Instructional leadership in elementary science : how are school leaders positioned to lead in a next generation science standards era?

Kathleen Mary Winn, University of Iowa


Background: Science poses a unique challenge to the elementary curriculum landscape, because traditionally elementary teachers report low levels of self-efficacy in this subject. Instructional leadership in elementary science therefore, becomes important for a successful integration of a new science education agenda. The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) are K-12 science content standards available for adoption by states and school districts in the U.S. Principals are important actors during policy implementation since they are charged with assuming the role of an instructional leader for their teachers in all subject areas.

Purpose: This study gathered self-reported survey data from public elementary principals that pertain to their background and experiences in science, and then relate these data to their levels of self-efficacy and instructional leadership capacity for science. The study answers the following three research questions: (1) What type of science backgrounds do elementary principals have? (2) What indicators predict if elementary principals will engage in instructional leadership behaviors in science? (3) Does self-efficacy mediate the relationship between science background and capacity for instructional leadership in science?

Data Collection and Analysis: A questionnaire was created by combining two existing subscales to measure instructional leadership practices and self-efficacy in science, and also a series of objective questions to address principals’ background experiences and demographic information. Public school elementary principals serving in 13 states that formally adopted the NGSS through legislative action provided the data analyzed in this study (N = 667). The survey data were analyzed quantitatively for descriptive statistics to answer the first research question, inferential statistics through an Ordinary Least Squares (OLS) hierarchal regression analysis to answer the second, and a mediation analysis to answer the third research question.

Findings: The sample data show that 21% of the elementary principals have a formal science degree and 26% have a degree in a STEM field. Most principals have not had recent experience teaching science (75.86%), nor were they every strictly a science teacher (86.66%). The hierarchical regression analysis suggests that there is evidence that both demographic and experiential variables predict instructional leadership practices in science. The analysis also suggests that self-efficacy is a mediating variable for principals’ science teaching experiences related to instructional leadership behaviors.

Conclusions: The data from this research reveal potential (a) leadership development opportunities, (b) training and recruitment needs of school districts, (c) areas in need of attention in principal preparation programs, and (d) directions for policy implementation to leverage principal capacity. The findings provide evidence to assist in identifying ways elementary principals could be better prepared to be instructional leaders for their teachers, especially in those settings where the implementation of the NGSS is underway.