The Importance of Building Capacity in Schools

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There exists little evidence as to the direct effects school leaders have on student achievement (1). The reading expert Kelly Gallagher (2) asserts that the “Teacher is the X factor” in the classroom.  What, then, can school leaders and education researchers do to provide direction for a school improvement collaboration? We look to the context of the school to explore where school leaders can nurture and build teaching staff to create a truly excellent school that values the inclusive and equitable access to education.

Very often, the school leader is also the instructional leader, who is responsible for student achievement and works as a change agent to build capacity with a teaching staff (3).  To build capacity effectively, change needs to occur in the following processes simultaneously: pedagogical, content, cognitive, affective, behavioral, and organizational processes.  Not easy! However, effective leaders nurture a collective vision, This vision is carried out to motivated teachers who will in turn work with students to achieve at high levels. Instructional leaders must allow space and time for to continuously build teacher capacity to better invest for our students.  Academic optimism is but one construct to study how teachers’ knowledge, skills, and dispositions can affect student achievement and how students feel about school.

Academic optimism (AO) is a shared belief that student learning is important, that teachers have the capacity to help students achieve and that students and parents can be trusted to work cooperatively to help students succeed academically (4).  Academic optimism looks beyond the cognitive (i.e. collective efficacy) and considers the affective (i.e. trust in students and parents and carers) and the behavioral (i.e. academic emphasis) domains.

When teachers and leaders trust their students, academic emphasis is the behavior resulting from the beliefs that teachers believe in themselves (‘We can do it!’) and that students and parents can work together to achieve (‘We believe you can do it, too!’).

Begin with Academic Emphasis

How serious are you, dear overworked instructional leader, about your school’s purpose of educating all students? How protective are you of learning time? Is your school a place of learning and achievement or are other community aspects more important?

Academic Emphasis: ‘Learning and student success are our priorities!’

In schools where there is a focus on academics, hard work and achievement are recognized and teachers act and behave in ways that are reflective of their beliefs that all students can be motivated to work hard and meet high expectations (5).  Additionally,  in a study of over 10,000 U.S. students across 160 high schools and beyond, a link among a school’s academic focus and student achievement was found, regardless of student SES or student minority status (6).

It is precisely these links that should interest school leaders:  in a school where there are teachers with moderately high student expectations, “organizational dynamics will tend to press members to perform (7).  Because the norms that are in place to support student achievement and collective efficacy play an important part of motivation, teachers and students persist in their efforts to perform at high levels.  As a result, findings from a study of 97 high schools in Ohio suggest that academic press “flows through” (p. 290) collective efficacy in order to influence student achievement.

Time for Reflection

Instructional leaders must work with their teachers to establish an environment where academics are the most important aspect of the school, in order to nurture and raise student achievement.  Leaders must ‘lead the way’ in ensuring that school is a place for learning, not just a place where extracurricular activities (such as sport etc) occur, and that learning time is protected (e.g. minimizing classtime disruptions through having once a day intercom announcements, etc.). Teachers may need additional training in order to meet the difficult demands of the classroom to meet the needs of all students.  In all schools, but especially in those schools experiencing changing demographics,  the teaching and learning environment are pressed by many other challenges. It is crucial that school leaders provide leadership and limit disruptions of instructional time and provide training and professional development for teachers on ways to build a serious learning community where students work together to meet high expectations and where academics and successes are celebrated.

Reflection in Action: Take Away

As you go through the next couple of weeks, reflect on your actions and those of your leadership team around the degree to which you all demonstrate the importance of academics in your school. Where are some opportunities to support your teaching staff in their development? When can you have this conversation? With whom? Block time to ensure that you act.

Approach and privilege learning in your school because learning and student success are your priorities!


(1) Hallinger, P., & Heck, R. H. (1996). Reassessing the Principal’s Role in School Effectiveness: A Review of Empirical Research, 1980-1995. Educational Administration Quarterly, 32, 5-44.

Mascall, B., Leithwood, K.,Straus, T., & Sacks, R. (2008). The relationship between distributed leadership and teachers’ academic optimism. Journal of Educational Administration, 46(2), 214 – 228.

(2) Gallagher, K. (2009). Readicide: How schools are killing reading and what you can do about it. Stenhouse Publishers: Portland, ME.

(3) Edmonds, R. (1979). Effective Schools for the urban poor. Educational Leadership, 37, 15-27.

Fullan, M. (2001). Leading in a culture of change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Leithwood, K. & Jantzi, D. (1999) Transformational School Leadership Effects: A Replication, School Effectiveness and School Improvement, 10:4, 451-479, DOI: 10.1076/sesi.10.4.451.3495 

(4) McGuigan, L., & Hoy, W. K. (2006). Principal leadership: Creating a culture of academic
optimism to improve achievement for all students. Leadership & Policy in
Schools, 5(3), 203-229.

(5) Hoy, W. K., Smith, P. A., & Sweetland, S. R. (2002). Toward an organizational model of
achievement in high schools: The significance of collective efficacy. Educational
Administration Quarterly, 38(1), 77.

(6) Lee, V. E., & Bryk, A. S. (1989). A multilevel model of the social distribution of high
school achievement. Sociology of Education, 62(3), 172-192.

(7) Goddard, R. D., Sweetland, S. R., & Hoy, W. K. (2000). Academic emphasis of urban
elementary schools and student achievement in reading and mathematics: A
multilevel analysis. Educational Administration Quarterly, 36(5), 683-703.

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