Leadership and Inclusion: Opportunities for Research

As nations have their borders crossed by technology-enabled communications, goods, services, and people, globalization takes hold and helps to shape all aspects of society, including education (Castells, 2000). In a globalized world where education is offered both at home and abroad—and to both national and international students—one size no longer fits all: standardization in teaching and learning no longer meets the needs of a world where, in a single classroom, multiple cultures and perspectives must successfully interact and achieve common goals (BCTF, 2009).

For many years now, inclusion has been considered a necessary means to ensure the achievement of common goals by students who come together (physically or electronically) and become a community of learners (Sebba & Ainscow, 1996). From an international perspective, inclusion is commonly understood to be “a reform that supports and welcomes diversity among all learners” (McGlynn & London, 2011, p. 154). But there has been a lack of consensus about the definition of inclusion (Florian, 2014), so its implementation is varied and dependent on policies, practices, and curricula; at this juncture, teachers and leaders are at the forefront of inclusion and carry the weight of ensuring that all students are active learners (Foster, 2004). There have been several studies that investigated the relationship between leadership and inclusion; these studies have found that leadership is pivotal to successful inclusion, but also lack empirical evidence for specific possible correlations. These gaps are identified in a brief review of the relevant literature.

The Literature and Its Gaps

In their investigation of five schools in New Zealand that had successfully improved the reading skills of their students, Fletcher, Greenwood, Grimley, and Parkhill (2011) identified some commonalities that seemed to indicate a link between successful reading skills improvement and certain leadership traits. For instance, the teachers were well versed in the processes of literacy and were enthusiastic about improving all of their students’ reading scores. Inclusion seemed to be a key factor, not only in the teachers’ enthusiastic approach to improvement for all students, but was also as teachers and school leaders sought to ensure that students did not “become caught in a spiral of failure” that would in turn cause “disengagement with schooling, lowering of self-esteem and limited long-term educational and life aspirations, and outcomes” (p. 62). In all five schools, the role of leadership (principals) was critical for student success and included the following: leaders actively participated in professional literacy development and brought experts to facilitate the sessions; principals monitored student’s needs and achievement through the use of standardized assessments; leaders fostered a culture of professional development that encouraged collaboration and commitment; in order to enable teachers to work side-by-side with experts in literacy, leaders built a school-wide culture of trust; and principals made clear and widely known that all learners were expected to improve their achievement levels.

The link between leadership and student achievement was also investigated by Gaffney and Faragher (2010), who found that successful Mathematics teaching needed “clear goals and expectations; strategic resourcing; informed and coordinated planning and evaluation of teaching and curriculum; promotion and participation in teacher learning and development; and orderly and supportive policies and organizational structures and processes” (pp. 76-77). All of these items are dependent on leadership, and this type of leadership needed to be knowledgeable and skillful in supporting and promoting higher quality in teaching and learning. The findings seemed to indicate that the environment necessary for student and teacher success also relied on leadership distributed among teacher leaders. These teacher leaders applied four dimensions of leadership: personal, professional, organizational, and relational. These four dimensions were a good fit for inclusion, as each student was encouraged to improve and his or her needs were addressed in an individualized manner.

The studies by Gaffney and Faragher (2010) and Fletcher, Greenwood, Grimley, and Parkhill (2011) had some of their findings confirmed by Leeson, Campbell-Barr, and Ho (2012), who found that leaders were largely responsible for creating and sustaining the conditions necessary for high quality teaching and learning: “effective leadership is now defined in Hong Kong as quality oriented, effective and efficient, responsive, participatory, transparent, equitable and inclusive” (Leeson, Campbell-Barr, & Ho, 2012, pp. 226-227). This inclusiveness seemed to transcend cultural barriers, as Western ideas were transposed to the largely Chinese culture. In Hong Kong, as in England, leaders were encouraged to equip and empower others so that the school could successfully achieve its goals; this distributed leadership model has encountered some resistance, but it is seen as a viable path for school improvement. A study about the cultural norms and beliefs and their impact on distributed leadership would help elucidate the resistance to this type of leadership and quantify its impact on student learning and achievement.

The impact of culture on leadership and student achievement was studied, to a limited extent, by Mullick and Deppeler (2011), who investigated the accountability of schools in Bangladesh. The authors found that while decentralization was understood as a good path for school improvement, the bureaucratic culture of Bangladesh inhibited a true distributed leadership model; instead, decisions were made at the top (Directorate of Primary Education) and communicated to school leaders, who in turn attempted to involve school management committees, Parent Teacher Association members, and the School Level Improvement Plan committee members in the implementation of those decisions. This culturally centralized decision-making is not suitable for successful inclusion, as responsiveness to individual needs may be delayed or overlooked by school or governmental bureaucracy (Helal & Neves, 2010).

The individual attention to students’ needs is at the core of inclusion (Florian, 2014) and has also been investigated in distance learning settings, albeit sometimes indirectly. For example, Wu (2014) sought to better understand the relationship between student satisfaction and student learning styles. This was an important study because many leaders are currently judged on student satisfaction rates as reflected in end of course surveys and general academic satisfaction surveys (Goddard & Miller, 2010). The author found that there was no correlation between student satisfaction and learning styles in an online undergraduate course. While this finding seemed to contradict the literature cited by the author, the generalizability may be limited due to the small number of students who were surveyed. The responses seemed to indicate different needs by individual students and different perceptions about how the school (teachers, course materials, technological infrastructure) was meeting those needs. Similar findings by Philpott, Furey, and Penney (2010) in Canada would point to the need of active leadership in terms of responsiveness to student needs; but this type of responsive leadership also requires additional training in terms of professional development and continuous learning opportunities. A larger, more comprehensive study is needed to clarify and either confirm or contradict the findings of the studies by Wu (2014) and Philpott, Furey, and Penney (2010) so that researchers can extend the findings to more generalizable settings (e.g. undergraduate vs. graduate students; Humanities vs. Science students; etc.).

Language is one major obstacle to student achievement that requires special attention for inclusion. Peters (2014) investigated the role of language in learning and how students perceived that role by conducting a study of an English language course developed specifically for a diverse student population. Using a case study approach, the authors found that students were satisfied with the course, but demonstrated different reactions to the media utilized (e.g. some preferred videos, while others preferred written material, etc.). These findings were consistent with Wu (2014) and also with Gray, Chang, and Kennedy (2010): student satisfaction was not affected by learning styles, but learning styles did seem to affect preferences. Students engaged with what they were presented and seemed to approve of the way the courses were offered and managed; however, they had differing opinions about the media and (in some cases) specific aspects of the course materials, such as the lack of local applicability (Gray, Chang, & Kennedy, 2010; Liu, Liu, Lee, & Magjuka, 2010).

Filling the Gaps

The studies cited above approached the topics of leadership and inclusion from various angles; this multi-pronged perspective allowed for the compilation of a more complete picture of the gaps in current scholarship with regards to inclusion and the role of leadership in facilitating it. The main findings so far may be summarized as follows: first, cultural factors seemed to play an important role in the interplay of leadership and inclusion (Fletcher, Greenwood, Grimley, & Parkhill, 2011; Gaffney and Faragher, 2010; Leeson, Campbell-Barr, & Ho, 2012; Mullick & Deppeler, 2011); and second, students seemed to be satisfied with their learning experience even when their individual needs were not catered to (Gray, Chang, & Kennedy, 2010; Liu, Liu, Lee, & Magjuka, 2010; Peters, 2014; Wu, 2014).

A mixed-methods, global, and long-term longitudinal study could help to fill the gaps identified above. The study would involve a worldwide random sample of students from international schools; the sample must be representative of different cultures to be determined prior to the study. The students’ academic progress—from first grade through graduate school—would be tracked quantitatively using compatible data across all schools. Distributed leadership and its characteristics in each school would also be tracked by using scores of student achievement, teacher surveys, and questionnaires sent periodically to the leadership team at each school. Students would be clustered by cultural traits and not necessarily by geographical location, as transnational education (distance learning, foreign campus-based education, etc.) is expected to grow in coming years (Visser, Visser, & Amirault, 2012); by clustering students by cultural traits and not geographical locations would allow for the role of culture to be investigated on an individual level during the whole study regardless of where the student was located. Quantitative data would be used to investigate the possible correlation between student achievement, satisfaction, field of study, learning styles, and culture; qualitative data would be used to investigate individual student perceptions and preferences in light of cultural traits, and for gaining insights about the quantitative data. This mixed-methods approach would provide a more complete view of whether or not all students were being well served by educational initiatives they were supposedly a part of.

A study of this magnitude would be very expensive and time consuming, but it would be compatible with the latest research priorities published by the Association of Leadership Educators, which identified global and intercultural leadership as its seventh research priority for 2013 through 2018 (Andenoro et al., 2013). As a research priority, funding might be available from interested private institutions or non-governmental organizations. For instance, the Global Partnership for Education may be interested in a study of this scope because it would seem to fit their vision of “a good quality education for all children, everywhere, so they fulfill their potential and contribute to their societies” (About GPE, 2014, para. 2). Other possible sources of funding may include the U.S. Department of Education, UNESCO, the International Baccalaureate, or foreign governments that may have a special interest in investigating leadership, inclusion, and student success. In any case, the importance of this type of study has been established by the gaps in the literature and the need to include every student in appropriate learning opportunities.

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