School & District Management

Students Fare Better When Teachers Have a Say, Study Finds

By Madeline Will — November 01, 2017 5 min read
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Students who go to schools where their teachers have a leadership role in decisionmaking perform significantly better on state tests, a new study finds.

But some of the leadership elements that are most related to student achievement are the ones that are least often implemented in schools.

That’s according to a new analysis of data from the New Teacher Center’s Teaching, Empowering, Leading, and Learning survey, which asks questions about teaching, learning, and working conditions in schools. Richard Ingersoll, a professor of education and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and the report’s lead author, studied survey responses from 2011 to 2015, which included data from a total of nearly 1 million teachers from more than 25,000 schools in 16 states.

He looked at two aspects of leadership: Do school leaders have an instructional focus, in the sense that they place teaching and learning at the center of their decisionmaking? And are teachers included in that decisionmaking beyond the classroom?

Schools with the highest levels of instructional and teacher leadership rank at least 10 percentile points higher in math and English/language arts proficiency on state tests, compared with those at the lowest levels—even after controlling for factors of school poverty, size, and location.

This is the first large-scale study that has linked teacher leadership to student-test scores, Ingersoll said. While the study shows a correlation, not a causation, it echoes what teacher-empowerment advocates have long said: Teachers are closest to students and know what students need to improve.

“It’s not a surprise in the viewpoint of professions,” Ingersoll said. “The ideal, the theory behind professions—medicine, academia, dentistry—[is that] these are experts; you don’t micromanage them, you give them a lot of voice in what they do, ... and then you hold them accountable. You do both.”

Areas for Improvement

However, not all elements of leadership are equal when it comes to increasing student achievement. Ingersoll found an imbalance between what elements of leadership correlate to increased student achievement and what schools are actually doing.

Overall, school leaders are more likely to focus on instructional standards, teacher accountability, evaluations, and performance more than on giving teachers decisionmaking input. In less than half the schools did teachers on average report feeling comfortable raising issues and concerns important to them.

While holding teachers to high instructional standards is strongly linked to better student achievement, so are aspects of instructional leadership that give teachers more authority. Having an effective school improvement team made up of both administrators and teachers and fostering a shared vision for the school both strongly relate to higher achievement.

For instance, holding teachers to high standards and having an effective school improvement team correspond respectively with 21 percentile-point and 14 percentile-point differences in school math proficiency. Having consistent teacher evaluations links to an 11 percentile-point difference in math proficiency.

In practice, though, teachers report having a substantial role in decisionmaking when it comes to classroom instruction, teaching techniques, and student grading, and less often with schoolwide decisions, like setting student-behavior policies, engaging in school improvement planning, and determining the content of professional-development programs.

But it turns out that two of the teacher-leadership areas that have the strongest relationship to student achievement are related to schoolwide policy: being involved in school improvement planning and establishing student-conduct policies.

When teachers have a large role in school improvement planning, their schools rank more than 20 percentile points higher in ELA than schools where teachers have a small role in planning. The role of teachers in setting student-discipline procedures is associated with an 11 percentile-point difference in that school’s math proficiency ranking. Teacher voice in student discipline decisions has more of an effect on academic success than teacher control over issues more tied to instruction, the study found.

That’s an area that needs more research, Ingersoll said. But he speculated that when teachers are enforcers of rules made by others—and they might not agree with—it may erode their relationship with students. When teachers have discretion and authority, they can tailor discipline to individual students, he said.

“I think it’s [better when] teachers have a voice in the culture of the place and some sense of ownership,” said Ingersoll. “Behavior and discipline stuff—that’s huge.”

The study also found that educators in high-poverty schools report lower levels of both instructional and teacher leadership. For example, teachers in just 8.5 percent of high-poverty schools say they have a role in choosing new teachers—compared with 18 percent of those in low-poverty schools. And educators in only 38 percent of high-poverty schools say there was an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect, while that is true in 50 percent of more-affluent schools.

Trusting Teachers

For school leaders, incorporating teacher leadership might require a shift in thinking.

“I think every leader naturally micromanages things, and then you realize that a successful school doesn’t operate like that. You need to put trust in teachers,” said Magdalen Neyra, the principal of the North Bronx School of Empowerment in New York. “As we built the capacity for teacher leadership, I’ve been able to slowly release things.”

For example, at Neyra’s school, teacher-leaders have the authority to decide what professional learning teachers in the school need. (That only happens in about 12 percent of schools, according to Ingersoll’s study.)

Ingersoll’s report was supported through a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, which also provides financial support to Education Week for coverage of learning through innovative school designs. Education Week retains sole editorial control.

A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 2017 edition of Education Week as Study: When Teachers Have a Say in Schools, Students Score Higher

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