Contextual Leadership: Responding to the Issues of Social Justice in High-Risk Schools

Debra Touchton
Steson University, USAMichele Acker-Hocevar
Florida Atlantic University, USA

The focus of this paper is to reframe the discussion of school improvement and educational reform to include not only the student and school performance, but the communities in which the reforms must occur to ensure democratic learning structures in today’s schools. Using our Contextual Leadership Framework, we will examine how educational and community leaders can work together to develop competence in addressing and reducing social injustices present in schools at risk and make this part of the larger social agenda that extends outside of the bounds of discrete communities to society-at-large (Gutmann & Thompson, 2004; Rawls, 1971). Democracy is the end result of understanding how to look through the lens of the Contextual Leadership Framework to assess what needs to happen in the school and community through the leader’s orientation, creation of a collaborative teaching and learning culture, and interpretation of policies and acquisition of resources. This framework is based on the findings from several studies that were conducted in schools that were low performing and failing schools and schools that were high performing and had sustained progress for over four years ( Wilson, Walker, Cruz-Janzen, Acker-Hocevar & Schoon, 2005; Acker-Hocevar & Touchton, 2001). What we found was that in the schools that were succeeding, leaders addressed the contextual variables present in the schools and had constructed power relations within their schools and communities that we term partnership power (Acker-Hocevar, Cruz-Janzen, Wilson, Schoon, & Walker, 2005).

What we found was that in the schools that were succeeding, leaders addressed the contextual variables present in the schools and had constructed power relations within their schools and communities that we term partnership power

The Framework is examined in relation to power; power and giving voice to members in a school and community, the values that underlie the three areas of the Contextual Leadership Framework and conclusions that we have drawn from our work in schools of high poverty that are both high and low performing (Acker-Hocevar, 2005). These conclusions relate Contextual Leadership within issues that are inextricably connected to social justice and to ways to bring about more democratization (Touchton & Acker-Hocevar, 2003a). Democratization occurs when educators construct shared power relations; we use a river of power to depict how the ever-moving energy system of power, illustrated along the different places of a river, show how power relationships can be constructed that result in more or less democratization through the voices that are heard and the reciprocity of power relations.

As a result of ongoing study and work conducted in at-risk schools, we became acutely aware of the discrimination, inequities, and injustices prevalent in these schools brought to light as a result of the state’s accountability and school improvement reform efforts. These discriminations, inequities, and injustices, reported to us by school administrators, we believe, as do the school administrators, limit the life success chances of high-risk students and make the tasks that leaders in at-risk high poverty schools, often of color, even more challenging than most (Acker-Hocevar et al., 2001; Touchton et al., 2003a & b).

We believe the Contextual Leadership Framework must be grounded in the tenets of social justice. Based on our study of contextual variables, we define social justice as fighting the inequities, discrimination, and injustices that impact student achievement and the success of all students (Touchton et al., 2003a). We view inequity as the inequality of meting out resources to schools on the basis of “one size fits all,” disregarding special and unique needs of a disadvantaged group. Inequities are institutionalized practices governing resource allocation, which are usually done according to bureaucratic formulas. Discrimination, on the other hand, is prejudice toward a group, based on biased attitudes, dispositions, and values, which may be conscious or unconscious, and usually results in decisions that adversely impact the group’s success. Injustices perpetuate the myth that by treating everyone the same, holding everyone accountable to comparable standards, and giving them the “same” resources, you are treating them fairly, even though the playing field is not level to start.

When school leaders and their communities collaboratively work together to identify and understand the connections between contextual variables, they consciously seek ways to improve their schools and their communities. Principals, therefore, play a vital role in creating and maintaining the collaborative internal and external environments, whereby schools and communities work together to ensure: (1) equity and excellence through equal access to learning for all students and creating (2) democratic learning systems that use partnership power to wield changes that support teaching and learning that builds social, cultural and intellectual capital, which adds to, not subtracts from, what students and their communities have within them (Acker-Hocevar et al., 2005;Gutmann et al;., 2004).

School and community leaders can no longer remain silent and ignorant of social justice issues that are exerting the same “power over” communities, students, parents, and teachers under a new guise of raising test scores (O’Boyle, 2004). More exactly, the cycle of silence that underpins educational complicity of “power over” through bureaucratic control and domination must be broken so that the cycle of powerlessness, too, can be changed. Often, school leaders lack a depth of understanding and cultural competence necessary to meet the challenges faced by schools and communities with diverse populations and the corresponding wherewithal to know how to “negotiate” with their school district to alleviate the pressure for raising test scores—resulting in the district often employing an instrumental approach for the school to use, with little or no substantive changes in the relationships between educators and the communities in which they work. Realizing that context is important to understanding a school and its community, the contextual variables that make up the unique characteristics of a school and its community must be examined to enhance student learning and build democratic communities. To accomplish this, school administrators must develop an understanding of the effects of poverty, color, and/or English as a second language, and become actively engaged in addressing educational and social policies, which can change the learning outcomes for students at-risk. To remain silent is to further perpetrate injustices on many of our nation’s most vulnerable students. Silence is a response is that expected when power is being used over people whereas dialogue is the outcome when power is being shared more widely and participation is being sought (Gutman et al, 2004). Thus, there are artifacts that one can look for within the values expressed and enacted, the voices heard and listened to, and the way that people within the school and community enact power that results in democratization.

This article addresses the three prongs of the Contextual Leadership Framework: Leadership Orientation, Collaborative Teaching and Learning Culture, and Policies and Resources. The framework is a systems approach where principals can examine how the three dimensions are linked together through the use of power that is additive and partnership based (Acker-Hocevar et al., 2005). The result of additive schooling and partnership power, teased out in the three dimensions, provides a basis for leaders in schools to assess where they are in relationship to turning around a low performing school. Although we do not suggest that any of this knowledge is new, we do believe the Contextual Leadership Framework contributes to the knowledge base of educational leaders; specifically, through the frank recognition of how power, beliefs and attitudes about others, different from us, in combination with the leader’s orientation, the construction of a teaching and learning culture, which values students, preparing them for life, not just to pass a test, with the leader’s role in interpreting policies and seeking resources for their community, is foundational to turning around a low performing, high poverty school. Contextual Leaders have knowledge and skills to ensure that the people hired in the school are able to make connections to the students and communities they serve and that they have the appropriate attitudes, beliefs and values to work collaboratively within a school dedicated to making a difference. They know how to navigate the treacherous waters of our increasingly political culture surrounding education, and to obtain the needed resources and enable the community to have a voice so that school success is possible.

Contextual Leadership Framework

The theoretical perspective of Contextual Leadership is built upon the authors’ previous research on leadership. Accordingly, the leader’s knowledge of the internal and external conditions (variables) that contribute to a school’s success, is affected by among other things, the relationship between the school and the community. This relationship serves as a framework that provides the conditions for student success. Contextual Leadership is leading within the context of the school and community, whatever it is, understanding it, and moving the school forward by leveraging the contextual factors present in the school and community that can make an impact. The Contextual Leadership Framework is based on the following assumptions.

  • Schools of poverty operate within a context of complex challenges.
  • School leaders and teachers have not been adequately prepared to work within the context of poverty.
  • Access to resources and political action are more limited in communities of poverty.
  • Policy interpretation at the state and local levels often penalizes schools of poverty.
  • There are key contextual variables that leaders in schools of poverty must recognize, acknowledge and address to improve student and teacher performance.
  • Principals and teachers often lack understanding of the effects of poverty on the teaching and learning process.
  • School leaders often lack the public relations skills to engender community connections to build social networks for support.
  • In schools of poverty, trust between the community and the school is essential for continuous school improvement to occur.
  • Schools of poverty have difficulty in recruiting and retaining “highly qualified” teachers.
  • There are socio-cultural differences between teachers’ middle class values and the values of families of poverty.
  • The current level of funding for schools of poverty is inadequate.
  • Schools of poverty are places of injustices, inequities and discriminations that are connected to the larger social context (communities) in which these schools are situated.
  • For changes to take place in the schools and communities, leaders must develop partnerships and share power more equally.
  • Democratization of the school occurs over time because of shared power and building listening systems that reflect values of integrating systems to work to the benefit of students and the community to increase their access to resources and opportunities.
  • Democracy is the result of a state of being that encourages participation, commitment and values that promote sharing, giving voice, listening, and action.

Leadership Orientation

Leadership Orientation is critical to helping others in the school community understand the effects of poverty on teaching and learning. The leader is a builder, a connector, a motivator, a coummicator and an entrepreneur (Brown & Cromwall, 2000). Through the leader’s orientation to the educational and public communities, the foundation for action is set that creates a caring and collective voice that is open to sharing power and developing the school and community connections. The result is a decision about whether the locus of control is perceived to be either within the pervue of educators and the community to make changes and transform the existing relationships or whether it is externalized, resulting in people feeling powerless, silenced, and shamed.

Central to the Leadership Orientation dimension is changing the way school leaders think about leadership from one-way to an eclectic approach to leadership. Leadership Orientation refers to the leader’s awareness of the environment as it relates to time, space, and individuals, and one’s ability to adjust to any situation, one’s sense of locus of control - the development of others and the challenging of attitudes and beliefs that work against students of poverty and color. The premise is that one’s ability to lead effectively in a school of poverty is directly related to understanding the context of the school and community environment and the ability to affect positive changes based on that understanding. The leader is continually aware of what occurs within their school as it relates to managing space and time, building and sustaining relationships, and providing the leadership the stakeholders – students, teachers and staff, parents – require for continuous school improvement.

One’s sense of locus of control consequently, influences one’s sense of self-efficacy. If individuals do not believe they have control over the outcome, it stands to reason that they will have little trust that any actions on their part will result in some form of change (Bandura, 1997). The sense of locus of control, coupled with self-efficacy, in regard to Contextual Leadership relates both to the principal and the teachers. Principals set the tone for working conditions that reify an internal or external locus of control, while teachers’ sense of self-efficacy and locus of control influences the outcomes of the teaching and learning process in schools of poverty classrooms.

Principals and teacher relationships, traditionally, have been more adversarial than collaborative (Callahan, 1962). Restructuring this adversarial relationship to one of collaboration is a major role change for school leaders – both principals and teachers. Understanding and altering power relationships is crucial to the Contextual Leadership Framework. Sarason argues, “Schools will remain intractable to desired reform as long as we avoid confronting these existing power relationships” (1990, p. 5). A basic tenet of Contextual Leadership is that principals’ primary responsibility is to continually examine the power relationships between teachers and administrators, teachers and teachers, teachers and students, school and home, and school and community. This is especially true for school leaders in high poverty, at-risk schools where these relationships are ever so fragile because of the many and diverse needs of the players. It is crucial that the principal acknowledges the importance and the immediacy of building, maintaining, and sustaining these relationships. Successful relationships, albeit personal and/or professional, are based on mutual respect and trust. The form of relationships between schools and communities is often dependent on the type and purpose of these relationships.

Today, the role of the principal is one of school manager and instructional leader. With this change in role, principals can no longer be expected to “go it alone.” They need the curricular and instructional expertise of teacher leaders in addition to their own expertise, along with community leaders to affect change and continuously improve student and school performance. Many of the principals we interview and work with speak of the importance of developing teacher leaders, that is to say recognizing teachers’ content and pedagogical expertise and providing them with the time and space to collaborate with others on instructional practice and student work. Principals who believe in the power of teacher leaders expect that all teachers will lead in one way or another; they relinquish some of their power so that teachers will embrace their roles as teacher leaders; instill trust in their teachers so that they will be supported when the “going gets tough”; empower teachers to make decisions; match a teacher’s expertise or passion with a school issue that needs to be resolved; protect the teacher leaders from faculty negativity or attacks; and most importantly recognize teacher leadership (Barth, 2001).

Principals who support their teachers and create the conditions for their faculty to problem solve and share in decision making are willing to develop systems that connect others to the primary and core technology of the school—that of improving teaching and learning. By creating a culture of care and concern for students, teachers, and the community, the ability to attract teachers and retain them occurs naturally. Marketing for the school is done through trust and the fact that the community knows that the principal and the educators in the school care about them and their students. While the low performing schools in the study that we conducted were trying to figure out how to make connections with the community, the high performing high poverty schools were maintaining the strong connections that had been built in their communities over time.

Collaborative Teaching and Learning Culture

We learned from our study with principals in low performing schools that the challenges to building a culture that supported a learning partnership culture, both within the school and the community, were sizeable. Principals in the higher performing schools had built connections with their communities for learning. Parents were informed about their students’ progress and about opportunities to help their children on a daily basis. Comments about the accessibility of the principal and teachers to parents concerning their students’ progress were about learning, how the community could be more supportive, about ways to foster collaboration and collegiality, and the bravery of parents who had often given up so much to have their children attend schools in the United States. Language between the educators and the community was inclusive. At the core of the teaching and learning culture in high performing schools was a language of respect, care, and concern about the families and students the school served.

This is in stark contrast to the low performing schools. Attitudes and values of the teachers were often negative towards the parents and students and was demonstrated in the language and stories related by the principals. The stories that the principals shared with us were stories about how teachers were only paying lip service to the rhetoric of “all students can learn,” but were in fact exercising choices and actions that were in opposition to this perspective.

The Collaborative Teaching and Learning Culture dimension is based on building professional learning communities where administrators, teachers, and staff understand the effects of poverty on the teaching and learning process, recognize standards-based learning and high-stakes testing; and acknowledge diversity in the classroom (Touchton & Acker-Hocevar, 2003). This Collaborative Teaching and Learning Culture is a school culture that implements school-based decision making and self governance structures to enhance the teaching learning process through collaboration with teachers and the community (Hord, 2004; Furman, 2002). Building and sustaining a school culture with shared beliefs is as essential to moving a school forward as improving test scores. By identifying and solving problems together, a school builds a learning community that benefits all – students, teachers, parents, and the community. In an era of standards-based learning, high-stakes testing, accountability, and diverse classroom populations, school principals overwhelmed with increasing or maintaining test scores, frequently minimize the importance of culture on student performance, focusing more narrowly on specific issues such as raising test scores, involving parents, and “managing” the facility instead of leading them. What school leaders fail to understand, however, is that the school culture permeates everything that occurs in the school – whether positive or negative. Educators must be willing to examine and challenge their assumptions which may be counter to what is best for the students they serve, noting the inequities, injustices, and discriminations that pollute their culture and negatively impact student success and create distrust in the community.

School cultures are diverse and varied: collaborative or noncollaborative, open or closed. Both Lortie (1975) and Hargreaves (1994) describe schools as places of isolation and individualism with very little to no teacher collaboration and collegiality. Hargreaves (1993) argues that individualism is a consequence of complex organizational conditions and constraints that need to be attended to if an individualism culture is to be changed. From the perspective of the Contextual Leadership Framework, an individualism culture negatively influences student performance in that school improvement is perceived as an individual effort rather than a school-wide effort. That is to say, it is the school-wide efforts that change the status quo to continuous school improvement which was not evident in the low performing schools.

To put it succinctly as possible, if you want to change and improve the climate and outcomes of schooling for both students and teachers, there are features of the school climate that have to be changed, and if they are not changed, your well-intentioned efforts will be defeated

Building a Collaborative Teaching and Learning Culture is germane to the Framework, and based on the norms, values, beliefs, assumptions, traditions, and rituals, built over time by the administration, teachers, students and parents, and the community that support high levels of collegiality, team work, and discussions around instructional practices and student performance. In a Collaborative Teaching and Learning Culture, teachers tend to have a higher sense of self-efficacy (Peterson, 1994); teachers are willing to ask the difficult questions that, consequently, positively impact school improvement efforts (Barth, 1990; Dufour & Eaker 1998; Deal & Peterson, 2001).

We believe, as do Hargreaves and Fullan (1993), that the success or failure of educational change can be attributed to the culture present in the school. Sarason remarked, “To put it succinctly as possible, if you want to change and improve the climate and outcomes of schooling for both students and teachers, there are features of the school climate that have to be changed, and if they are not changed, your well-intentioned efforts will be defeated” (1996, p. 340). We argue that Contextual Leaders understand that change in school culture, within the parameters of their own school context, is essential to fighting inequities, injustices and discriminations that lead to improving student and teacher performance. They work from the inside out and the outside in. In other words, leaders begin to change what is happening in the school first and then make connections with the community to change what is happening in the community.

Contextual Leadership recognizes the importance of principals’ beliefs and assumptions about the effects of poverty on the teaching and learning process, a key indicator of successful school improvement in schools of poverty and at-risk (Acker-Hocevar & Touchton, 2002). Based on interviews of principals in at-risk, high poverty schools, we found that these principals share basic beliefs: all children from poverty can and do learn; on-going professional development that builds a community of learners that provides for shared dialogue with teachers to collaborate across the school; and culture building which takes time is the result of forging strong relationships rooted in trust and respect, and building a common language to discuss school improvement (Acker-Hocevar & Touchton, 2001; Taylor & Touchton, 2005).

The role of teaching and learning in high poverty schools must be interpreted from the perspective of the context of the individual school environments. Ironically, low performing and failing schools are often found in the poorest neighborhoods, where children are mostly black, Hispanic, or immigrants; therefore, often less proficient in English than their White, non-ethnic, or native counterparts (Wolk, 1998). Students from poverty frequently come to school ill prepared for the expectations of learning, judged from middle class standards. In Florida, the last ten to fifteen years has seen an influx of students with English as a second language living in poverty. Even when the children acquire the language orally, they still have deficits in the written words, so regardless of their race or language; the poorer students come to the schools language-deprived. These language deficits further complicate learning to read when students are not proficient in their native language orally, or in the written word, and then return to their non-English speaking homes where parents are unable to assist them in their work in English.

High-stakes tests cannot take the place of ongoing school development. Within the Framework, the Contextual Leader supports a number of venues for documenting authentic learning and demonstrating student gains. Principals make certain that effective teaching is more than simply delivering content knowledge, but involves a personal commitment and involvement with students (Scheurich, 1998). These leaders look at the whole school and examine students’ work to better discern quality instruction for students (Supovitz & Poglinco, 2001). The intellectual work of the school must focus on higher order thinking skills, problem solving, authentic learning and real life experiences that connect to the experiences of students from poverty. Connections to the lives of students are essential and demonstrate that the school values these experiences.

Contextual Leaders emphasize the necessity for schools to identify the academic, affective, and social needs of their population based on analyzing school and community data to make sound instructional decisions for their individual schools. Schwebel (2003) states:

It takes dedicated teachers to be willing to work with children so handicapped by societal conditions. To achieve some measure of success in engaging the students in learning, teachers must be formidable enough to work at counteracting the physical, social, and social effects of poverty, some of which make children inattentive and unmotivated for learning. (p.53)

Policies and Resources

The Power River provides a basis for examining power relationships from different points of view, how resources can be accessed and used, and power enacted differently. What is not discussed in this metaphor is how political mandates, which are driving current reforms within the climate of high stakes and accountability, exert power over schools. The Power River provides a lens for seeing how schools can resist the impact of these power arrangements on students of poverty and build the needed social, political, economic, and cultural resources, both tangible and intangible, for supporting the values that give voice to shared and partnership power, which underpins the Contextual Leadership Framework.

Partnership power is a way of thinking about how to nurture relationships that open up access, and more broadly distribute resources and information within a community (Snyder, Acker-Hocevar, & Snyder, 2000). Snyder et al., use the Power River to mark four places along a river’s journey, with each place depicting how power can be enacted differently among members within an organization. Power over is the most limited use of power, with restricted access to resources and opportunities within hierarchical power structures that are top-down, control-oriented, and extremely bureaucratic and rule-driven. Power to like power over represents a dominator, bureaucratic power framework that exerts a hold over resources and opportunities. In schools of poverty this means the development of the skills of others and their access to resources, but within a limited and restricted paradigm that does not challenge existing power structures. Rather, power to stays vested in the hands of relatively few, however, when the Power River shifts energy and direction, partnership power gives way to power with. This form of power challenges dramatically ways leaders work with others to solve problems. This form of power extends the invitation of access to power structures to the broader community for achieving a shared vision for all students to learn. Power with builds a collective sense of purpose for action and results and inherently transforms existing power structures. Finally, power through is enacted when power is loosely coupled with hierarchical structures of power; and everyone is working together to build learning communities that devolve power through shared expertise and achieving of goals and mission to the broader school/community vision for all students, most notably students of poverty to learn and be successful. There is an ethic of care and concern for each person within the community (Beck, 1994) and a vision of hope.

Policies and Resources, this third prong of the Framework cannot be understood in isolation of the Power River. For leaders to address the underlying duplicity of asking schools, situated in communities of high poverty to do more with less resources, without building capacity and strong networks of support is incredulous. From the work we have done in low and high performing, high poverty schools, what becomes clear to us as researchers is that principals in high performing schools have attracted additional and often significant resources to help them in their task of maintaining the extra staff and services to assist them with creating and sustaining a highly productive learning culture that reduces class size and offers more individual learning opportunities.

This sends a clear message to the community about the fact that the educators are doing more than is expected to make their students successful. Unfortunately, the politics of closing the achievement gap has meant for some schools graded as failing in states like Florida, that the stigmatization of being an “F” school is often met with district support that is punitive and bureaucratic, with no voice from the schools, and a curriculum of math and reading all day long for students (O’Boyle, 2005). This finding is in sharp contrast to the schools that serve similar populations but are doing well on state and standardized achievement tests. In contrast, Contextual Leaders translate high stakes testing policies into practices that add value for students and in ways that their community sees the benefits of schooling for their children. Moreover, principals see the arts, extra-curricular activities, music, and physical education as integral to a child’s development and are not willing to focus only on reading and math to raise test scores. Their enactment of policy is within the framework of putting into practice requirements that address external mandates, but not in ways that do harm to children. Children from poverty are already less advantaged than their peers in terms of building social and cultural capital. Contextual Leadership recognizes the broader impact of policy mandates. These principals use policies in positive ways; they stimulate learning in their schools to benefit students (Scheurich, 1998).

Not only are the students in these schools not spending their entire day on only math and reading but they are given enrichment activities, engage in field trips and also in extra-curricular activities. The principals and teachers in schools that are high performing are using the politics of the school to make changes. They are not immune to the politics and pressures outside of the schools but rather are working in partnership with the community and their Districts to tell the story of success of their students, parents and teachers. The politics of a community speak with one voice for collective action and agency as an integrated community. Listening systems are reciprocal, and the power systems generate shared power which creates more voice for people, eradicating the silencing that has often been expected, and the compliance that was resisted by failing in school. As principals in schools making a difference refuse to reify the beliefs of powerlessness, one principal in a high poverty school lamented, “Students from poverty already come from F lives. Now they are told they attend F schools with F teachers and F principals.” This principal was not going to reinforce the grading of schools and project the feelings of failure on his students and community.

Recent policy mandates and legislation at the federal level (see No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, Public Law 107-110) and at the state level (see Florida’s System of School Improvement and Accountability) necessitate that school leaders understand the intent of these policies at their school sites and translate these reforms into meaningful actions that can be incorporated into positive changes for their constituents. Although these two reforms suggest new ways of thinking about how the work in schools can be organized around standards and their assessment of teaching and learning, they also suggest a deeper understanding of the theories upon which these standards are connected to curriculum, instruction, and assessment. Changes may need to be made to existing structures, professional development, and systems of communication, teaching and learning practices, and how the school is led.

Understanding political and policy implications as a whole means knowing why the reforms were enacted, who supported and opposed these reforms, and what the intended effects were to be on improving both the work and achievement patterns in schools, particularly with students of poverty and color. In other words, the principal is both the interpreter of the reform and the “street level bureaucrat.” This means that the principal is the public relations spokesperson for how the reform is both enacted and incorporated into the existing cultural norms of the school and the interpreter for how the community understands the reforms. Importantly, the principal is also the individual who must provide feedback to policy makers about the intended and the unintended impact of the policies on reform.

A Contextual Leadership perspective of translating policy into practice assumes the leader knows the rules of the game, in which students and ultimately schools are assessed and graded in states like Florida. The Contextual Leader makes these rules clear to the entire community—teachers, parents, and students. Results of ongoing assessments, not just the state or national tests, should be gauges of gains in student learning, providing the entire educational community with self-corrective measures for adjusting existing learning and teaching strategies. Several key school policies and expectations must be enacted making these expectations clear for what is to be accomplished and how it will be reported; and how the outcomes expected from teachers, students, parents and the community shift the values from the school telling and informing the community to also asking them to participate as partners in the learning enterprise.

In schools of poverty, trust between the community and the school is essential for continuous school improvement to occur (Valenzuela & Dornbusch, 1994). Differences in principals’ and teachers’ middle class values, from the values of the students of poverty, must be understood, not judged and demeaned. Judging and demeaning students for their socio-cultural backgrounds sets up a system of failure and leads to what Valenzuela (1999) has documented as subtractive schooling. This same process occurs with students from poverty when they are prejudged as coming to school with deficits and not ready to learn versus seeing school as creating opportunities for learning. For example, there is evidence from a longitudinal study done in Baltimore (Alexander, Entwisle, & Olson, 2001) that students of poverty start school several years behind their more affluent counterparts, losing learning over the summer, yet while in school make the same gains as middle class and affluent students. This raises serious questions about the policies put in place for schools that serve students of poverty and at risk, which do not provide resources to sustain gains made during the academic year.

Community and school politics often reify the injustices, inequities, and discriminations within the larger social context in which schools of poverty are located (Parker, 2003). Principals must be aware of the negative attitudes and practices, which adversely affect the achievement patterns of students from poverty and seek to challenge and change these attitudes and practices which are adverse to their students and communities. Scheurich and Skrla (2003) advocate for both equity and excellence for all students, particularly students of color and poverty, left behind not just in schools but by society. Principals serve as both an outside advocate and a bridge between the school and the politics of the community to create a more socially conscious and collective will for action. Importance must be placed on the role of advocacy for students of poverty who are so often the most vulnerable need a collective and strong voice from the community—this is the politics of schooling for Contextual Leaders. Leaders must call for a more equitable meting out of resources. Schools of poverty cannot be dumping grounds for unfit teachers and administrators, but rather should be places where the best teachers and administrators work—teachers and principals who are ready to challenge the status quo, not maintain it.

Moreover, resources must be understood in relation to how power is distributed and enacted in the school, the state, and in society. The current level of funding for schools of poverty is inadequate. Therefore, schools of poverty must take advantage of existing resources within the community (businesses, other schools, and universities) and through grants and foundations to seek additional funding. Although schools are imbedded in a complex set of economic conditions that affect a community’s economic viability, the principal must look outside the community to build and sustain other social and information networks of support to make needed connections and participate in future partnerships with people willing to support the school’s initiatives. Therefore, this prong of the Framework addresses how leaders obtain resources and access information networks that benefit both the students and the community through the principal’s proactive approach. Furthermore, this framework looks at the community as a valuable resource and in conjunction with the school, build partnerships for learning and leading.

In sum, Contextual Leadership necessitates that leaders in schools of poverty develop an internal locus of control to drive their seeking of additional resources, to view power beliefs and practices as an affective resource that can either assist them in building collective agency and vision or work against them

Our discourse on access and use of resources must be framed within the context of each school’s internal locus of control and how it functions to create an organizational culture that either accepts, rejects, or negotiates external domination. The networks created within the school community are resources that (i.e., between the school’s administration, teachers, parents, students, and the extended community including businesses) define the internal locus of control. This internal locus of control empowers schools to seek answers from within and negotiate external intrusions on their autonomy to: 1) develop organizational programs that simultaneously meet the needs of all their stakeholders, particularly students, rather than allow external accountability to guide their development; 2) engage in continuous improvement rather than compliance performance; and 3) promote continuous self-reflection rather than evaluation of a point-in-time, non-representative of the organizational whole. One principal in the study of nine high performing low SES schools states, “So in addition to whatever the district has identified we also decided what tools we were going to use and how we were going to use them. But we have done it for us.”

In sum, Contextual Leadership necessitates that leaders in schools of poverty develop an internal locus of control to drive their seeking of additional resources, to view power beliefs and practices as an affective resource that can either assist them in building collective agency and vision or work against them. Manuel Castells (1996) writes:

Power is founded upon the state and its institutionalized monopoly of violence, although what Foucault labels the micropolitics of power, embodied in institutions and organizations, diffuses throughout the entire society, from workplaces to hospitals, enclosing subjects in a tight framework of formal duties and informal aggressions. (p. 15)

When leaders seek to alter the practices in high poverty schools, they must be cognizant of power arrangements and practices. Through building rich networks of support within and outside of their schools, principals can attract the human capital, and social and economic resources that can affect positive changes.


The Contextual Leadership Framework emerged from our deep reflection about the work that we engaged in studying schools of high poverty that were both successful and unsuccessful as measured on the Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test (FCAT). Although we have learned that the Leadership Orientation is foundational to setting up the next two dimensions of the Framework, the Collaborative Teaching and Learning Culture and the ways in which the leader translates policies and enacts them in the school and within the community and the ensuing process of how resources are sought, we argue that Contextual Leadership must be nested within the use of power that builds partnerships within the school and the community. We also argued that Contextual Leadership is a belief in making a difference through understanding and applying systems theory that integrates values of community to listening and giving voice to the community, teachers, and students. Finally, we see the democratization of school as the outcome of how the values, beliefs and giving voice are enacted through partnership power to creating values of cooperation, collegiality, and shared vision that promote trust, a local locus of control and strong organizational efficacy for collective agency and action for making connections to needed resources.

In this conclusion, each of the three dimensions are reviewed in lieu of the variables that we identified from our research and the values and giving voice to these areas that results in increased democratization and the altering of power structures and practices that can transform high poverty schools and address the institutionalized practices that ameliorate injustices, inequities, and discriminations. The dimensions are discussed in terms of how the leader must see the school from both the inside out and the inside in, meaning transforming the culture and addressing the culture in which the school is nested. By coming back to look at the school from a community perspective, the Leader’s Orientation is both to be influential and influenced by what is heard and learned in the community. The first dimension discussed is the Leadership Orientation.

The Leadership Orientation sets the tone for how the educators in the school are expected to relate to the community and believe that they can make a difference in changing the life success opportunities for their students, send a different message of support to their teachers about their roles together in the school. As teachers in high performing, high poverty schools told us over and over again, “the principal will get us whatever we need. The principal knows these parents and students.” Variables that are important to this dimension are:

  • Locus of control
  • Teacher leaders
  • Sustaining the emotional or affective aspects of building community such as motivation, connections with others, and creating systems that share power widely.
  • Principal as role model (e.g. of the values of care, trustworthiness, and listening)
  • Ongoing communication (e.g. of the beliefs, attitudes and values of the school that create agency and give voice to action and sharing power with others).

The next dimension is Collaborative Teaching and Learning Culture. This dimension sets the tone for how educators work together and the extent of collaboration and collegiality. When parents feel that the school speaks from one voice that shows care and concern for their students, then the teaching and learning culture is supported by parents and the community. Furthermore, a teaching and learning culture that seeks to add to what students bring to school and values the inherent goodness within the community, refuses to address students and the community from a deficit perspective of “lack.” Rather the community for teaching and learning seeks to build connections that are strong within the school and to have these connections transform the way that parents and the educators in the school work together to address the learning of students. Variables that are important to this dimension are:

  • Collaboration
  • Collegiality
  • Promoting additive schooling that builds on students’ prior knowledge, uses language that is inclusive and life supporting and sustaining, and connects with the community in ways that engender trust, listening, and shared understanding and power
  • Sharing of expectations that engender high performance and create learning cultures committed to making a difference with the lives of students and their families and communities
  • Using ongoing assessments to make changes to programs, teaching strategies, and provide information and corrective feedback to students, educators, and parents
  • Addressing issues of discrimination against students who are already deprived of many extra-curricular activities and refusing to adjust the curriculum so that only the basics are being taught in a drill and kill manner.

The final dimension is Policies and Resources. This dimension incorporates the politics of school reform that necessitate that Contextual Leaders speak up against the silencing and shared powerlessness that educators and community members have felt often in schools of high poverty. As we learned in our study of high poverty schools, communities of poverty were described differently based on the years that educators had seen students come from poverty. In this dimension, it is important for parents, teachers and the community to understand how policies impact them and what this means for the school and community. The obvious interaction of the teaching and learning culture and the leader’s orientation on this prong of the framework is clear. A leader, who believes that the school and that the teachers, with their leadership can make a difference, will interpret policies in ways that benefit the school and the community. The leader will resist ways to make the school and the community feel like victims. Furthermore, the leader’s orientation will assist the leader in procuring the needed resources to make connections to get the school additional resources. Variables that are important to this dimension are:

  • Knows policies
  • Interprets policies in ways that benefit the school and community
  • Promotes change from the inside out and the outside in
  • Accesses social networks for expertise and resources
  • Builds an spirit of entrepreneurialism in the school
  • Addresses the deficits in resources and seeks to promote wider economic and social development within the community.

In sum, the values that give voice to the needs of the students, teachers, and community and anchor the hope of making changes within a shared and partnership perspective of power result in increased democratization in at-risk schools. To respond to issues of social injustices, partnership power needs to be at the core of how the Contextual Leader creates the culture for change.


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