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Leveraging Teacher Leadership
October 10, 2013 | Volume 9 | Issue 1
Table of Contents
Teacher Leadership in an Era of Change
Is it time to reshape teacher leadership in the United States? Recent trends seem to have battered the teaching profession and reduced teachers' ability to exercise autonomy. The nationwide standardized testing movement that went into hyperdrive with the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2002 has, in many educators' opinions, diminished the value placed on teachers' professional judgment and pressured teachers to narrow their role to prepare their students to pass the tests. Increasingly, teacher evaluations tied to student test scores also have contributed to teacher demoralization. Spurred in part by Race to the Top's funding policy, today, at least 30 states and the District of Columbia incorporate test-based measures of student growth in teacher evaluations (National Council on Teacher Quality, 2012). This despite the fact that testing experts question whether even the most sophisticated test score data are appropriate for professional decisions and warn that these evaluation systems may restrict teacher autonomy and collaboration and lead to teaching to the test (Baker et al., 2010).
How Can Teachers Respond?
Many teachers are responding to the forces whittling away at their professionalism with renewed efforts to assert their leadership and reshape the profession. And as more and more teachers demand recognition of their proper role as education professionals, schools are developing deeper, more meaningful forms of teacher leadership.
There is little doubt that students benefit when teachers have the opportunity to take on leadership roles. A six-year study commissioned by the Wallace Foundation found that teachers and other stakeholders in higher-achieving schools have greater decision-making influence than their counterparts in lower-achieving schools (Louis, Leithwood, Wahlstrom, & Anderson, 2010). Teachers at these schools benefit from a professional community based on shared instructional values, a common focus on student learning, and collaboration in the development of curriculum and instruction. These elements of collective leadership are linked with both improved instruction and increased student achievement. The authors conclude that these benefits most likely result from the greater access these teachers have to the "collective knowledge and wisdom embedded within their communities."
In Oakland, Calif., teachers are seeking a more formal way to tap into this collective knowledge and wisdom. At the Mills Teacher Scholars program, teacher leaders engage in deep, open-ended professional inquiry. In the program's 2011–12 evaluation conducted by WestEd, 75 percent of its teacher scholars reported that their work led them to "gain new understandings about why students are not successful and use that understanding to create a plan to support their learning" (Ringstaff et al., 2012, p. 10).
Here are some additional examples of evolving teacher leadership models.
A recent Aspen Institute report cautions that U.S. schools have not fully tackled the issue of providing time and resources for teacher leadership work. U.S. teachers already spend a greater share of their workday interacting with students (80 percent) than teachers do in other industrialized countries (60 percent). Layering leadership responsibilities on top of full-time teacher loads, particularly in a time of key instructional shifts, would only burden teacher leaders and limit their effectiveness (Curtis, 2013).
One way to ensure that teachers have the time for both effective leadership and classroom teaching is to develop hybrid roles. The MetLife Survey of the American Teacher (2012) found that 51 percent of teachers are at least somewhat interested in roles that combine classroom teaching with other leadership roles or responsibilities.
Perhaps the ultimate example of teacher leadership is the fully teacher-led school. Currently, more than 50 public schools across the nation are governed by groups of teachers, with more in the works. At the teacher-led Reiche Community School in Portland, Maine, two teachers share the highest leadership role in the school without giving up their connection to the classroom. Kevin Brewster is a kindergarten teacher in the morning and the acting school leader in the afternoon, a role he shares with colleague Chris Keegan serves as the acting school leader in the morning and a reading specialist each afternoon. Trust is abundant in teacher-led schools, where collaboration and a commitment to collegiality are often central to school culture. Reiche is the first such teacher-led school in Maine, where it has inspired state legislators to propose a bill that would develop a grant program to establish a teacher-led school model.
Teacher-led schools are often praised as innovative and focused on deep student learning. The Minnesota New Country School (MNCS), a rural school that opened in 1994, doesn't have traditional classrooms. Instead, students spend much of their day in the school atrium, a large, open area that includes all staff and student desks and a performing arts stage. Teachers are committed not only to teaching the standards, but also to fully engaging each student based on his or her individual interests and passions, something they can do in the school's recording studio, art studio, wood shop, metal shop, science lab, ceramics workshop, media center, and greenhouse. MNCS has been praised not only for its shrinking achievement gaps and rising college acceptance among its seniors, but also for the deep effect of project-based learning on its graduates (U.S. Department of Education, 2006).
Career Ladder Programs
Another form of teacher leadership is facilitated by career-ladder programs. The District of Columbia is the first urban public school system to implement a comprehensive teacher career ladder. As teachers move up the five stages of the ladder (on the basis of their annual evaluations), they receive increased compensation and are eligible to apply for leadership opportunities, such as writing curriculum, mentoring and recruiting new teachers, and providing input on policy and leadership related to the Common Core State Standards.
Ensuring that every student graduates from high school ready for college, career, and citizenship is a laudable goal. But this high goal means that education will have to find new ways of operating—which makes this the perfect time for teachers to reexamine their practice, reclaim their professionalism, and reassert their leadership role. But this will only happen if teachers are also provided with professional development; adequate opportunities to collaborate and connect professionally; and the time, autonomy, and resources to succeed.
Baker, E. L., Barton, P. E., Darling-Hammond, L., Haertel, E., Ladd, H. F., Linn, R. L., Ravitch, D., et al. (2010). Problems with the use of student test scores to evaluate teachers. Washington, DC: Economic Policy Institute.
Curtis, R. (2013). Finding a new way: Leveraging teacher leadership to meet unprecedented demands. Washington, DC: Aspen Institute.
Louis, K. S., Leithwood, K., Wahlstrom, K. L., Anderson, S. E. (2010). Investigating the links to improved student learning: Final report of research findings. St. Paul, MN: University of Minnesota, Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement. Retrieved from http://conservancy.umn.edu/bitstream/140885/1/Learning-from-Leadership_Final-Research-Report_July-2010.pdf
MetLife. (2012). The MetLife survey of the American teacher: Challenges for school leadership. Retrieved from https://www.metlife.com/assets/cao/foundation/MetLife-Teacher-Survey-2012.pdf
National Council on Teacher Quality. (2012). State of the states 2012: Teacher effectiveness policies. Retrieved from http://www.nctq.org/dmsView/State_of_the_States_2012_Teacher_Effectiveness_Policies_NCTQ_Report
Ringstaff, C., Yumol, D., El Sayed, R. (2012). Mills teacher scholars program evaluation. San Francisco: WestEd.
U.S. Department of Education. (2006). Charter high schools: Closing the achievement gap. Innovations in education. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education; and San Francisco: WestEd. Retrieved from https://www2.ed.gov/admins/comm/choice/charterhs/report.pdf
Christy Guilfoyle is a freelance education writer.
ASCD Express, Vol. 9, No. 1. Copyright 2013 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit www.ascd.org/ascdexpress.
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