School Leadership and Management

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This paper analyzes a study published in School Leadership & Management examining a proposed link between the level of cognitive processes a principal uses to solve instructional problems and their level of expertise - expert or typical - as a principal (Brenninkmeyer & Spillane, 2008). Practically speaking, the authors aim to pinpoint the cognitive processes used when "principals of varying expertise reason through instructional scenarios (p. 436)," in an effort to determine if such processes can be enhanced through professional development (p. 459).

Research Problem

The authors developed their research problem by building upon two stems of research, one that focused on the school leader's influence on instructional practice and student achievement (Rosenholtz 1989; Liberman, Falk, & Alexander, 1994; Seashore-Louis & Kruse, 1995; Hallinger & Heck, 1996), and another that focused on the importance of problem-solving as an aspect of a principal's job (Hemphill, 1958; Allison, 1996). In connecting these two stems of research, the authors reasoned that if a principal spends the majority of their time solving instructional problems and their cognitive ability to solve these problems has "a tangible effect on the results of the students" then it would be highly beneficial to determine the "underlying mechanics of how principals solve problems (2008, p. 436)."

Based on this reasoning, Brenninkmeyer and Spillane set out to examine the cognitive thought processes of principals of varying levels of expertise as they solve instructional problems (p. 436). After reviewing the research on the topic, the authors developed three hypotheses: 1) Expert and typical principals will use different thought processes as they work through the problem-solving scenarios with expert principals using more advanced cognitive processes; 2) Subject matter scenarios will further reveal differences in expert and typical cognitive processes that would not otherwise arise in the complete dataset; and 3) Expert principals will be more emotionally stable, conscientiousness, and extravert than typical principals (pp. 441-442).

Literature Review

Outside of the aforementioned research that Brenninkmeyer and Spillane relied upon to develop their hypotheses, the empirical evidence on the problem solving processes of principals is thin (p. 436). Prior research on the topic focused primarily on principal reasoning as it related to administrative issues (Letihwood & Stager, 1989; Allison, 1996; Davis & Davis, 2003). Davis and Davis (2003) addressed principal problem-solving by looking at the quick decisions that principals make when confronted with administrative problems. In examining these decisions, Davis and Davis (2003) sought to discuss the tendencies revealed by this data, not the actual thought processes of the principals. While this research stopped far short of the research from the present study, the Davis and Davis study was beneficial to Brenninkmeyer and Spillane because they utilized the Garbage Can Model of organization discussed in the study to structure the scenarios that they presented to the principals (p. 446). The Garbage Can Model of organization holds that "organizations are organized anarchies, [where] goals, problems, alternatives, and solutions are often ill-defined and ambiguous, much like a garbage can (2008, pp. 436-437, as cited in Davis & Davis, 2003).

From there, Brenninkmeyer and Spillane discussed prior research that differentiated between the problem-solving expertise of expert and typical principals. First, the authors looked at research that found experts can be differentiated from novices in a given domain because experts have "a better regulation of [their] thinking process, expert's better organize their memories for easier retrieval and application, and experts find it easier to structure otherwise abstract problems (Glaser & Chi, 1988)." Taking this a step further, Bullock, James, and Jamieson (1997) suggested "problem-solving processes that leaders bring to bear on the problems encountered in practice can be said to differ based on their level of expertise (2008, p. 438)."

The key study on cognitive processed of principals addressed thought processes in solving administrative problems (Leithwood & Stager,1989). In this study, the principals were grouped based on nomination forms (2008, p. 438). Once grouped, they were asked to review six administrative problem scenarios and then chose two to analyze (p. 438). This information was then transcribed and coded to shed light on the thought processes of the principals in working through the problem scenarios (p. 438). Brenninkmeyer and Spillane used this study as a foundation for their own study, even incorporating the codes from Leithwood and Stager (1989) into their own study (p. 440).

Finally, the authors reviewed prior research on principal personalities to understand the importance of personality attributes on the expertise of the principal (p. 441). Hogan, Curphy, and Hogan (1994) reviewed several studies that revealed expert leaders showed higher levels of extraversion, conscientiousness, and emotional stability than typical leaders (p. 441). While the authors cited this research, they went on to explain that they would be pleased if personality attributes were not found to be a significant indicator of leadership ability because it would mean that principals could increase their leadership ability through professional development (p. 441).

Research Design and Data Analysis

Brenninkmeyer and Spillane structured their study using a mixed methods design that addressed their research problem both quantitatively and qualitatively (p. 442). The participants in the study were elementary and middle school principals in an urban setting (p. 442). To limit institutional bias, the schools mirrored each other in their ethnic and socioeconomic makeup (pp. 442-443). This study used a more accurate classification system than the Leithwood and Stager study (1989). Here the system was founded on teacher surveys and empirical evidence highlighting improved leadership and organizational measures in the school over a five-year time period (p. 442). The organizational and leadership measures were generated based on a thorough dissection of measures used in previous studies (p. 442). Further, the authors made a point not to base their principal selection material on student test scores, instead focusing on circumstances related to the principal's presence and actions in the school (pp. 444-445).

Once the evidence was compiled, the authors graphed the data to determine if the school showed improvement over a five-year time span (p. 442). Principals that had a flat or declining performance over this time span were labeled typical and those with an increasing performance over the same time period were labeled expert (p. 442). Student test scores were then used to confirm the selection methods were valid (p. 446). The authors noted how student test scores complete the logical chain linking a principal's organizational and leadership ability to their ability to successfully solve problems which theoretically lead to increased test scores (p. 446).

After putting the principals in two groups - expert and typical - the authors presented them with six scenarios to catalogue their problem solving ability (p. 446). Each scenario was designed to be ill-structured and open-ended to force the principals to first structure the problem before solving the issue (pp. 446-447). Two of the scenarios were general instructional issues, two centered on mathematics issues, and two on literacy issues (p. 448). The procedure to garner the principals' problem-solving process consisted of in person interviews in the principal's office (p. 448). Each interview was audio taped, transcribed, and then categorized based on typical or expert processes discussed in previous research (p. 448). Each process was given a code to systematically catalogue the processes (p. 448). In addition to the codes used in previous studies, Brenninkmeyer and Spillane added five codes to better understand the processes used to solve the instructional scenarios novel to this study (p. 449).


The authors' findings supported previous research on the topic (Leithwood and Stager, 1989; Allison 1996). As previously mentioned, the authors sought to extend the research of studies that focused on problem solving in administrative scenarios to problem solving in instructional scenarios. Brenninkmeyer and Spillane found that the results closely mirrored their first hypothesis - expert principals will use more advanced cognitive processes to solve institutional problems - with two exceptions. The results revealed that expert principals are more likely to delegate, gather data, and plan an approach to solving a problem (p. 451). Typical principals, on the other hand, were more likely to consider the consequences for themselves when solving problems, perceive constraints to solutions, and recount negative anecdotes (p. 452). The authors did find, however, that typical principals were more likely to suggest the use of internal professional development, which stood in contrast to their hypothesis (p. 452). The authors also noted that they expected expert principals to face conflict and establish student goals much more than typical principals, but the data showed this was not the case (p. 451).

The authors also found that there was no evidence of a negative correlation between processes that are typically coupled, i.e., faces conflict verse avoids conflict (p. 454). What does this mean? This has important practical implications in creating professional development for both principals and teachers. Given this finding, professional development aimed at teaching staff members to face conflict must also expressly address how to cease avoiding conflict (p. 455). In other words, the processes are not dependant on one another; they are discrete and must be treated accordingly.

The second hypothesis sought to examine differences in the thought processes of expert and typical principals in different subject matter domains, namely mathematics and literacy. The authors found that expert principals were more likely to follow-up on mathematics solutions (p. 456). According to the authors, this indicates that expert principals may be more aware of the difficulties of improving math curriculum (p. 456). Typical principals, contrarily, let assumptions cloud their judgment when solving mathematics instructional problems (p. 456). The authors attributed this to their perceived lack of control over math curriculum and their inability to make improvements (p. 456). The results for the literacy scenarios were not as profound. The authors found that expert principals told more positive anecdotes than typical principals; however, the research did not indicate any other significant differences (p. 455). This may be due to a perceived lack of control over literacy curriculum by both sets of principals, but further research would need to be conducted to prove.

Finally, the authors found that personality had little bearing on the expertise of the principal, absent a slight indication that expert principals tend to be more extraverted (p. 456). Couple this with the positive correlation found between organizational and leadership measure increases, expert processes, and student success and the conclusion can be drawn that regardless of personality an increase in organizational or leadership skills will eventually lead to an increase in student achievement.


As with any study, this study certainly has limitations as to its methodology, analysis, and the functionality of its conclusions. Speaking to the methodology, the authors relied on teacher surveys distributed over several years as one classification tool to label principals either expert or typical (p. 442; p. 445). The authors noted two limitations with the surveys. First, the source of the instructional leadership in the building may be attributable to a person other than the principal, e.g., the assistant principal, dean, lead teacher, etc. (p. 445). Second, the authors did not collect information on the teachers taking the survey over the time continuum (p. 445). Therefore, a completely different set of teachers may have filled out the surveys in year one or two than in the later years. In both instances, the methodological limitations may have skewed the results of the initial labeling of expert and typical principals.

Speaking to the limitations in the analysis, the authors only coded single instances of expert processes in each instructional scenario (p. 449). As a result, there was no way of knowing the extent to which various expert principals used certain expert processes (p. 450). The authors note that their next study will dive deeper into the precise elements that principals use to solve problems (p. 460). In doing this, they will undoubtedly take into account the intensity of the expert processes used when working through the problems in each scenario. To further increase the accuracy of the data in this future study, the authors will require principal responses be consistent by either specifying the word length or developing a multiple choice system of response (p. 460).

Moving on to the functionality of the conclusions, the authors note that this study failed to find a plethora of significant differences in the thought processes of expert and typical principals (p. 458). Brenninkmeyer and Spillane attribute this to the small sample size of the study (p. 460), the different selection mechanisms used to classify the principals (p. 458), and the fact that one third of the scenarios were solved with local solutions (p. 458). What does this mean? While increasing the sample size is a simple fix, fixing or reducing the presence of error in the other two limitations is more difficult. The steps that the authors took to build upon how previous studies catalogued cognitive processes led to the creation of both limitations.

First, the authors move from using binary variables to catalogue the processes to cataloguing the processes on a continuum, led to some gray areas as to whether a particular principal should be classified as expert or typical (p. 458). Depending on where a principal ended up on the continuum, a principal categorized as typical could have actually been an expert principal or vice-versa depending on where the line of bifurcation was drawn (p. 458). It appears the authors' next study will work to increase the classification data which, in turn, will create a more concrete line of bifurcation.

Second, the authors' use of unstructured and open ended problem scenarios may have given an unfair advantage to principals with a longer tenure in the position (p. 459). Why? Principals with longer tenure in the position have undoubtedly been exposed to more instructional situations requiring them to make a decision. As a result, while the authors intended the scenarios to be unstructured or open ended, these principals may have been able to draw upon a similar situation from their past that permitted them to quickly structure the problem in their minds. The authors call this the ability to draw from a local solution (p. 458). In these instances, the data becomes skewed because it is difficult to differentiate between expert processes and typical processes (p. 459). Again, the authors' aim to address this issue in their next study by looking deeper into the elements the principals use to analyze a problem (p. 460). If the elements can be graphically catalogued then it appears that the authors will be able to differentiate when certain principals rely upon past scenarios and when they are forced to structure the open ended scenarios from scratch.

Finally, the authors discussed the fact that this study highlighted three others areas that need to be studied further. First, the authors unexpectedly found that typical principals encourage teachers and staff to focus on internal professional development (p. 449). Further studies should dive deeper into this issue to determine if this finding is a result of a limitation of this study or if there are empirical reasons for the finding. Second, the authors noted that further research needs to be done to determine exactly how the increase in a principal's cognitive problem-solving skills translates into an increase in student achievement (p. 459). Finally, this study was novel in that it attempted to address the different ways a principal approaches instructional problems in mathematics and literacy (2008). Indeed, the authors found differences - expert principals followed up on solutions in scenarios involving mathematics far more than they did in scenarios involving literacy (p. 456). Now, future research needs to further examine these differences, in an effort to determine why they exist and how professional development can approach problems in each domain differently.

Implications for Practice

Aspiring and novice principals should take note of the implications of this study. First, the data revealed that significant differences exist in the cognitive thought processes of expert and typical principals (p. 459). Second, the date showed a consistent link between expert thought processes and organizational and leadership measures highlighting the impact an expert principal can have on school and student success (p. 459). Third, the authors found that principal expertise was not attributable to personality traits (p. 458). Based on these findings, novice principals of all personality types should focus on developing their cognitive problem-solving skills, particularly earlier in their careers, to put them in a position to be more successful as a principal. Armed with this knowledge, the question becomes, what exactly can novice principals do to better their problem-solving skills in an effort to increase school and student success?

The authors quantitatively show that expert principals rely on gathered data far more than typical principals (p. 459), they make a point to follow up on mathematic solutions (p. 459), and they delegate with increased regularity (p. 451). Further, the authors found that typical principals tend to tell more negative anecdotes that dwell on previous failures (p. 459). Taken together, novice principals must work to incorporate data into their decision making process and learn strategies for consistently following up on solutions. In the process of making these improvements to increase their effective problem-solving ability, novice principals must make a conscientious effort to leave their negative anecdotes or stories of failure at home. The expert principal, relying on their own past successes, focuses on positive anecdotes when communicating to staff (p. 455). While the novice principal may not be able to rely on their own successes, they can nonetheless communicate success stories learned from talking with others or reading peer related journals. As the old adage goes, don't focus on the problem focus on the solution.

Novice principals can also use the results of this study when developing professional development opportunities for their staff. Why? This study looked at cognitive processes when solving instructional problems. Teachers deal with a litany of instructional problems on a daily basis. Therefore, it can be reasoned that professional development aimed at increasing a teacher's cognitive processes will have a large impact on how they work through instructional issues in the classroom on a daily basis. This will have an exponentially larger impact on student achievement than just focusing on increasing the principal's ability to work through such problems. At this time the exact processes that expert principals use to solve instructional issues is unknown, but some of the data can be used - particularly in the subject area domains - to create the professional development opportunities to help staff. The study indicated that expert principals follow up with increased regularity in mathematical situations. Based on this finding, a novice principal could create a professional development opportunity that centers on ways to follow up effectively with students as they work through their own math problems. Further, the data showed that both sets of principals displayed a lack of perceived control over literacy issues. If the principals display a perceived lack of control over literacy issues, one can reason that a number of teachers, across all disciplines, feel the same way. To combat this perceived lack of control, a professional development seminar may need to be created to help the staff as a whole develop their problem-solving ability in the literacy domain.