School & District Management

State Teams See Mixed Progress on Teacher-Leadership Initiatives

By Ross Brenneman — March 29, 2016 | Corrected: April 06, 2016 9 min read
Members of Arizona's delegation to the state-level Teach to Lead summit hash out ideas for plans to improve teacher leadership at a conference in Tysons Corner, Va.

Corrected: An earlier version of this story did not include Mattituck, N.Y., teacher Amanda Barney’s first name and position.

With rain cascading outside, groups of educators and administrators from seven states gathered in a hotel conference room in Tyson’s Corner, Va., last May to discuss teacher leadership. If everything went right, they would leave with plans to foster the concept on a statewide scale.

The meeting in the Washington suburb fell under the auspices of Teach to Lead, the then-fledgling effort of the U.S. Department of Education and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards that has aspired to develop and support the roles of teacher-leaders in districts across the country.

While Teach to Lead had thus far focused on district-level plans, its organizers recognized a flaw in that model: With states having major authority over education policy, teachers needed to find ways to be heard at that level as well.

Making Plans

But if the state groups walked into the meeting with high hopes, their progress toward their goals since then has been mixed or modest at best, demonstrating the difficulty in gaining policy traction around ideas to give teachers more influence in school systems.

The seven states with representatives at the Virginia gathering were Arizona, Connecticut, Kentucky, Maine, New York, North Carolina, and Washington. Each state had, through its respective education department, brought together a group of educators to work on teacher-leadership schemes. While the plans each state brought had already been in progress, the meeting represented an opportunity for the teams to collaborate with each other, drawing on the expertise of teachers, administrators, and policy experts.

The term “teacher leadership” is often vaguely defined, but most of the state teams had highly specific ideas in mind. New York’s representatives, for instance, were looking to refine its career-ladder system for teachers, which would be included in the state’s federally mandated teacher-equity plan. North Carolina’s team wanted to develop a professional-advancement continuum that matched various kinds of classroom roles to that state’s established teacher-leadership standards.

Many of the educators chosen had some familiarity with the Teach to Lead initiative, having attended one of the three regional conferences hosted by the federal Department of Education earlier that winter. As devised at those meetings, the Teach to Lead developmental scheme involves outlining a plan, called a “logic model,” and receiving multiple rounds of feedback from outside experts—"critical friends"—and other attendees.

At the Virginia meeting, the state teams were clearly starting on different footing. While Connecticut’s group seemed to have a clear process in mind, Arizona’s delegation became mired in political concerns, with participants wondering how the plans they devised would be received by varied interest groups back home. The state group’s goal was to develop, implement, and support teacher leadership as a means to attract teachers, which has been a challenge for the state.

During one part of the summit, each participant received a sticky pad with which to write notes of advice and encouragement on other states’ logic models. At the end of the conference, groups came away with a host of suggestions for researchers to contact, teachers to consult, and affirmations of good steps taken so far.

Tami Fitzgerald, then a Teaching Ambassador Fellow in the Education Department, highlighted the main challenge facing the attendees as they headed back to their jobs.

“One of the toughest things is bringing a group together, getting something started, and then making sure it doesn’t get lost in the shuffle,” she said.

School System Challenges

Since the May gathering in Tyson’s Corner, the Teach to Lead itself initiative has notched several organizational successes. The educational leadership group ASCD signed on as another full partner, bringing considerable tactical and financial support, and 120 other organizations now sponsor the program, providing expertise and monetary support. Six cities have hosted regional Teach to Lead summits, with three more planned. About 700 educators have attended those conferences. Teach to Lead now also offers a guide for how educators can organize their own local events instead of venturing to the larger, official ones.

But for the seven state-level teams, progress has been more measured.

The major problem can be chalked up to what Fitzgerald’s said about the toll of day-to-day challenges in school systems.

“It is hard to do leadership activities outside of school [when], for teachers, that is where so much of our energy goes,” said Robert Hallock, a member of the Washington state team and a high school history teacher in the Bellevue district.

Washington’s team had mulled a fellowship for teachers that included a semester of release time to do research, but the idea never gained much ground after communication fell apart this fall.

Arizona’s team, meanwhile, had to face the realities of a heated political climate. The state board of education has been locked in a power struggle with state schools Superintendent Diane Douglas, a Republican. The state was struggling with a high teacher-attrition rate. And a legislative change to the education funding formula meant dozens of districts stood to lose money during the 2016-17 school year.

Communication Breakdowns

Jonathan Parker teaches in one such district, Glendale Union High School, and had served on the state’s Teach to Lead team. He said that while the summit had been affirming, he’s heard nothing from the group since the meeting.

Many of the goals of the Arizona team were absorbed into a pre-existing state task force—dubbed the Educator Retention and Recruitment Task Force—but despite having 49 members, that group included only four of the nine people Arizona sent to the Teach to Lead summit.

The state’s department of education has continued to press forward on several of the goals outlined by the state’s Teach to Lead team, including working to increase the number of national-board-certified teachers and crafting better training for principals. But more pressing challenges have intruded on some of that work, including a campaign to pass Proposition 123, a May ballot proposal to increase school funding.

“It’s hard to implement visions when you’re fighting day to day,” Parker said.

Kathy Wiebke, the director of the Arizona K-12 Center, a state-funded PD group run out of Northern Arizona University, said she’s not sure what has caused Arizona’s team to fall short.

“I think people right now are dealing with much bigger issues. Right or wrong, I think attentions are elsewhere right now.”

Some of the other state groups have made limited progress in advancing the cause of teacher leadership as they see it.

Maine’s group had committed to launching a clearinghouse of teacher-leadership resources, including ideas for expanding teacher influence in schools, research, and contacts. Jennifer Dorman, the 2015 Maine teacher of the year, said the team has met monthly in one form or another since July and still plans to open the clearinghouse this summer.

Katrina Boone, a high school English teacher in Shelby County, Ky., said her state quickly created eight hybrid roles the month after the summit. Teachers in those roles teach in the morning and have release time in the afternoon to work on specialized projects. The Teach to Lead group took a hiatus after returning from Virginia, but has resumed regularly scheduled meetings since February.

New York’s delegation doubled down on its Teach to Lead goal, sending representatives to a regional summit in the District of Columbia to further refine the career-pathway model it had developed at the state-level meeting. The team presented the model to the state’s board of regents the following month and continues to refine it through discussions with team members. A spokesman for the state education department said that work has become a “key lever” in the state’s teacher-equity plan.

Amanda Barney, a high school English teacher in Mattituck, N.Y., who also helps deliver PD to teachers, said that whether or not the pathway framework spreads, the summit experiences have provided her with resources that she’s used with her school’s teachers, who are now well versed in logic models.

“I have projects and plans that I work on with administration and in tandem with my colleagues,” Barney said.

The Connecticut team used the feedback it got from the Virginia meeting to design its own teacher-leadership summit, finalize plans for creating a teacher-leadership professional continuum, and design methods to get information about what kinds of teacher-leadership activities were already happening in the state’s district. Christopher Todd, the state education department’s teacher-in-residence, said via email that the state plans to launch its continuum (called the CT Educator Network) this spring, and has scheduled focus groups that will conduct case studies around teacher-leadership programs.

And in North Carolina, the Teach to Lead group has been working on finalizing its continuum of teacher leadership, matching new educator roles to previously enacted state standards for teacher leadership.

Despite the progress these states have made, however, roadblocks remain. Robert Sox, a professional-development leader in the North Carolina education department, said a lack of state funding for professional development makes it harder to train teachers in ways that support teacher advancement. Todd cited similar concerns around Connecticut’s state funding.

The teacher-leadership teams will also face pressure to show how their efforts are tied to student-learning gains.

“That’s really the unicorn we’re hoping for: Direct evidence that teacher leadership can produce student learning outcomes,” Boone said.

Fitzgerald, who works on Teach to Lead for the national board, said she hopes states understand that this relatively new work will require some patience.

“Teacher leadership has not been studied in a manner yet that tells us that we can definitely walk out there and say, here are the results you’re going to get,” she said.

Looking for Affirmation

The national board kicked its third annual Teaching & Learning Conference in Washington on March 11, two years after then-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced the birth of Teach to Lead.

In a narrow basement conference room, about two dozen educators gathered to hear Fitzgerald and other educators discuss success stories from past Teach to Lead regional summits.

Asked to reflect on the mixed progress of the state-level work, Fitzgerald said in an interview that Teach to Lead had been less diligent about pressing that work than they had district-level ideas.

“We’re in a spot where we’re trying to figure out, how do we take the work we’ve done but help it to grow larger? Because we just aren’t big enough to touch and influence all of it,” she said. “It’s never going to get big enough if we have to control and touch every piece.”

But whether or not states embrace teacher-leadership plans, individual teachers are still interested in the concept. Gretchen Sumbrum, a middle school science teacher in Prince George’s County, Md., came out of the panel discussion feeling affirmed.

“I like the idea of bringing more teachers together and not being afraid that you can say something,” she said. “And that if you need help, knowing who’s there to support you, I think that’s a great thing.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 30, 2016 edition of Education Week as ‘Teach to Lead’ Projects Face Uphill Climb at State Level

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