Special Report
Professional Development

Teacher-Leadership Degree Programs Aim to Fill Career Gaps

By Anthony Rebora — October 17, 2012 6 min read

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.

See Also

Read additional stories from our Developing Teacher Leaders package.

“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.”

Related Tags:

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.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Culturally Relevant Pedagogy to Advance Educational Equity
Schools are welcoming students back into buildings for full-time in-person instruction in a few short weeks and now is the perfect time to take a hard look at both our practices and systems to build
Content provided by PowerMyLearning
Classroom Technology Webinar Making Big Technology Decisions: Advice for District Leaders, Principals, and Teachers
Educators at all levels make decisions that can have a huge impact on students. That’s especially true when it comes to the use of technology, which was activated like never before to help students learn
Professional Development Webinar Expand Digital Learning by Expanding Teacher Training
This discussion will examine how things have changed and offer guidance on smart, cost-effective ways to expand digital learning efforts and train teachers to maximize the use of new technologies for learning.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Professional Development Return of the In-Person Edu-Conference: Elementary Principals' Group to Meet in Chicago
Registration for the organization's first in-person conference since the pandemic started is keeping apace with that of previous years.
4 min read
Abstract blurred image of attendees in seminar room or conference hall and social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19. new normal life concept.
Pratchaya/iStock/Getty Images Plus
Professional Development Some Kids Had a 'Choppy' K-12 Experience This Year. ISTE Will Explore Solutions
Big themes at this year's online-only ed-tech conference will include acceleration and finding K-12's way in a new, more virtual world.
2 min read
Image of a student working on a computer from home.
iStock/Getty
Professional Development How to Fix 7 Fatal Flaws in Tech Professional Development
One silver lining of the pandemic is that it forced some districts to rethink their PD priorities and find new ways of training teachers.
8 min read
A team analyses data and tracks progress
Vanessa Solis/Education Week and iStock/Getty Images Plus
Professional Development Opinion How Can Coaches Use a Cycle of Inquiry to Establish Themselves and Help Others?
A cycle of inquiry can both help coaches establish themselves and help those they coach develop areas of improvement.
10 min read
shutterstock 546692113
Shuttestock