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Blog: Learning from Leadership Networks for Leadership Development

By Ada Ocampo

This Blog highlights social network and policy research studies that identify information sharing gaps in districts and highlight effective leadership program characteristics. 

San Francisco Unified structures itself as a learning organization, specifically through the process of a Results-Oriented Cycle of Inquiry (ROCI) where student outcomes are used to reflect on successes and understand shortfalls. [1] To support each level of a learning organization, collaborative problem-solving is seen as a necessary feature for improvement. Yet, how might a district structure a collaborative network among principals? In this blog, we feature works on leadership networks to help inform this question. The first set of works uses social network analysis to illuminate interaction gaps that could be mitigated through a well-structured collaborative network. The second set describes effective characteristics of recent leadership development efforts within the state of California.


Mapping Social Networks 

Social Network Analysis maps out the patterns and frequency of interactions between individuals within a system. When looking at the exchange of knowledge within a system, Finnigan and Daly (2010) find that sharing occurs mainly among central office administrators and between central office administrators and principals, but exchanges between principals were limited and often unidirectional as opposed to reciprocal. Principals from underperforming schools were also found to be isolated from these information exchanges. [2] Their studies went on to include a measure of trust and found that high levels of tru st lead to more reciprocated interactions. [3]   This implies principals were more likely to support one another in areas of growth when trust was present.


Researchers from the Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis (CEPA) also applied this analytical method to understand principals’ endeavors to seek and locate “advice” for school improvement. [4] The exploratory analysis identifies some individuals as “effective advice targets”—high levels of experience, leadership skills and knowledge. They find that principals sought advice in effective directions; yet, social and geographic factors acted as barriers to streams of communication.



The focal district in one of the Finnigan & Daly (2011) studies acknowledged the isolation of certain site administrators (shown in 2010 as the peripheral nodes with the least connections) as a problem, and over a year worked to create a more connected and cohesive system. [5] The network mapped allowed the district to pinpoint areas for immediate improvement efforts.


California Leadership Development Initiatives


Social Network Analysis provides a unique lens that may inform structures for professional development. Researchers have also analyzed existing leadership development efforts to identify effective characteristics.


The Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education recently looked at a district’s efforts to build leadership capacity among Linked Learning Pathway Principals. The study identifies five essential lessons learned from initial stages. These lessons recognize the value of collaboration among principals for sharing strategies, the need to provide resources and a facilitator who will foster principal-to-principal relationships while focusing on actionable steps and the need for increased two-way communication between central office and site administrators to better identify site-specific needs. [6]


As part of the Getting Down to Facts project, a research initiative to provide California’s policy-makers with comprehensive information, the research partners studied principal development programs across 8 states to identify effective program structures and curriculum. [7] Among the findings, partnering coaches or colleagues who provide guidance in reflection and provide feedback was effective. Additionally, the curriculum provides opportunities to bridge research theory to practice and actively engages the leader through problem-based instruction.


The Social Network analysis shows us that an awareness of the streams of communication among leaders can help build structures to then eliminate the isolation of any group or individual in need of information for improvement. Similarly, the recognition of who these individuals talk to also informs the composition of the groups they may need to be involved in. Past leadership development initiatives reinforce the value of collaboration among leaders to share resources and work together to problem-solve and connect theory to practice. The importance of a facilitator/coach/partner in learning is identified to provide guidance in reflection and actionable steps for improvement as well as a node for a consistent stream of communication to identify unique needs. 



[2] Finnigan, K & Daly, A. (2010). Learning at a System Level: Ties Between Principals of Low-Performing Schools and Central Office Leaders. In A. Daly (Ed.) Social Network Theory and Educational Change. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

[3] Finnigan, K & Daly, A. (2012). Exploring the Space Between: Social Networks, Trust, and Urban School District Leaders. Journal of School Leadership (22), pgs. 493-530.

[4] Rawlings, C.M. & Loeb, S. (2011). Effective Linking in a Principal Advice Network: A Conceptual Model and Exploratory Analysis . Stanford University Center for Education Policy Analysis (CEPA).

[5] Daly, A & Finnigan, K. (2011). The Ebb and Flow of Social Network Ties between District Leaders Under High-Stakes Accountability . American Educational Research Journal. (48)1, pgs. 39-79.

[6] Jaquith, A & Johnston, J. (2015). Professional Learning for Linked Learning Series: A District Linked Learning Principal Network Grows Leadership Capacity. Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE) Practitioner Brief.

[7] Darling-Hammond, L & Orphanos, S. (2007). Leadership Development in California. Getting Down to Facts.