Education Commentary

Who Should Be Schools’ Instructional Leaders? Professionalism Requires Stronger Teacher Voice

By Linda Darling-Hammond — August 04, 1987 6 min read

The current debate about educational leadership--who should exercise it, and in what way— centers largely on issues of authority and control. But the primary consideration should be what will best serve schools and their students. If the goal is to enhance the quality of teaching, rather than to protect turf or preserve bureaucratic structures, it is clear that teachers, not just principals, must be involved in instructional leadership. Teacher involvement in decision-making and peer review and assistance is necessary to improve instruction, promote standards of professional practice, and ensure school accountability.

The case for such involvement rests on an understanding of the nature of teaching, the nature of effective organizations, and the requirements for a responsible profession- one in which both teachers and educational administrators should see themselves as equal partners. That the case for teacher involvement in school leadership needs to be argued is a sign that it is not a commonplace occurrence. That the arguments for teacher involvement are now being raised is a sign that the limits of the current bureaucratic model of school organization are being recognized and challenged. In its place, reformers argue for a more professional model of organization and accountability.

The bureaucratic model assumes that instructional policies--and, increasingly, practices and outcomes--are determined at the top of the state and district hierarchies, translated into rules and regimens by administrators, and implemented by teachers. In this system, teachers are bureaucratic functionaries; they do not design or evaluate their own work, but merely follow procedures established by their superiors. The tasks of school personnel are defined by their role designations, rather than by their expertise or the demands of the work. Teachers, by that peculiar role designation that accords the highest status in schools to those who work least directly with students, are by definition followers, not leaders.

The prevailing model assumes that teaching is straightforward, semi-skilled work, and that the objects of teaching--the students--are passive actors, who will respond in a given way to a particular, predetermined stimulus (a textbook, curriculum package, or set of teaching methods). Teaching can thus be supervised and evaluated by inspection and occasional advice-giving, since the work is seen as the routine implementation of more or less standardized procedures.

The problem is that effective teaching is not routine, students are not passive, and questions of practice are not simple, predictable, or standardized. Consequently, instructional decisions cannot be formulated on high, then packaged and handed down to teachers. Nor can instructional problems be solved by occasional forays into the classroom by inspectors who monitor performance or dispense advice without intimate knowledge of the classroom context: the subject being taught, the goals of instruction, the stages of development of individual children, and the social structure of the class as a whole. W~ have pushed the current model of educational improvement as far as it can go, and it doesn’t go far enough.

Indeed, the bureaucratic model of organization has reached its limits in other sectors of American work as well. Recognizing the need to improve productivity and the quality of goods and services, many businesses have begun to adopt new forms of organization involving participatory management. Studies of both Japanese and American businesses have highlighted the usefulness of approaches that give workers responsibility for the design and quality of their work.

Likewise, research on effective schools indicates that participatory management by teachers at the school site, based on collaborative planning and collegial problem-solving, produces both learning gains for students and increased teacher satisfaction and retention. Clearly, these schools also feature principals who are effective leaders, and studies show that such principals create conditions in which teacher leadership, peer support and assistance, and participation in decision-making are encouraged.

These findings are further bolstered by research on effective evaluation of teachers-a critical responsibility of instructional leaders. Studies show that teacher involvement in the design and implementation of evaluation systems is crucial to their success. Bureaucratic approaches to evaluation, in which the principal is solely responsible for assessment and assistance, fail to promote either accountability or improvement, because the process is not structured according to the demands of the work. Principals have too little time to effectively supervise all of the teachers in a school; and they cannot have expertise in all of the specialties practiced by the teachers they are supposed to evaluate. As a consequence, evaluation tends to be hurried and pro forma, and the results are seldom used.

In contrast, where teachers are involved in evaluating other teachers, they can extend the time available for the process, bring expertise in particular subjects, and assume responsibility for transmitting standards of practice. Teacher involvement in evaluation helps establish a culture of responsibility and leadership in a school, and enhances the quality of teaching. A RAND Corporation study found that school districts with especially effective evaluation systems had all involved teachers as key actors and decision-makers in reviewing school practices, assessing new teachers, and assisting their peers. And every recent study of the growing number of mentor- teacher programs underscores the usefulness of having teachers help other teachers. Districts that have adopted such approaches have, in essence, begun to establish professional models of instructional leadership and accountability.

In occupations that have adopted a professional model of organization, the first assumption is that, if the work is too complex to be hierarchically prescribed and controlled, it must be structured so that practitioners can make responsible decisions, both individually and collectively. This means rigorous training and careful selection, serious and sustained internships, and ongoing peer review of practice-buttressed by collegial decision-making and consultation. Under such a system, professionals learn from each other, norms are established and transmitted, problems are exposed and tackled, and clients are better served.

When professionals assume responsibility for their own performance, for that of their peers, and for the collective policies of the organization, accountability is heightened, because the standard of individual and collective performance shifts from “compliance” to “effectiveness.” The professional’s primary responsibility is to do whatever is best for the client-not what is prescribed or most expedient-and to continually seek to discover the most responsible and effective course of action. Establishing professional norms of operation is the only way to stop the educational buck-passing that is encouraged, indeed produced, by hierarchical decision-making.

The bureaucratic organization of schooling has produced the situation described by the Carnegie Task Force on Teaching as a Profession as one in which “everyone has the brakes but no one has the motor” to make schools work effectively. Teachers are the motors of educational improvement. They must, along with school principals and other members of the profession, be instructional leaders if schools are to work effectively for all students and if responsible and responsive educational decisions are to be made.