Special Report
Professional Development

Teacher-Leadership Degree Programs Aim to Fill Career Gaps

By Anthony Rebora — October 17, 2012 6 min read
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Four years ago, Donald Chouinard, a veteran English teacher at Fort Kent Community High School in Maine, was promoted to his district’s curriculum-coordinator position. He appreciated the rise in status his move to an administrative job conferred, but he soon felt that something was lacking. “I really, really missed the classroom,” he recalled recently.

The following year Chouinard returned to teaching. But, to continue working toward broader professional goals, he also decided to enroll in a master’s degree program in teacher leadership offered by the University of Southern Maine. The program, offering a professional educator degree, featured courses in advanced teaching practice and included both online and face-to-face components. In addition, Chouinard’s district provided tuition assistance for teachers to pursue advanced degrees.

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“I always wanted to get my master’s. It was on my bucket list,” he said. “This was the perfect program for me.”

By the same token, Chouinard presents a near-perfect example of the type of educator for whom teacher-leadership degree programs are designed. Such programs, observers say, have emerged in recent years in response to an increasing number of teachers who are looking to advance in their careers and expand their instructional knowledge but who also want to stay in the classroom.

“There are more and more educators who come into M.A. programs but don’t want to be administrators,” said Lynne Miller, a professor of educational leadership at the University of Southern Maine and co-author of the 2004 book Teacher Leadership. What they want instead, Miller noted, is “to deepen their practice and extend their influence on other teachers.”

Exactly how many teacher-leadership degree programs currently exist is difficult to determine since no organization tracks them separately from other master’s offerings in educational leadership. But a review of U.S. education schools by Education Week identified more than 60 such programs. Many of them have gained prominence and visibility as the result both of the introduction of online course offerings and the growing interest in career development for teachers. The primarily distance-education-oriented University of Phoenix currently has more than 1,000 students in its teacher-leadership master’s program, which was launched in 2008.

Leading From the Classroom

Teacher-leadership programs generally differ from traditional educational-administration or -leadership master’s programs in focusing more on instructional practice and less on organizational supervision and the business and management of schools. The course offerings in teacher-leadership programs vary from school to school, but tend to emphasize inquiry-based instruction, coaching and mentoring, cultural responsiveness, professional development design, curriculum development, and technological understanding. Most programs also require degree candidates to complete an internship or capstone project involving collaborative work with school leaders or a practice-based research project.

School of education professors and administrators involved in teacher-leadership degree programs say such offerings fill an important need in K-12 education today by giving teachers the capacity to expand their roles and exert greater influence in schools.

“We want to help teachers lead from where they stand,” said Barbara Klocko, an associate professor of education at Central Michigan University, which launched a teacher-leadership master’s program this summer. “The goal is to enrich their understanding of teaching and learning.”

Bernard Badiali, an associate professor of education at Penn State University, said that the teacher-leadership master’s program offered through his institution’s World Campus distance-education school gives teachers a “broader perspective on schools.” It aims to foster a sense of educational “stewardship,” he added, instilling “the idea that [teachers] are responsible for [their] own classrooms and beyond.”

In turn, advocates say, giving teachers structured ways to develop leadership skills can only benefit schools as they deal with an ever-growing list of improvement initiatives and mandates. “There are so many complex things happening in schools right now, from common core to [teacher] evaluation changes,” said Meredith Curley, the dean of the University of Phoenix’s college of education. “For schools to have teacher leaders who can step up to the next level and help with integration and implementation is invaluable.”

By having acquired skills in collaboration, presentation, and research, Badiali said, teachers with leadership credentials can help “raise the collective I.Q. of a school.”

Applicability Questions

Even so, questions persist about the real-world practicality and applicability of teacher-leadership degrees in today’s schools. Many teachers who graduate from teacher-leadership programs become department chairs or grade-level team leaders or move into hybrid positions in which they both teach and take on instructional-leadership responsibilities. But in lots of school systems, experts caution, teacher-leadership positions are still ill-defined, temporary, or nonexistent.

For some educators, enrolling in a teacher-leadership program “can be a waste of time,” said Marguerite Roza, a senior scholar at the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington. “If there’s a known teacher-leadership position in your school,” she said, “the degree might work, but many systems are not set up for it. You have to ask yourself: ‘Does the [district] hiring manager even care that you have that degree?’”

Roza, whose research has been critical of master’s degree-incentive initiatives, added that little is known about whether teacher-leadership degree programs “provide skills that are boosting school performance,” though she allowed that there may be some well-structured schools or districts where that may be the case.

In many cases, Roza suggested, teachers hoping to increase their impact may be better off pursuing advanced degrees in specific content or concentration areas.

Lynne Miller of the University of Southern Maine noted that teacher-leadership programs have optimum impact when they work in partnership with local districts, or when participants at least have the explicit support of their districts. Otherwise, teachers may “experience frustration as they try to play out teacher-leadership skills or roles,” she said.

Miller noted she has particular concerns about online programs without local connections that enroll teachers with “disparate needs and interests” from all around the country.

At the same time, she predicted that teacher-leadership degree programs will continue to attract educators even as states and districts experiment with their own systems for differentiating teachers’ positions and career paths. “If they want to continue learning and deepening their practice, teachers will continue to pursue quality degree programs,” she said.

For his part, Chouinard, who obtained his master’s from the University of Southern Maine last year, has no regrets about his decision. In addition to receiving a $4,000 bonus from his district, he has also become a district curriculum leader, a decisionmaking position that allows him to continue teaching.

But more important, he said, are the knowledge and expertise he gained from his graduate studies. “I have a much deeper knowledge of students and curriculum now,” he said. “I have a bigger toolbox of strategies to reach all our students.”

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Education Week Library Intern Amy Wickner contributed to this report.

Coverage of leadership, expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org.

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