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Leadership-Influenced Practices that Impact Classroom Instruction Related to Writing: A Case Study of a

Successful Elementary School

Barb Johnson, Ph.D.
Western Michigan University, 2007

This research studied the practices of educators at an ethnically diverse suburban elementary school which had demonstrated success in the area of student writing, even among at-risk students. The overall research goal was to examine to what extent and how leadership-related practices impacted classroom instruction in a manner that helped produce successful writing scores. A case study approach was used to explore four key leadership-related practices (supervision, curriculum, professional development, and knowledgeable leaders) and their impact on classroom literacy-based instructional strategies.

The study participants included two leaders and fourteen teachers from a single elementary school located in a metropolitan Michigan community. To collect and analyze opinions of leader and teacher behaviors, sixteen interviews were conducted. Qualitative coding techniques were used to develop common themes/categories of information.

Analysis of the data provided two dominant categories that teacher participants viewed as significant factors in her or his ability to successfully teach writing: the influence of leadership practices and the impact of instructional strategies. In reference to the influence of leadership practices, teachers indicated they were impacted in four primary ways: (1) persistent supervision and materials supported a coherent literacy program; (2) curriculum was clarified through discussion and report card alignment; (3) the leaders provided continuous professional development on the literacy framework that was focused, modeled, and shared; and (4) leaders were knowledgeable about the instructional methods they sought. In reference to impact of instructional strategies, two major areas emerged: (1) a framework organized strategies into a cohesive program; and (2) this framework defined the roles of phonics, guided reading, self-selected reading, and writing instruction in producing effective writers.

Overall, this study supports previous research on this topic in that if a coherent literacy framework is supported through the leaders’ supervision; its foundation is a comprehensive curriculum; and the leaders, as well as teachers, become knowledgeable of the framework through professional development, then classroom instruction will be influenced and students will experience quality writing instruction. The findings from this study further add to the literature base by providing a deeper understanding of how leaders can impact classroom instruction.
Leadership-Influenced Practices that Impact Classroom Instruction Related to Writing: A Case Study of a

Successful Elementary School

Barb Johnson

A Dissertation

Submitted to the

Faculty of the Graduate College

in partial fulfillment of the

requirements for the

Degree of Doctor in Philosophy

Department of Educational Leadership, Research and Technology

Western Michigan University

Kalamazoo, Michigan

December 2007

Copyright by

Barb Johnson


My heart is full of gratitude for the people who have helped me on this journey. To start, my three committee members have provided wisdom, insight, perspective, and assistance throughout this process so I would like to acknowledge the support of Dr. Louann Bierlein-Palmer, Dr. Gary Wegenke, and Dr. Walter DeBoer.

Secondly, I want to thank my family: Kate, Seth, Grace, Chad and Liz Johnson for the patience and sacrifice they have given me throughout this program. They share with me a love of life and learning; I truly would not have made it through this process without their understanding, encouragement and love.

Lastly, I want to recognize my friends and colleagues who have helped me throughout my program. Connie Bouwman, Janet Borgdorff, Shelly Cassell, Linda Cieminis, Linda Dykstra, Kathy Ewing, Diane Gibbs, Jane Hendriksma, Karla Hill, Mary Hulst, Carla Kauffman, Marcia Kaye, Howard Napp, John Searles, Deb Smith, Dan Takens, Jim Vanden Bosch and Rick Zomer all provided support and encouragement at various points along the way. In addition, during our exercise walks Mary Peterson provided words of inspiration just when I needed it. I want to thank each individual for believing in me.

Barb Johnson






Background 1

Reeves’ Theory on Connecting Leaders and Instruction 3

Problem Statement 5

Research Questions 7

Methodology 9

Summary 10


Introduction 11

Connecting Leadership Practices and Classroom Instruction 12

Systematic Supervision 12

Comprehensive Curriculum 14

Professional Development 16

Leaders' Knowledge of Curriculum, Instruction, Assessment 20

Classroom Instruction Related to Writing 21

Components of a Literacy Framework 22

The Four Blocks Comprehensive Literacy Framework 24

Critiques of the Four Blocks Model of Literacy 26


Empirical Research on Implementation of a Literacy Model 27

Literature Review Conclusion 36

III. MEthodology 37

Introduction 37

Definition of Terms 37

Research Method 39

Case Study Approach 41

Primary Data Collection 43

Selection of Participants 44

Data Collection 45

Ethical Considerations 46

Data Verification and Analysis 47

Limitations 49

Summary 49


Leadership and School Activities 52

Participants 55

Themes 56

Leadership Themes 56


Leadership Theme 1: Leadership Impacts the Classroom through Supervision of Framework 56

Leadership Theme 2: Leadership Plays a Significant Role in Curriculum 64

Leadership Theme 3: Leadership Plays a Role in

Professional Development 70

Leadership Theme 4: Knowledgeable Leaders Impact

Instructional Strategies 82
Instructional Strategies’ Themes 86

Instructional Strategy Theme 1: A Framework Organizes

the Instructional Strategies 87

Instructional Strategy Theme 2: Instructional Strategies

Have Roles in Writing Instruction 92

Summary 105


Review of Research Questions 111

Research Question 1 111

Research Question 2 118

Research Question 3 124

Research Question 4 127

Suggestions for Further Research 133

Overall Conclusions 135

Implications for Practice at Elementary Schools with At Risk 139



A. Requesting Participation Letter 160

B. HSIRB Approval Letter 162

C. Interview Protocol 164

D. Transcriptionist Confidentiality Form 171

E. Thematic Distribution 173

F. Summary of Participants’ Information Regarding Barriers 175

G. Comparison of Leadership Themes to Reeves’ (2004) Theory of Accountability 177

H. Comparison of Instructional Themes to Marzano’s (2003) Study of Instructional Strategies 179

I. Comparison of Instructional Themes to Cunningham & Hall’s (1998) Literacy Framework 181

J. Comparison of Writing Practices to Calkins’ (1994) Framework of Effective Writing Strategies 183


1. Summary of Leadership and Instructional Strategies’ Themes 107

2. Summary of Leadership Barriers Experienced and Addressed 124

3. Summary of Literacy Barriers Experienced and Addressed 132


1. Four Blocks Model of Balanced Literacy 26
CHapter I: Introduction


Since the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was enacted in 2001, there is a greater focus on accountability for educators. The issue of low writing scores in particular has received a great deal of attention from state education officials, school boards and parents. Indeed in 2005, only 51.5% of third graders succeeded in passing the writing component of the Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP). Educators are seeking ways to engage and effectively instruct a generation of children reared in a rapidly changing world on forty-plus hours a week of media amusement, where writing plays no role (Daggett, 2001; Simpson, 2006).

Numerous reasons exist as to why low writing test scores legitimately concern public educators, institutions and individuals. Students who do not engage with rigorous writing curriculum or instruction will not likely enter college or succeed in college (Marzano, 2004; Wagner, et al., 2006). In response, state leaders, such as Governor Granholm and Representative Ehlers of Michigan, note that their state, in particular, needs a more educated work force as it transforms from an industrialized economy to a knowledge-based one (Cherry, 2006; Flanagan, 2005; Golder, 2006; VandeBunte, 2005).

Demonstrating the importance of a college degree, while Michigan overall is losing jobs, one of its cities, Ann Arbor, added 1,600 jobs in 2005 and was chosen as the new base for Google. This was primarily due to the education level of the population: 69% are college educated in the over-25 age group in Ann Arbor compared with 24% nationwide (Karush, 2006). On an individual level, not being able to write well has significance for the reason that one might not finish college. In 2003, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported those who do not receive a college degree had a median weekly salary of $554, compared to $900 for those with a college degree (Connelly & Schultz, 2005).

Since writing ability is essential to attaining a college degree, state policymakers utilize state test results like the MEAP scores as the means to hold leaders and classrooms accountable for helping students obtain writing skills (Canul, 2006). The perceived competency of schools, school districts, administrators and educators is therefore heavily based on such assessments (Cherry, 2006).

In this climate, it is not surprising that there has been much research and many recommendations offered regarding effective leadership-influenced practices that impact classroom instruction and, in turn, student outcomes. One of the leading authors on this topic is Marzano (2003), who reviewed hundreds of research studies related to effective leadership to pull together a coherent set of recommended strategies. At the school level, Marzano cites the leader’s role as critical for establishing the goals, mission, climate of the school and classrooms, attitudes of teachers, classroom practices of teachers, organization of curriculum and instruction, and opportunities for students to learn. In addition, it is essential for a school’s improvement and achievement. At the classroom level, Marzano found effectiveness was based upon a teacher’s instructional strategies, classroom management and curriculum design, all impacted by the leadership practices within the broader organization.

Very little, however, has been done to closely examine the connection between the implementation of such recommended leadership practices and their role in helping teachers make changes in the classroom which lead to improved student achievement scores (Schmoker, 2006). And just as important as empirical scores on a single test is how such leadership practices might lead to on-going instructional improvement practices within the classroom. Let’s examine some theory related to that issue.

Reeves’ Theory on Connecting Leaders and Instruction

In response to the policy push for more accountability, many theories and recommendations have been offered related to improved leadership and/or instructional practices. One such theory of particular interest for this study is that of Reeves’ (2004) theory of student-centered accountability. It draws from Marzano’s (2003) work on school effectiveness. Student-centered accountability is an idea that not only focuses on collecting data, but also attempts to understand student achievement scores with information relating to at least four indicators: (1) a leader’s supervision, (2) the comprehensiveness of the curriculum being used, (3) teaching practices supported by professional development, and (4) the leader’s knowledge of curriculum and instruction. Reeves’ overall theory of student-centered accountability provides a context for test scores, is constructive as it focuses on the improvement of teaching and learning, and is motivational to teachers because it includes mechanisms which can be directly influenced by teachers.

As one component, Reeves posited that leadership supervision must be a strong component of a student-centered accountability system. Such supervision involves leaders’ examining their buildings’ practices and supervising the connection of those practices to student achievement. This might involve supervision practices such as having the leader visit each classroom daily to observe what is being taught and recognizing teacher best practices at staff meetings.

A second key component within a student-centered accountability system is that the leaders must be committed to implementing a comprehensive curriculum, particularly in the core basic subjects such as reading, writing and math. As part of their supervision practices, the leaders examine if state standards, such as Grade Level Content Expectations (GLCEs), are actually being taught. For example, one well-known comprehensive structure for literacy instruction that covers the GLCEs at the elementary level involves a balanced framework entitled Four Blocks (Cunningham & Hall, 1998). Within a student-centered accountability model, leaders ascertain whether or not the students are able to master grade-level curriculum expectations. This would be evident through the use of rubrics within the curriculum, and, if not, support would be provided to the teachers and students as needed to accomplish this goal.

In addition, a third aspect of Reeves’ theory implies greater success via student-centered accountability when educators are philosophically congruent with, and well versed in the use of best practices. This occurs when leaders make teachers’ successes the focal point of strong professional development and teachers are involved in the planning of such professional development activities. This might be evidenced through direct support of teachers as they implement the practices supported by research and learned through professional development.

Finally, as a fourth piece, Reeves notes that leaders themselves must be knowledgeable regarding curriculum, instruction, and assessment. For example, the leaders’ discussions at faculty meetings must focus on student achievement as well as instructional practices. In addition, contacts with parent are initiated due to academic achievement or lack thereof.

Reeves’ theory is used within this study to closely examine how the implementation of recommended leadership-influenced practices might lead to improved student achievement scores. When parents, community leaders, board members, administrators, and teachers comprehend the context of accountability, they can appreciate the meaning of the numbers found in the educational box scores on the front page of the newspaper.

Problem Statement

As previously mentioned, since No Child Left Behind, a push for effective leaders and classrooms has occurred in public schools over the last number of years. Much research has focused on effective leadership practices, yet a number of research gaps as identified through the literature remain. These include a need to better understand how leadership-based practices can impact student outcomes, especially in the area of writing, including at-risk students.

First, Reeves’ theory of how various types of leadership practices can impact the classroom comes from his significant research at the Center for Performance Assessment (Reeves, 2004). The author himself calls for application of his theory of student-centered accountability, citing the need to closely examine how the implementation of various best-practice, leadership-influenced practices actually impacts the work done within the classroom (Reeves, 2004). Others also call for more single institution-focused studies centering on leadership practice and classroom connections (e.g., Elmore, 2000; Fielding et al., 2004; Fullan, 2003; Johnson, 2005; King & Newmann, 2000). Although some studies (e.g., Allen, 2006) have discovered that leaders and teachers in a building who focus on professional learning can make student achievement rise, how that is achieved is still not understood. There is a need to study the connections from the perspective of leaders and teachers who have demonstrated responsibility for student success, which in turn will extend current knowledge regarding leader-influenced student accountability outcomes (Elmore, 2000; Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998; Wagner, et al., 2006).

Second, there are specific gaps in the research identified through the literature related to how effective leadership might lead to successful writing outcomes within a given school. A large number of studies have determined that effective writing instruction entails modeling, an opportunity to write, conferencing, and sharing (e.g, Atwell, 1998; Bromley, 1998, 2002; Cambourne, 1988; Graves, 1995; Kane, 1997; Peterson, 2000; Routman, 2005; Shanahan, 1997; Vygotsky, 1978). In addition, literacy instruction involves using the phonic approach (Allington & Cunningham, 1996), whereby children learn their letters and how to sound out the letters of words, as well as the basal reader, with its emphasis on sight words and comprehension (Allington & Cunningham, 1996) and the trade book curriculum (Veatch, 1959), which connects reading to writing. However, a less frequent approach has been to study the actions of educators as they implement a model of literacy instruction, with such authors calling for more research in this area (George, Moley, & Ogle, 1992; Henk & Moore, 1992; Vacca, Vacca, & Bruneau, 1997).

Finally, much of the previous research examining the implementation of a comprehensive curriculum has not included at-risk students in their studies, and the few that have included such variables focused on singular classrooms (Schmoker, 2006), as opposed to school-wide efforts. Since supervision, curriculum, and professional development have been shown to impact students at risk (Reeves, 2004), the examination of these variables will allow findings to be drawn from more diverse educational environments (Schmoker, 2006; Strickland, Ganske, & Monroe, 2002).

Research Questions

To help fill current research gaps, I examined a school that has implemented four key recommended leadership practices (systematic supervision, comprehensive instruction, professional development, and knowledgeable leaders), and has experienced success in its writing scores, even for at-risk students. Per Reeves’ theory, one could assume that such leadership practices helped cause the improved student writing scores. I wanted to examine that assumption to find out to what extent and how such leadership practices are connected to selected classroom teachers in a manner that helped produce successful results as measured by state writing assessments.

The overall research goal was to examine the practices utilized by the educators within a given school, where even at-risk students are doing well in the subject of writing, in addition to other subjects. With that goal in mind, the following research questions were developed and served as the magnifying glass for this study:

  1. Within an elementary school that has experienced significant increases in its students’ writing scores (including at-risk student sub-populations), to what extent and how do teachers and leaders believe the following leadership-related practices influenced those results:

    1. systemic supervision;

    2. comprehensive curriculum;

    3. supported professional development of curriculum, instruction, and assessment; and

    4. the leaders’ knowledge of curriculum, instruction and assessment?

  2. Within an elementary school that has attempted to implement such leadership-influenced practices,

  1. what key barriers were encountered; and

  1. what strategies were utilized for overcoming such barriers?

  1. Within an elementary school that has experienced significant increases in its students’ writing scores (including at-risk student sub-populations), to what extent and how do teachers and leaders believe the following literacy-based instructional practices influenced those results:

    1. phonics instruction;

    2. guided reading including basal;

    3. self-selected reading of trade books; and

    4. writing instruction?

  2. Within an elementary school that has attempted to implement such

classroom instructional practices,

  1. what key barriers were encountered; and

  1. what strategies were utilized for overcoming such barriers?


Due to the subject matter and context of this study, I employed a qualitative approach. The research took place at an ethnically diverse suburban elementary school, a natural setting wherein specific leadership practices were implemented and specific improvements within student writing scores occurred. As a result, a qualitative methodology was appropriate, given the use of a purposeful sampling and a collection of open-ended data (Creswell, 2003).

Furthermore, due to the goals, limitations and focus of this study, I implemented a case study approach. This qualitative framework was suitable because it has been utilized in an assortment of settings, including education (Tesch, 1988). The study participants in this research had all experienced the same leaders, similar understanding of student-accountability and training of a comprehensive curriculum, as well as school improvement goals. In addition, the study participants all shared this common experience at an elementary school with at-risk students as defined by income level. Another commonality is that, in working with at-risk students in all grade levels, the teachers utilized similar lessons, assessments and student monitoring, and their at-risk students exceeded expectations in writing, regardless of grade level.

In-depth interviews with 16 teachers and leaders were conducted in an attempt to further understand the experiences of these educators and the degree to which, and how, the leadership impacted their ability to help all students, even those at risk, to be successful in writing. Artifacts were examined, including the School Improvement Plan, and checklists of instructional strategies that were used. The form used for the leader’s evaluations of teachers was studied as well as professional development opportunities.


This research studies the leadership-influenced practices that appear to have connected leaders and classrooms in a school and resulted in high levels of writing for their students, including those identified at risk of failure. Through the use of a case study, the researcher examined the experiences of teachers who used a comprehensive curriculum, experienced systematic supervision, were involved in professional development processes and activities, and worked with leaders who indicated they were well versed in curriculum, instruction and assessment. This information is significant because it explores the connections between the implementation of recommended leadership practices and classroom teachers as the teachers work to enhance their students’ writing scores through the use of effective writing instructional practices.

The remainder of this dissertation includes the following: a review of the literature in Chapter Two, a discussion of the methodology utilized in Chapter Three, research findings in Chapter Four, and conclusions and suggestions for further research in Chapter Five.

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