Mathematics Leadership: A Different Equation

By Marilyn Sherman


As part of the Distributed Leadership Study, professor James Spillane and postdoctoral fellow Camille Rutherford survey teacher leaders on where they seek advice about mathematics. PHOTOS BY MARY HANLON

When a new third-grade teacher at a Chicago school had questions about teaching language arts, she perceived that she had many colleagues she could consult. However, when she needed help with a new math textbook, she didn't know where to turn. When a principal at an urban elementary school sought ideas for improving math instruction, he turned to a new textbook series or a new educational specialist — not classroom teachers, as he did for language arts.

These situations are typical of the ways in which leadership in math teaching is a unique equation. Recent research by SESP professor James Spillane and his colleagues has uncovered some distinctive features of mathematics leadership in elementary schools. The interactions that constitute school leadership in mathematics differ markedly from leadership in other subjects, they found. Significantly, schools identify fewer leaders in mathematics than in language arts, and they look more frequently outside the school when it comes to expertise for improving mathematics education.

These conclusions emerged from the Distributed Leadership Study, led by Spillane, a five-year mixed-method study of school leadership in eight Chicago schools. It was funded by grants from the National Science Foundation and Spencer Foundation. Spillane's group observed leadership events such as school improvement meetings, conducted teacher surveys and held in-depth interviews with principals, assistant principals and curriculum coordinators.


Finding Math Leaders
The researchers found unique patterns in mathematics leadership — patterns very different from what they saw in language arts.

To begin with, they found fewer leaders defined for mathematics. In fact, they identified only one-third the formal leadership positions in mathematics that there were in literacy. For example, while many schools have reading specialists, few have math specialists.

Beyond these formal positions, even in informal situations fewer people within a school were involved in leadership for mathematics than for literacy. Usually, these were lead teachers since administrators were less involved in mathematics than in literacy. "Math leaders tend to be teacher leaders," says Spillane, "with administrators playing a more indirect role."

Primarily, leadership for mathematics was seen as being outside the school, the study found. Traditionally, expertise for improving mathematics instruction is seen as "beyond the schoolhouse," while expertise for literacy is seen as "home-grown," Spillane emphasizes. For mathematics expertise, schools are likely to draw on outside education specialists and textbook materials.

It's a different story in language arts. "Most leaders see their own school as the primary source of expertise for leading change in language arts," according to Spillane. Eighty percent of school leaders viewed the internal school community as the main source of expertise for reforming literacy. However, leaders saw external programs as the way to improve mathematics teaching.

"In mathematics, leaders placed much less emphasis on teacher participation in decision-making," says Spillane, and improvements were attributed to external math curricula. As one curriculum coordinator told the researchers about her approach to math, "I turn outside the school for guidance."


Leaders' Views of Math
This difference in locating expertise stems from the different ways school leaders view mathematics and literacy. While both mathematics and reading instruction were priorities for schools, school leaders' thinking about improving mathematics differed from their thinking about improving language arts. Based on extensive interviews, the researchers found that administrators and curriculum specialists viewed language arts instruction as permeating the entire curriculum. Seeing language arts as cross-curricular resulted in a more open, participatory approach. School leaders invited considerable teacher input.

In contrast, these leaders viewed mathematics as highly defined and sequential — a discipline where expertise develops through formal training. Their main concern was adhering to a sequenced curriculum to boost scores on standardized tests. Overall, this view resulted in more reliance on external expertise.


Leadership Networks
To better understand interactions, researchers asked teachers to whom they talked about their work: "Whom do you look to for advice in math?" and "Whom do you look to for advice in language arts?" Then they plotted out those links in connect-the-dot-images called social network analyses.

The diagrams that resulted looked very different for mathematics and language arts. "In language arts the networks were dense and interrelated," says Spillane. "In math, they were fragmented and linear." Quantifying the difference, the researchers described the language arts networks as one-third denser than the mathematics networks.

In other words, more leadership activity existed within the school in language arts than in mathematics. When mathematics leadership did come from within the school, it tended to be less distributed than in language arts, where several people played a part. When school staff members had conversations about teaching reading, many people contributed and shared opinions, but in mathematics a single person typically dominated. "There's more back and forth in language arts," says Spillane. Discussions of how to teach language arts often resulted in as many opinions as there were participants, while in discussions of math a few leaders did most of the talking, with less participation from others.

The content of conversations differed according to subject matter, too. Teaching strategies, student learning, teacher learning — these were some of the subjects often discussed with regard to literacy that weren't usually touched for math. Instead, mathematics discussions tended to focus on classroom materials and lesson plans.


Focus on the Future
Why do these differences exist in leadership practice between mathematics and language arts? How do they affect what goes on in the classroom? Can leadership in mathematics be learned? These questions are at the heart of two new studies by SESP faculty.

"Distributed Leadership for Middle School Mathematics Education: Content Leadership Knowledge in Practice" is funded by the National Science Foundation and led by Spillane with Spyros Konstantopoulos, Miriam Sherin, Steven Fischer and Dean Penelope Peterson. Spillane says that in this study Northwestern researchers hope to learn more about "what math leaders do, how they do it and why they do it" — and how the development of leadership in mathematics can lead to improvements in mathematics education.

A second study, "Assessing the Impact of Principals' Professional Development: An Evaluation of the National Institute for School Leadership," is also headed by Spillane, with colleagues at Vanderbilt University, University of Michigan, University of Wisconsin and University of Pennsylvania. This study focuses on evaluation of a principal development program.

If improving mathematics learning is a central concern for American policymakers and the public, then school leadership is one of the essential ingredients that needs to be addressed. And improving leadership will depend ultimately on a better understanding of the practice of leadership for mathematics instruction.


By Marilyn Sherman