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Distributed Leadership and Student Voice

Second Quarter Literature Synthesis Paper

Melissa G. Han
California State University San Marcos/University of California San Diego
Joint Doctoral Program-Cohort 10
May 2014

Leadership and management have been used interchangeably when discussing the
changes schools need to implement in order to increase student achievement. Often principals are
expected to function as both leader and manager in this process of change. Spillane and Kim
(2012) state that to focus solely on the few traditional roles of leadership in an organization
overlooks the informal relationships that are important to the leadership of effective change. This
statement paints a different picture of leadership. What used to be the leadership of one is now
the shared leadership among many known as distributed leadership.
This literature review will address how distributed leadership is defined by researchers
and how the aspect of vertical leadership is accessed within a distributed leadership model. Next,
distributed leadership with student voice will be discussed through empirical research around
youth-adult partnerships. Finally, a discussion of future implications will be addressed in relation
to social justice and educational leadership.
Distributed Leadership Literature Review
Common hierarchal models designate the principal in a leadership position and teachers,
staff, and students are to "follow the leader." Leadership thought is evolving and researchers
now suggest that a variety of leadership roles can be integrated and accessed in a systemic
manner within a distributed leadership model. Researchers have investigated whether the
distributed leadership model helps school settings improve student achievement by creating a
more equitable perspective where leadership is a balanced and collective social process among
principals, teachers, staff, and students.


Distributed Leadership Defined
According to Bolden (2011), Sun, Frank, Penuel, and Kim (2013), Spillane and Kim
(2012), and Hulpia, Devos, and Van Keer (2011), distributed leadership is not done by an
individual or to people but instead is a group activity or an action that works through and within
relationships. This implies that leadership may be shared and transferred among all members
where they pool their expertise to advance a common goal. This characteristic is what sets
distributed leadership apart from other leadership models that have similar components. The
empirical research highlights trust as the component found in the relationships and partnerships
within a distributed leadership model.
Bolden (2011) states there are key elements in distributed leadership that are shared
across researchers. The literature around the concept of distributed leadership has been
associated with collaboration, democracy and co-leadership. Bolden states there are three
elements shared among them (p.257):
1. Leadership is an emergent property of a group or network of interacting individuals
2. There is openness to the boundaries of leadership
3. Varieties of expertise are distributed across the many, not the few
Bolden further states that the distributed leadership model offers an alternative to the traditional
heroic role of the individual, typically the principal, and opens up the possibility of distributing
leadership among informal leaders such as teachers, parents and staff. The key contribution of
distributed leadership is the recognition of a variety of forms of leadership in a more integrated
and systemic manner that is meaningful to the experiences and goals of those enacting it. At its
core, the effectiveness of distributed leadership is dependent on its partnerships.

Sun, Frank, Penuel, and Kim (2013) observed distributed leadership among teacher
partnerships. They found that subgroups are important to the flow of information, especially in
the creation of knowledge and innovation. Further, after surveying teachers from 30 schools in a
mid-sized urban school district to determine who they turn to for instructional advice, the
findings showed that teachers turn to various subgroups depending on need. They also found that
principal support of these networks or connections between the subgroups strengthened the
distributed leadership. This suggests that between-subgroup ties are important in the
implementation of reform in schools. Networks are made up of subgroups, that is, groups of
participants who typically have stronger ties to one another than to others in the overall network
are critical to the functioning of the organization.
Spillane and Kim (2012) also found that distributed leadership focuses on the
interactions, interconnections, and interdependencies among people or subgroups. They
examined how elementary school leaders were arranged in instructional advice and information
seeking networks. They found that when teacher leaders increased other teachers access to
expertise and support, they created a more collaborative work environment. The collaborative
work environment was measured by collective responsibility, teacher-teacher trust, and
alignment between standards and school programs. Spillane and Kim define collective
responsibility as the extent to which school staff members take responsibility for helping one
another, student behavior, and improving instruction in their school as a whole. Teacher-teacher
trust is the degree to which teachers are willing to take risks and depend on with one another.
Alignment between standards and school programs is the extent that staff members in their
school are aligned between standards and school programs.

Since distributed leadership influences attitudes of others through intentional social
interaction where leadership can be transferred, this suggests that all organization members have
the potential to influence (Jackson & Marriott, 2012). They act to advance specific goals that
represent the values, the wants and needs, and the aspirations of both leaders and followers.
Spillane and Kim (2012) advance this notion by observing the distributed leadership model has
less to do with power equalization and more to do with a perceived agreement across various
roles in the school structure.
Hulpia, Devos, and Van Keer (2011) found that who is providing support in an
organization was less important than the quality of support being given. Their findings suggest
that teachers who believe that their school is run by a cooperative leadership that has group
cohesion, clear roles, and is goal-oriented, tend to feel committed to the school. Schools
characterized with trust or mutual dependency, under those conditions were led by a leadership
team that worked together in a cohesive and open way. This shows how distributed leadership
helps people to connect in a meaningful way with the experiences and aspirations of leadership
practitioners. Van Maele & Van Houtte (2009) state that since organizational members need to
function out of collective goals, they are dependent on one another. In such situations of
interdependence, trust may reduce uncertainty and enhance cooperation.
The Role of Vertical Leadership in Distributed Leadership
Although distributed leadership is characterized as being dispersed among the many
rather than the few, Crawford (2012) and Pearce and Barkus (2014) argue that formal leadership
roles typically found in traditional vertical leadership such as principals, have a significant place
in distributed leadership.

Crawford (2012) suggests the issue is not whether vertical leadership or distributed
leadership is more beneficial in impacting student learning. Rather the issues are:
1. When is leadership most appropriately shared?
2. How does one develop shared leadership?
3. How does one utilize both vertical and shared leadership to leverage the capabilities of
knowledge workers? (p. 618)
Crawford states that through critiquing when and how to use various leadership models
empowers teachers to understand what is more beneficial for specific school needs.
Pearce and Barkus (2014) articulates how to address the questions Crawford (2012) poses
of when and how to use vertical leadership in a distributed leadership model. They state that
since distributed leadership is a complex and time consuming process, it is beneficial to use
distributed leadership with work that involves interdependence, creativity, and complexity. In
employing a distributed leadership model in these cases, the vertical team leader, such as a
principal, is responsible in designing and developing the team. The team leader carefully chooses
the right team based on their technical, teamwork, and leadership skills. The team leader then
articulates trust and confidence in the team to work towards the vision or purpose of the team.
Pearce and Barkus (2014) emphasize that the team leader is to foster interaction among
the team by clearly describing what shared leadership is, modelling appropriate leader behaviors,
setting clear expectations, and evaluating performance. They are to also provide training in the
skills that develop collaboration among various team member roles. The difference between
what Pearce and Barkus describe in vertical leadership versus the traditional hierarchal top-down
model in schools, is that the vertical leader is empowering the followers to be self-influencing

rather than controlled. In this model the team leaders goal is to replace herself by building up
the team so that members may eventually interact without being directed. The vertical leader
then transitions into maintaining and supporting the team. Pearce and Barkus describe the
support of a vertical leader as one who asks for solutions; encourages initiative, goal setting, and
problem solving; models productive conflict management; and is a willing recipient of influence.
Both Crawford (2012) and Pearce and Barkus (2014) argue against a one size fits all type of
leadership model and instead seeks how to access a hybrid of both vertical and distributed
leadership model for schools.
Distributed Leadership with Student Voice
Much of the research around distributed leadership refers to the implementation
of adult voice in school leadership. Serriere, Mitra, and Reed (2011), Gunter and Thomson
(2007), Holt (2008), Mitra and Serriere (2012), and Koller and Schugurensky (2011) have taken
a closer look at distributed leadership with student voice. Their empirical research addresses how
teachers can use youth-adult partnerships to implement student voice in a distributed leadership
Serriere, Mitra, and Reed (2011) argue in order to move beyond being obedient citizens
and instead develop into engaged, justice-oriented citizens, children need to have opportunities to
apply democratic values. They suggest youth-adult partnerships as a way to engage student voice
in distributed leadership. Serriere et al. define youth-adult partnerships as relationships in which
both youth and adults contribute to decision making processes, to learn from one another, and to
promote change in places that affect youth. They propose a continuum where scaffolding is used
to allow youth to slowly gain the skills to share leadership in a Vygotskian style of
apprenticeship. They begin this relational process by watching and learning, and they slowly

acquire the expertise to take on leadership roles by working side by side with experienced youth
and adult advisors. After interviewing three focus groups that represented various points on the
youth-adult continuum they found that the mixture of student- and adult-led activities and
discussions worked well to balance incorporating student voice with adults leading them to a
definite and attainable goal. They called this the Catalyst or Transitional Vision. Serriere et al.
state that relationships between youth and adults change in education when relevant and
motivational opportunities are provided for students to connect the values of democracy with
practical community problem solving.
Gunter and Thomson (2007) took the youth-adult partnership further from students as
consultants to students as co-researchers. In their study a focus group of high school students
were interviewed about their school experiences. They focused their conversations on bullying.
The focus groups reported that they felt safe with their friends, but only half said that teachers
made them feel safe. The students then produced a PowerPoint report which they presented to
the school staff. Students decided to use written dramatic scenarios and interviewed 13 staff
members by asking how they would engage with these dramas around bullying. After the study,
the student researchers found that what teachers may thought were appropriate interventions,
students interpreted teacher reactions as not taking the issue seriously or missing what students
see and experience daily. Due to this realization, students suggested both adults and students be
involved in designing interventions and changes. This study showed a need for spaces of
leadership where young people can speak up regarding what they consider to be important and
valuable about their learning.
Holt (2008) also chose to use student voice to give insight in his research on the barriers
and supports of student success at school. Students were asked to photograph images of what

they perceived as barriers and supports to success in school. Through use of student voice in the
data gathering, the supports and barriers were rooted in the experiences of students. They were
then asked to participate in a student inquiry group discussion to have authentic dialogue about
issues that impact their school lives, such as teaching for learning, relationships, and racism. Holt
states by listening to student voices adults develop an understanding of the reality in the world in
which these students live. Educators can then learn what makes a positive impact for student
success or achievement in school.
Mitra and Serriere (2012) continue the conversation of students as partners in education
by proposing that youth be provided with opportunities to participate in school decision making
that will shape their lives and the lives of their peers which will increase their attachment to
schools. They observed what student voice looks like in elementary school, which is a rarity in
research. They referred to research that verified that key developmental growth occurs from the
end of elementary school to the beginning of high school. They state elementary aged students
begin to think critically about the world around them and question injustices they see. Students
develop strategic thinking, empathy and take the role of others. Their research measured a sense
of civic responsibility among students where one must feel their actions can make a difference
because they are heard and respected.
A focus group of six fifth grade girls in Mitra and Serrieres (2012) study, named the
Salad Girls, administered opinion polls and led All School Gatherings in an effort to diversify
their schools salad menu options. The participants teacher, Mrs. O, and Principal S supported
their endeavor by co-analyzing the data and coaching them in presentation skills so that adults
may be able to hear and understand them. The adults essentially partnered with the students in
how to use the democratic process which resulted with the district changing their salad options.

This growing sense of being heard developed into self-empowerment where students believed
they had the right to question authority and to push for change.
Koller and Schugurensky (2011) conducted a study where students were given the
opportunity to push for district-wide change by serving as student trustees to represent their
fellow students on the school board. They were required to speak with the interests of the
students they represented in mind to improve the quality of their education. Students were
nominated by their teachers and principals. After serving on the board, participants described
themselves as caring individuals in addition to being activists for social causes. The data
revealed that the activities, relationships, and contexts associated with the school board role
appeared to provide the motivation for transformative learning and personal change. For student
trustees, their roles provided an opportunity to learn and explore their attitudes and behaviors
while experiencing personal growth.
The research around student voice within distributed leadership all had participants that
became more empowered and confident. They were ready to go beyond their circle and take
action for the common good. Youth participation, especially when coupled with youth-adult
partnership, becomes a process that engages young people in a respectful and meaningful way
because it helps them understand themselves in relation to the world around them.
Social Justice Implications
Students have been lead and entrusted in the care of adults in education without being
asked of their experiences. Educators make decisions for children instead of with them and give
them less meaningful roles. Caton (2012) and Jackson and Marriott (2012) show how the
absence of student voice can lead to consequences for students. Caton (2012) examined the

influence of the zero-tolerance policies on Black males educational experiences through the lens
of critical race theory by using counter-storytelling or narratives. Caton provided a venue for
racialized victims whose voices have been historically silenced in educational research to be
heard. Counter-storytelling is a method of listening to voices that have been previously silenced
to gain a better understanding of the realities of their world. Black high school students who had
dropped out of school were interviewed to give insight on their stories and personal experiences
of zero-tolerance policies. Caton found that Black males were more inclined to be suspended or
expelled and set off the chain reaction of the school- to-prison pipeline due to feeling
disconnected and a lack of trust of their school which led to academic underperformance. Caton
also found that participants stressed the need for strong teacherstudent relationships in order for
them to achieve academic success, adding that adolescent students need teachers who expressed
interest in their lives beyond the classroom. Chris, a student, stated, Many of my teachers were
not aware of my strengths because they did not spend time getting to know me (p. 1067).
Chriss response raises a question about the school systems commitment to empowering this
population to achieve their highest potential. Catons findings reveals a link between students
sense of school belongingness and positive academic outcomes. Caton stresses the importance
for schools to create an inclusive school climate rather than one that perpetuates the feeling of
Jackson and Marriott (2012) also found that urban schools typically function out of a
hierarchal leadership model. This model is characterized by the combination of a highly
influential principal and the low influence of a teacher. Some of the most vulnerable student
populations attend schools in which neither principals nor teachers claim influence over school
policy decisions and are therefore characterized by the least desirable school leadership

conditions. The nature of teaching and leading in these schools is complex. The responsibility
lies among all stakeholders to provide a positive, strong leadership model that challenges the
deep, troubling inequities within the system. Under these conditions, distributed leadership is
necessary in counteracting the negative effects of hierarchal systems that continue to affect the
success of students in those communities.
Educational Leadership Implications
As research continues to reveal the widening achievement gap for Black and Latino
students in education, Gregory, Cornell, and Fan (2011) state that a combination of high teacher
connection and high teacher regulation predicts the greatest achievement gains for low-income
adolescents. Students are most responsive to academic demands when they are made in the
context of a supportive, encouraging relationship such as the ones established in youth-adult
partnerships. Sun et al. (2013) states trust acts as the glue that binds interrelationships within
distributed leadership. As members in an organization participate in its direction and enactment
of its goals, they must actively contribute to sustaining the connections between reciprocity,
trust, and commitment in their relationships. This includes all stakeholders, principals, teachers,
parents, and students. Trust according to Sun et al. is built through honesty, openness, reliability,
and competence. Without these essential components for trust, the foundation for school
improvement will be underdeveloped in a distributed leadership model.
The quality of supportive leadership is important in predicting teachers commitment
therefore affecting student achievement, whereas who provides this leadership is not important
(Hulpia, 2011). At least one school leader is recommended to support teachers and give them
positive feedback. School leaders are more effective when approachable, visible, and focus on
direct communication with teachers. This implies that those interactions are influenced by the

openness and trust modeled by the leaders. Hulpia states this can be done by providing time to
meet, building teaching networks, and by providing a follow up of these networks. This has
implications for teachers. Teachers influence is no longer simply in their own classrooms. The
distributed leadership provides opportunities for teachers and principals to participate in school
decision making, develop the same school goals, practice open communication, and have clear
roles as they work collaboratively towards a common mission. As school leaders work towards
these skills in building trust within distributed leadership relationships, they too will be able to
invite students into those relationships.
Schools have the massive task of serving its students within complex situations and
relationships. Research has shown that it is not enough to view leadership of this task in terms of
a hierarchal model where an individual in a formal role solely holds the responsibility of that
mission. Black and Latino students continue to feel disconnected from their schools and remain
unheard resulting in a widening achievement gap. Distributed leadership redefines leadership as
an action among the collective strength of many. School leader roles go beyond managing and
instead are diversified into including youth-adult partnerships. These relationships, if built upon
trust, shared goals, clear roles, and quality support, will be able to balance power and influence
so that all students may be served well (Spillane & Kim, 2012).


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