Teacher Leadership As A School Improvement Strategy

Our guest author today is David B. Cohen, a National Board Certified high school English teacher in Palo Alto, CA, and the associate director of Accomplished California Teachers (ACT). His blog is at InterACT.

As we settle into 2013, I find myself increasingly optimistic about the future of the teaching profession. There are battles ahead, debates to be had and elections to be contested, but, as Sam Cooke sang, “A change is gonna come."

The change that I’m most excited about is the potential for a shift towards teacher leadership in schools and school systems. I’m not naive enough to believe it will be a linear or rapid shift, but I’m confident in the long-term growth of teacher leadership because it provides a common ground for stakeholders to achieve their goals, because it’s replicable and scalable, and because it’s working already.

Much of my understanding of school improvement comes from my teaching career - now approaching two decades in the classroom, mostly in public high schools. However, until six years ago, I hadn’t seen teachers putting forth a compelling argument about how we might begin to transform our profession. A key transition for me was reading a Teacher Solutions report from the Center for Teaching Quality (CTQ). That 2007 report, Performance-Pay for Teachers: Designing a System that Students Deserve, showed how the concept of performance pay could be modified and improved upon with better definitions of a variety of performance, and differentiated pay based on differentiated professional practice, rather than arbitrary test score targets. I ended up joining the CTQ Teacher Leaders Network the same year, and have had the opportunity ever since to learn from exceptional teachers from around the country.

Both my teaching experience and my leadership networking have informed my work as associate director of Accomplished California Teachers (ACT), where I have a chance to meet teachers from around the state, and leaders from a variety of positions in the education and policy community. In the past few years, and especially recently, I’ve seen teacher leadership rising to the fore in our visions of the future. Union leaders and administrators, school board members and parents, researchers and policy makers are beginning to come together on this idea. “A change is gonna come."

To spur that change, ACT produced a report last year, titled Promoting Quality Teaching: New Approaches to Compensation and Career Pathways. This report followed many hours of conversation with a team of teacher leaders from around the state, plus a review of relevant research and models around the country. We revise the notion of performance pay in ways that reflect the intent of rewarding excellent teachers, but will actually promote better teaching and learning system-wide. Paying closer attention to what teachers really want and need, what research consistently demonstrates, and what has already worked in limited practice, we propose a more robust career ladder or lattice that will strengthen the teaching profession. Effective design of new career pathways would also require improved teacher evaluations, which is why we did an earlier report on that topic, in 2010.

The most concrete proposal in the report is that California should eventually add a third-tier teacher license (where the first tier is the teaching credential, and the second is a permanent status or “tenured” position). Achieving this higher tier would require a certain amount of teaching experience, along with a collection of varied and robust evidence from the classroom – much better than standardized test data – to demonstrate the teacher’s instructional effectiveness and professionalism. National Board Certification or something like it would likely be a component of this process. Once certified, these master teachers might take on a variety of leadership roles in areas such as induction and mentorship, instructional modeling and coaching, peer evaluation, curriculum development, technology integration, parent engagement, and certain administrative roles most directly related to instruction.

Compared to typical performance pay concepts, which have been attempted many times but failed to produce results, our approach shifts the focus away from volatile and ambiguous student test results. Assessment experts generally agree that even applying value-added measurement (VAM) does not make the current batch of standardized tests reliable or valid measures of teaching effectiveness, nor are current state tests instructionally sensitive enough. I’ve seen no indication that “next generation” or Common Core assessments will be validated to measure individual teacher effects, so making the leap to evaluative uses of these assessments would be markedly premature.

Advocates of traditional performance pay often cite the need to reward top teachers whose pay is usually not commensurate with professionals of similar training and years. Our approach shares this thinking, but adds stability by putting higher pay into contracts rather than bonuses, and adds another component that teachers desire as much as higher pay: opportunities to advance in the teaching profession without having to leave it. The pay raise then is not a reward in itself, but a logical component of what is essentially a promotion within teaching.

The team that produced our study included teachers at all stages of their careers. Many of our veteran teachers had extensive experience in various roles and responsibilities added on to their teaching, usually with inadequate stipends and too frequent changes. However, we see evidence that newer teachers are coming into the profession looking for their work to be structured differently. The Center for Teaching Quality has organized the New Millennium Initiative (NMI) in a number of American cities, and the Bay Area NMI produced a report titled Many Ways Up, No Reason to Move Out. These teachers, including some individuals who are also members of the ACT network, focused on the high attrition rate in teaching, and noted that effective teachers with a desire to lead in the profession typically find themselves outside the classroom entirely (e.g., as principals) under our current models. Finding ways to keep teacher leaders connected to classroom practice arguably improves both teaching and leadership.

We also argue that cultivating distributed leadership is the most logical and effective way to support system-wide change. Administrators are stretched thin, and their own experiences and skills vary too much to rely on their ranks alone for instructional leadership. Especially on hot-button, large-scale reforms like teacher evaluation, we’ve seen that oppositional, top-down reform generates conflict and compromises the change, while trust, collaboration, and distributed leadership work. A large-scale, six-year study of educational leadership, published in 2010, reported the following:

The researchers found a strong connection between student achievement and what they call the ‘collective leadership’ of principals, teachers, parents, school administrators and others in making school decisions. Indeed, the report says that high-performing schools have ‘fatter’ decision-making structures, meaning that almost all people associated with such schools have greater influence on decisions than their counterparts in lower-performing schools.
There are working models out there to draw upon. At the state level, New Mexico and Iowa have established a third-tier teacher license. Last year, California’s Educator Excellence Task Force suggested that our state move in that direction as well. At the county level, Riverside County, California, has developed its own Teacher Leadership Certification Academy, to train teachers to be effective leaders of professional development and adult learning. At the district level, San Jose Unified has a new teacher contract which includes opportunities for teachers to advance to leadership positions. Also in California, San Juan Unified and Poway Unified School Districts have been recognized for effective peer evaluation programs, with the added benefit that these systems have improved labor-management relationships. San Mateo Union High School District has put teachers in hybrid roles to lead professional development at every school site, with other teacher leaders given specific areas of focus like English language acquisition and technology integration. And, at the school level, you can take a look at a new book by Kim Farris-Berg and Edward Dirkswager, Trusting Teachers with School Success, to find plenty of examples of good schools around the country that operate with partial or complete teacher autonomy

Pasi Sahlberg has been all over the world and all over social media preaching the importance of trusting teachers as a key element in Finland’s successful school system. Despite what we see dominating the media, there are American examples as well. We have a choice. We can have imposed policies that spawn discord, labor actions, and boycotts, all of which impede real educational improvement. I’m not suggesting we avoid conflict at any cost; from the outside looking in, I think educators are taking the necessary stands against damaging policies in places like Seattle, Los Angeles, New York and Chicago. But it doesn’t have to be this way. A counter-narrative is gaining momentum in the public sphere, and superior models are springing up - especially when we look to teacher leadership as a central strategy in school improvement. “A change is gonna come."

- David B. Cohen


While I am optimistic about the profession and these proposals, there is a huge obstacle to the pay issues. Teachers who have rightfully advanced up the career and pay ladder are more expensive. We presently see districts and schools hiring the cheapest teachers, ones who very well fit the role of test-preppers.