The CALL for Improved Learning

UW‒Madison researchers make the case for distributed leadership

October 23, 2017   |   By Lynn Armitage

Halverson and Kelley coauthored “Mapping Leadership: The Tasks That Matter for Improving Teaching and Learning in Schools.

Halverson and Kelley coauthored “Mapping Leadership: The Tasks That Matter for Improving Teaching and Learning in Schools."

“How can we improve student learning?” In a quest to answer this question, hundreds of schools all over the country—and in Denmark and Japan—are answering the CALL.

Developed at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research, part of UW–Madison’s School of Education, the Comprehensive Assessment of Leadership for Learning is a one-of-a-kind, online survey and automated feedback system that measures leadership practices across an entire school.

What makes CALL so unique is that survey questions are built on a framework of distributed leadership—the idea that all educators within a K-12 school, not just the principal, should contribute to the many leadership tasks of improving student learning.

The concept of sharing leadership tasks has been a welcome revelation to Michael Harris, the former principal of Riverside University, the second largest high school in Milwaukee Public Schools, who administered CALL to his teaching staff a year ago. “CALL feedback revealed that my teachers wanted to take on more leadership roles, which I wholeheartedly embraced, because everyone brings something special to the table” says Harris, now an education leader in Athens, Ga.

By working together on the CALL recommendation to “focus on learning,” Harris and his leadership team implemented a literacy strategy centered on writing and reading. “Because the ACT test has a writing component, we wanted to help kids become proficient in reading comprehension and writing persuasive essays.” After his teaching staff took the CALL assessment again this year, Harris reports that his school showed improvement in schoolwide learning. “I am definitely a fan,” he says.

The CALL survey was created in 2009 by Richard Halverson, a professor of Educational Leadership & Policy Analysis in UW−Madison’s School of Education, and Carolyn Kelley, an ELPA professor and the School of Education senior associate dean for academic programs.

“As leadership researchers, we found plenty of information on whether schools were improving student learning. But there wasn’t information on HOW they were doing it, and we thought there should be a map to show school leaders where they were in the process,” says Halverson.

With a $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, Halverson and Kelley developed and validated the CALL survey, building on prior research, focus groups with Wisconsin educators and a comprehensive literature review on school leadership.

Michael Harris implemented a literacy strategy based on CALL recommendations.

Michael Harris implemented a literacy strategy based on CALL recommendations.

This four-year research project resulted in the identification of five core domains for measuring leadership: a focus on learning (like in the Harris example); monitoring teaching and learning; building nested learning communities; acquiring and allocating resources; and maintaining a safe and effective learning environment.

“Our approach to the design of the CALL assessment was to provide feedback to school leaders at every step of the process so they could immediately improve teaching,” Kelley explains. The survey administrator determines who will take the 40-minute survey, and all responses are anonymous and confidential. “Everything is automated and done online. As soon as the last person has taken the survey, BAM, the administrator gets results and recommendations.”

Halverson adds, “We were very sensitive to the fact that people don’t want to wrestle with an 88-page report. We wanted to give quick, customized information that goes to the heart of what problems the school has. And CALL does exactly that.”

Although the grant ended in 2013, schools wanted to continue using this groundbreaking assessment tool. So Halverson and Kelley collaborated with the Wisconsin Center for Education Products & Services (WCEPS), a non-profit organization that helps UW–Madison market innovative products and services developed at the School of Education. Together, they turned the online survey and feedback system into a commercialized product that now generates about $200,000 a year in revenue.

Mark Blitz, CALL project director at WCEPS, has worked closely with 400 elementary, middle and high schools in more than 10 states—and in Denmark and Japan—to administer the CALL survey, which also has been translated into Danish. Blitz says clients, like Principal Harris, swear by it. “Districts partner with us year after year because it gives them action-oriented data, instead of just outcomes. And that is really unique in the education assessment world.”

One of CALL’s largest clients is the Georgia Leadership Institute for School Improvement (GLISI), which provides professional development and consulting to principals, teachers and superintendents in more than 50 school districts every year throughout Georgia. Leslie Hazle Bussey, GLISI’s interim executive director, has used CALL for leadership development in five schools in rural Carroll County since 2013.

“We selected CALL because it is designed to measure the depth of the distribution of instructional tasks taking place in the school, rather than measuring individual leaders,” says Bussey. She emphasizes that GLISI’s goal is to change culture and practice deep within a school at the teacher level—with support from leaders―not to build super-hero leaders who try to do everything themselves.

Bussey says that one unexpected, but welcome outcome of using CALL to improve leadership and student learning within Carroll County schools has been an increase in classroom peer observations—a new development driven by the teachers themselves. “The most heartening thing is that teachers claim these peer observations are making a big difference for them instructionally,” the leadership expert reports.

While education assessments come and go, Bussey thinks CALL is exceptional—although she admits it was a little too lengthy when GLISI first started using it. “There are lots of crazy, fly-by-night school surveys. However, I trust the research base of CALL. The people behind it, and the rigor and level of research that undergirds the content and design of the instrument are highly credible.”

It is quite a ringing endorsement for the work of Kelley and Halverson, who tell the story of the research behind the CALL survey in their new book, “Mapping Leadership: The Tasks That Matter for Improving Teaching and Learning in Schools.”

Halverson explains the premise: “This book maps the quality of school leadership and tells schools the next stages for improving teaching and learning for their students.”

For the UW‒Madison School of Education researchers, writing this book seemed like a logical extension of more than 20 years of combined research on school effectiveness and leadership that has become the backbone of CALL. “We just had a lot of really good ideas on distributed leadership that cannot be found in any number of books on school leadership, and we were compelled to make this contribution to the body of literature,” says Halverson.

According to the authors, the practices recommended in “Mapping Leadership” are “absolutely cutting-edge” and based on the best existing education research.

Kelley and Halverson hope that “Mapping Leadership” will inspire school leaders to take the CALL survey to find out how their schools rate with student learning. And to ask the all-important question, “How can we, as a team of leaders, do better for our students?”

For more information on CALL and the “Mapping Leadership” book, go to