Learning to lead student achievement : a mixed methods study on the leadership practices of New Zealand primary school principals : a thesis presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Education at Massey University, Manawatū, New Zealand

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The study’s purpose was to contribute to the understanding of professional learning needs of primary school principals and to provide more information about effective leadership practices which raise student achievement in the context of New Zealand’s self-managing school system. This study employed a mixed methods research design to explore how a group of New Zealand primary principals used their direct and indirect influence to impact student achievement. The principals participated in a pedagogically-based leadership programme over 18 months as first-time principals in 2007. The study was situated within a pedagogical leadership discourse to explore how the principals developed their leadership practices over the decade to 2017. The research took place in two phases. In Phase One, a questionnaire was used to explore how 67 principals had developed their leadership practices during the decade 2007-2017. In Phase Two, 12 volunteer principals participated in interviews and contributed documents for analysis to investigate the influence of principals’ leadership practices on student achievement in New Zealand primary schools. Findings appeared to show that an influence of New Zealand’s self-managing schooling system was to increase principals’ work intensity and reduce principals’ focus on teaching and learning within their schools and the time for reflective practice. This work intensity was particularly noticeable for principals of small schools. Principals’ decision making was strongly linked to their theories of action. Theories of action based on pedagogical leadership better influenced student achievement. However, the findings suggested that principals also required time to influence practices within their schools. Extended time enabled principals to align pedagogical theories of action with learning and teaching activities, integrate new learning, develop relationships, promote dialogue about teaching and learning within the community of practice and embed self-improving processes for reflection and development of teaching practices. Principals’ participation in teachers’ professional development enabled principals to better act as a resource for teachers, engage more effectively in dialogue about teaching and learning, integrate new learning into school-wide practices, and enhance processes which facilitated learning within the community of practice. Establishment of structures which developed a safe and orderly environment and attended to the physical and psychological needs of students, appeared important prior to establishing structures which more directly emphasized classroom teaching and learning. Findings showed that New Zealand primary school principals’ professional learning is heuristic in response to contextual needs. Despite an emphasis on pedagogical leadership within New Zealand education policy and within the principal preparation programme attended by the principals in the study, not all the principals emphasized pedagogical leadership in their practice. Principals developed most of their pedagogical knowledge during their time as teachers. Principals, who continued to develop their pedagogical content knowledge by participating in teachers’ professional development, led high achieving schools. The New Zealand education system, while providing autonomy for principals, relies on a high level of unfunded, informal support from vicarious experts such as experienced principals, school community members or other personal contacts to apprentice the principal in a proportion of the knowledge, skills and dispositions required to fulfil the principal’s role. Local funding of principals’ professional learning leads to inequities of access to professional learning for principals of small and geographically isolated schools. The implications of the study are collaboration is required between practitioners, researchers and policy makers to advance solutions for problems of educational practice and that reduce contextual influences to principals’ workloads and better enable principals to focus on teaching and learning within their schools.
Academic achievement, Educational leadership, Elementary school principals, New Zealand