Professional Development

Report: Teacher-Leaders Need More Authority, Organizational Support

By Stephen Sawchuk — October 28, 2014 2 min read
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The idea of “teacher leadership” is one of those curious ones in K-12 education that everyone seems to support, at least in a theoretical sense. But scratch below the surface and there’s not a ton of consensus. Should such teachers be able to formally evaluate other teachers? Should they get paid more? Are these formal positions or informal ones? How are they funded?

Aiming to inject some clarity into the discussion is a new paper that argues that, to truly change school culture, teacher leaders must be given significant authority within schools, including the ability to set agendas for meetings and to evaluate colleages. They should get release time to coach other teachers. And they should be selected based on their ability to act as leaders, not merely because they’re the most senior teachers in the building.

Though teacher-leadership is on the rise in school districts, teacher- leaders too often don’t have the structure and support to be effective at helping schools meet goals such as helping to implement new content standards, concludes the report, which produced by the Aspen Institute, a Washington-based think tank, and Leading Educators, a consulting group that helps districts set up teacher-leadership systems.

The report goes on to give a roadmap for districts, teachers, and others who are considering the idea. Meanwhile, a handful of other resources issued by the groups highlight teacher-leadership programs in Denver, which gives its lead teachers a $5,000 stipend and significant relase time; in Tennessee, where 200 “core coaches” led the charge to implement the Common Core State Standards in that state; and in Chicago’s Pritzger College Prep, which relies on teachers to be grade-level leads.

Here’s a handy chart from the report outlining what effective teacher leadership looks like, compared to what now often passes for teacher leadership.

In other words, doing this right means deep engagement among staff, teachers’ unions, and others to design teacher leaders’ roles and responsibilities strategically. And that may well require everyone to be push their thinking a little bit.

Teachers’ unions, for instance, have traditionally been supportive of the concept of teacher leadership but wary of some of the implications: In a bargaining context, where labor and management’s roles have historically been very clearly demarcated, having teachers evaluate one another can be a bit of a challenge. Coming up with fair ways of identifying teachers for leadership roles is another sticking point, one deeply wrapped up in the teacher-evaluation policy debate, as is allowing for a contract to reflect differentiated pay.

For district leaders, there are cost and administrative concerns. Giving teachers release time means hiring other teachers to cover their classes. If teachers are leading professional development, such as through collaborative teams, then that may require retooling school schedules.

I’d love to hear about some concrete examples from readers where teacher leadership has worked—or hasn’t—in your schools. What structures and supports helped it to be successful, or weakened its impact? Email me directly, or leave a comment for all of us!

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Joyce Foundation provided funding to the Aspen Institute for the report. (Those foundations also provide support for Education Week‘s coverage of college- and career-ready standards, and the teaching profession, respectively.)

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.