enable learning on the part of school leaders but whether they do depends on an array of factors. Using one mid-sized urban school district as our case, we examine the OTL of school principals attending to both formal OTL and on-the-job OTL. By formal OTL we mean workshops and coursework intentionally designed to enable school leaders’ learning, commonly referred to by researchers and policy-makers as professional development. We define on-the-job OTL as those opportunities to learn that arise from the social interactions among school staff in their work, such as conversations in the hallway or in planning sessions or meetings with colleagues. We use the phrase on-the-job to denote that the primary intent of these social interactions is not necessarily to enable leader learning; learning is more likely to be secondary or incidental rather than intentional in these situations, at least relative to formal OTL. We acknowledge that these two sorts of OTL can be related and at times confused. For example, some professional development work- shops occur during the workday, but as the primary design intention is to influence learning we consider these formal OTL. In addition to examining central tendencies, we investigate school principals’ OTL by school, identifying between-school differ ences. Next, taking a distributed perspective and moving beyond an exclusive focus on the school principal, we examine the OTL of other formally designated school leaders. By formally designated school leaders we mean those school staff with a formally designated leadership position. We include here both school administrators such as assistant principals and curriculum administrators and also teacher leaders — those individuals whose primary responsibility is teaching but also have a formally designated leadership position such as grade-level team leader or mathematics department chair. We analyze these other formally designated school leaders’ formal OTL by position and by focus (e.g., curriculum and instruction, organiza- tional development), identifying similarities and differences. In addition, we explore these other school leaders’ on-the-job OTL. Examining school leaders’ formal and on-the-job OTL by school and school type we identify differences between schools. Our analysis shows that an exclusive focus on the school principal substantially underestimates the school system’s investment in formally designated school leader learning. Based on our analysis, we argue that efforts to understand school leader learning must move beyond an exclusive focus on the school principal to include the OTL of other formally designated school leaders. Further, we contend that analyzing school leaders’ OTL must also focus on both formal professional development opportunities and on-the-job learning. Finally, we look at the intersection of policy and practice by examining the OTL of school leaders based on receipt of federal funding through Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965)! and Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) status as defined under the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation. Educational Review 409 Theoretical and empirical framing We take a distributed perspective on school leadership and management to frame our work. We also anchor our paper in the empirical and theoretical work on professional learning. A distributed perspective ‘Asa conceptual framework for studying school leadership and management, a distrib- tuted perspective involves two aspects — the leader plus aspect and the practice aspect. (Spillane 2006). To begin, a distributed perspective acknowledges that the work of leading and managing schools extends beyond the school principal to include other formally designated leaders (e.g., assistant principals, mentor teachers) and indeed school staff without any such designations who take responsibility for leading and managing the schoolhouse. Various empirical studies document how responsibility for leadership and management in schools involves multiple actors (Bennett and Marr 2003; Copland 2003; Frost 2005; Harris 2002; Heller and Firestone 1995; MacBeath, Oduro and Waterhouse 2004; Portin et al. 2003; Smylie and Denny 1990; Spillane and Diamond 2007). One recent study of 120 US elementary schools, for example, found that the responsibility for leadership functions was typically distributed among three to seven formally designated leadership positions (Cambum, Rowan, and Taylor 2003). Further, individuals with no formal leadership designations can and do take responsibility for leadership and management tasks (Bennett and Marr 2003; Burch 2007; Hallett 2007; Heller and Firestone 1995). In addition, the practice aspect of a distributed perspective foregrounds the prac- tice of leading and managing, framing it as a product of the interactions among school leaders and followers as mediated by aspects of their situation (Gronn 2002; Spillane 2006; Spillane, Halverson, and Diamond 2004). In this framing, attention to social interactions, not simply the actions of individual leaders, is a critical consideration in studying school leadership and management. Taking a distributed perspective in this paper, we consider the OTL of not only the school principal but also other formally designated school leaders. Further, we attend not just to the actions of these formally designated leaders (e.g., attendance at profes- sional development workshops) but also to their social interactions on-the-job. This distributed perspective allows us to provide a more complete picture of the investment in and potential for learning opportunities in schools. Professional learning Professional learning is a key area of study across many public and private sectors. The education sector is no exception. As a school improvement strategy or policy instrument, professional learning is premised on the assumption that to practice in new and hopefully improved ways, practitioners need to acquire new knowledge and skills. In this view, practice is contingent in an important part on practitioners’ expertise (Barnard 1938). Most work on professional learning opportunities in education focuses on classroom teachers and includes everything from theory building, hypoth- eses generating studies to hypotheses testing studies (Cohen and Hill 2002; Corcoran 1995; Desimone et al. 2002; Garet et al. 2001; Goddard, Goddard, and Tschannen- Moran 2007; Putnam and Borko 2000).