As demands on principals’ time ratchet up, districts have added more building-level leadership roles, including assistant principals, teacher-leaders, and instructional coaches.
But in many cases, the positions have been added with little forethought to how those individuals are deployed in schools, their ultimate responsibility for helping teachers improve, and their responsibility for the performance of students taught by the teachers on their teams, according to a new report by Bain & Co., a Boston-based management-consulting firm.
The report, “Transforming Schools: How Distributed Leadership Can Create More High-Performing Schools,” argues that more districts should move to a management structure where responsibilities within schools are more widely shared and focus on developing leadership roles with “end-to-end” responsibility for helping teachers become better at their jobs.
“All too often we’ve added the titles, but we haven’t really effectively changed the dynamic,” said Chris Bierly, the global head of K-12 education practice at Bain & Company and one of the authors of the report.
The analysis explored leadership roles and responsibilities in 12 school systems and charter management organizations and surveyed more than 4,200 teacher-leaders, assistant principals, and principals. The average principal surveyed was responsible for reviewing the performance and development of 37 teachers, in addition to other nonteaching staff—more than seven times the number in fields such as human resources and accounting.
That high case load often leads to overworked principals and assistant principals, and teachers who do not think their schools are great places to work, the study finds. (Only 27 percent of the teachers said they would recommend their schools to peers.) Even in the schools with additional leadership roles, only 22 percent of the teacher-leaders surveyed said they felt responsible for the performance of the teachers on their teams, and 32 percent felt responsible for the performance of those teachers’ students.
Daniel Weisberg, the CEO of TNTP, the New York City-based teacher-training and advocacy organization, called the teacher-leader survey results “staggering.”
“The chance that teacher-leaders are going to have an impact on their colleagues’ practice and on student achievement when they don’t feel responsible for it is zero,” he said. The problem, he said, is not teacher-leaders, but how they are used.
“We are just not being smart about how we are setting these teacher-leaders up for success and how we are deploying them,” he said.
Districts must set clear goals about the positions and what they want accomplished, he said. They should hire based on those goals—for example, hiring teacher-leaders with a record of helping colleagues improve.
The report urges districts to choose a leadership model with some central tenets, but with enough leeway that schools can tweak it based on their needs.
The Denver district went with teacher-leaders, setting up a system of “team leads,” with clear responsibilities, compensation structures, and expectations. Schools had the flexibility to tinker with the model, including deciding how much release time teacher-leaders get to work with other teachers. Feedback from the Denver schools using that approach has been extremely positive, Bierly said. Eighty-nine percent of teachers said their practice had improved, and 85 percent said their “team-lead” was successful at evaluating their practice and coaching them to improve, according to Bierly.
Kimberly Grayson, the principal of Martin Luther King Jr. Early College in Denver, said teachers call the new model “game-changing support.” The school has one teacher-leader for every content area and another in charge of classroom management. They conduct weekly observations,30-minute feedback sessions, and provide teachers with supports they need. The frequency of the observations allows the leadership team to pinpoint struggling teachers early—by the second week of school—and deploy support, she said.
Feedback sessions highlight the positive things teachers are doing and areas where they need to improve. The teacher-leaders help teachers model lesson plans, ask probing questions about how they plan to use the feedback and action steps in class, and ask them to run through the lessons before they are delivered, she said. School culture, teacher-retention, and teacher effectiveness have improved in the three years she has been at the school.
While it’s too soon to know the impact on achievement, teachers are enthusiastic, Bierly said.
When teachers are saying, ‘It is helping me with my practice in very significant ways,’ and ‘I am so glad we went to this model,’ and ‘I would recommend working in my school to a fellow teacher’ at levels that you just don’t see in education—those are all really good signs,” he said.
A version of this article appeared in the January 27, 2016 edition of Education Week as Leadership Hodgepodge Poses Management Challenges