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Educational Policy, School Administration, and the Technical Core: The Local Infrastructure and Instructional Improvement Challenge

Meeting Materials


Over the past decade, researchers in The Distributed Leadership Studies (DLS) at Northwestern University have been developing a framework for examining school leadership and management with an emphasis on their relations to classroom instruction. Drawing on theoretical and empirical work in distributed cognition and socio-cultural activity theory, our distributed perspective involves two aspects: principal plus and practice. The principal plus aspect acknowledges that the work of leading and managing schools involves multiple individuals. The practice aspect foregrounds the practice of leading and managing, framing this practice as emerging from the interactions among school leaders and followers, mediated by the situation in which the work occurs. Practice is more about interaction than action. At the same time, any effort to understand practice has to pay careful attention to social structure, both the immediate infrastructure of the school organization and the more distal infrastructure of the education system. The school subject–mathematics, science and language arts—has figured prominently in our efforts to build knowledge about and for the practice of leading and managing.

The Distributed Leadership Studies are committed to developing knowledge about leading and managing, especially knowledge for practice—knowledge of the how of leading and managing. While there is a sizable knowledge base about the what of leading and managing, we know less about the how—the practical knowledge that school leaders use in their day-to-day practice. Still, the available knowledge base has much less to say about the how of monitoring instruction. Without a rich understanding of the how, it is difficult for policymakers and researchers to contribute to improving school leadership and management.

One component of our work involves designing and validating research or diagnostic instruments such as logs of practice and social network instruments. A second component of our work involves describing and analyzing leadership and management arrangements for instruction in schools. Third, especially critical when it comes to developing knowledge for practice, DLS work involves engaging district policymakers and school practitioners with research findings for their schools. The final component of the DLS work involves designing curriculum modules that engage school staff in diagnostic and design work using the distributed perspective and instruments and findings from our empirical work.

Documented Results and Potential Applications
Our work has generated several findings about relations between the school infrastructure and the practice of leading and managing. For example, our work suggests that interactions among school staff are not only influenced by homophily (e.g., race and gender) but also the school’s formal structure (e.g., grade-level assignment, formal leadership position, organizational routines) (Hopkins, Spillane, & Heaton, in preparation; Spillane, Kim, & Frank, under review; Spillane, Parise, & Sherer, 2011). Another important finding is that the school subject matters with respect leadership and management practice (Spillane, 2006). Second, our work has developed and piloted several instruments (Pitts & Spillane, 2009; Pustejovsky & Spillane, 2009) that have been taken up and used by others. Third, our research work has severed a foundation for professional development in the field both in the U.S. and abroad.

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