Instructional Leadership: Limitations and Plateaus

Instructional leadership is an absolute necessity for any type of school improvement to occur. That said, it is not the starting point, nor the finish line to drastic and reliable school improvement.

Instructional leadership is limited in what it can do, and in this post, I’m going to share the reason that most school improvement efforts plateau and offer two important ways to bust through the plateau!

But first a simple definition.

What is Instructional Leadership?

At its core, instructional leadership is the ability of school leaders to impact the instructional practices and systems in ways that produce measurable results. Instructional leadership creates expectations and benchmarks for classroom practice, systemic evaluation methods for programs and services, and responds to feedback loops that prompt ongoing school improvements.

Trying to avoid becoming overly technical or referencing the books/research that I should (Grant, Wiggins, DuFour, Marzano, Hattie, etc…) – I just want to offer some practical and real-life instructional leadership examples:

  • When a team leader inspires her team to use the newly purchased AI and VR devices, that’s instructional leadership.
  • When a principal establishes a series of reading and math fluency screeners and creates corresponding support systems for students in and below the 15th percentile, that’s instructional leadership.
  • When a student committee works with curriculum designers to ensure personalization opportunities and real-life connections between content and student aspirations, that’s instructional leadership.

Instructional leadership is the ability of school leaders to impact the instructional practices and systems in ways that produce measurable results. @mafost

Limitations of Instructional Leadership

Making improvements in classroom practice will garner quick gains on various metrics, including standardized tests. However, there’s only such much improvement that a myopic focus on instruction can do. There’s an ROI threshold where results do not justify the effort.

It may seem counterintuitive. After all, instruction is at the core of what we do in schools. Yet it’s true, instructional leadership only can do so much.

Many schools experience this plateau in their improvement efforts.

They work with teachers, PLCs, teams, coaches, specialists, consultants, and then they tweak the curriculum, re-align the standards, unpack the standards (again and again), yet minimal gains result.

When large gains did happen at the outset, often those gains plateau quickly.

To clarify, these instructional improvements will create great results, but they will plateau, and that’s where instructional leadership is limited.

There’s an ROI threshold where results do not justify the effort with instructional leadership. @mafost

Complaints from Principals

Let me give a few anecdotes from principals I know (and who do a great job at getting school improvements).

  • “Our staff room has become a place many of our teachers do not want to go because of negative personalities – would you call those 2-3 teachers out and say there is complaints against them or how would you deal with this?”
  • “Too often my grade school teachers use staff meetings to complain about students. I’d love to use this time for professional development, but I’m not sure where to begin with this.”
  • “I have a staff of about 60 adults. Morale is low. However, teachers do not want to help plan, they feel it is one more thing to do. And when I do figure out something to do for people to have fun or compliment one another, participation is low… my morale is low 😐 Help!!!”

These complaints are commonplace among principals who push the status quo and press for improvements – and have great instructional leadership.

Yet within these complaints lies the essence of the limitations of instructional improvements. Instructional improvements focus on craft and content, not people. People are the starting point. And the endpoint.

Instructional improvements focus on craft and content, not people. People are the starting point. And the end point. @mafost

Instructional Leadership, Why the Plateau?

So, if they have great instructional leadership and have experienced significant school improvements, why then is there a plateau?

The answer is really simple.

Improvement efforts that last do not begin and end with instructional leadership.

Improvement efforts start with people and end with culture.

People and Culture

Everything we do starts with people. Not just students, not just community, but every human in our circle. Their aspirations, their needs, the collective capacity for change, their shared vision – these are crucial in busting through improvement plateaus.

Here’s a piece of great advice from Jimmy Casas:

No educator went into the teaching profession to be average. Those that have succumb to average have simply lost their way. What can we begin doing today to inspire them back to greatness? @casa_jimmy

This is the starting spot. It cannot be skipped or overlooked without quickly finding the limitations and plateaus of instructional leadership.

There is no dichotomy between student-centered vs. teacher-centered. It’s both. And more.

People are not commodities that need to be sold on anything or brided to act. They deserve the respect of involvement, which creates genuine commitment.

Read more>> Buy-In is Cheap: Involvement Creates Lasting Success

Garnering and nurturing commitment is the key. With commitment, improvement efforts will bust quickly through the plateaus, especially when paired with effective instructional leadership at all levels.

Here are a few reminders about the intrinsic value of your people:

  1. Almost all educators who entered the profession did so because they love growth.
  2. Teachers love to see students learn.
  3. Principals love to watch teachers grow.
  4. District and regional leaders love helping people and organizations grow.

Start with people, and you’ll see growth!

Start with people, and end with culture. Those are the bookends to lasting school improvement, without them instructional leadership will only give short-term gains.

Thanks for reading. Be sure to add your thoughts below. What do you do to start with people? How do you shape culture?

I’m offering a free school culture course (for principals only) called: Survey School Culture. Preregistration is now open, check it out for your summer PD.

4 thoughts on “Instructional Leadership: Limitations and Plateaus

  1. Thanks for pointing out the ROI factor with instructional leadership! So many times it feels like we hit brick walls in our school improvement efforts, even when using best practices or things that work well in a friend’s school.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for commenting Erica! I’m glad you appreciate that point…sometimes long-term school improvement is simply about working smarter, not harder. And it’s not even about being smarter – just doing what’s right for people.
      Thanks again.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I like what you said, but I wish you had a few more tips on how to “start with people”. I really relate to the plateau. After 3 years of our scores improving, they stood still last year and I can’t figure out why. I feel like we’re doing everything right, PLCs, common assessment, and great instruction. It must be culture…idk. Thanks for the post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Deana, thanks for leaving a comment. First, congrats on three years of successful school improvement! That’s no small feat. I’m glad you’re looking for more actionable tips on “starting with people” and school culture.

      I’d recommend you sign up for the free course “Surveying School Culture” at

      This course begins May 1st, it’s free, and it will walk you through step-by-step how to begin with people and end up with a great school culture…you’ll also get the free culture surveys with the course. Take a look and see if it’s for you.


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