Teaching Profession

In Tennessee, Will Teacher Leadership Lead to Increased Student Achievement?

By Madeline Will — February 13, 2018 5 min read
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The Tennessee education department is counting on teacher leadership as a driver for increasing student achievement.

That’s according to a new policy brief by Chiefs for Change, a nonprofit group for district and state education chiefs. The report praises Tennessee’s district-based model of teacher leadership with its goals to boost student achievement, increase teacher collaboration, and develop and retain highly effective teachers.

Tennessee has a checkered recent history with policies affecting teachers in the state. A recipient of $500 million from the 2010 federal Race to the Top competition, the Volunteer State rushed through the implementation of a teacher-evaluation system that linked student-achievement data to evaluations. Educators in the state were initially frustrated and overwhelmed at the complex system, which requires most teachers to be observed four times a year—although according to the Tennesseean, the majority of teachers in the state now say they find the evaluations helpful to improving teaching.

Chiefs for Change, which counts Tennessee’s current and former education commissioners, Candice McQueen and Kevin Huffman, respectively, as members, considers this history—and the education department’s goal for having every student be taught by an effective principal—as the catalyst for building a strong teacher leadership system.

The state has a “tight” set of standards for teacher leaders but a “loose” model of teacher leadership—districts in the state can tailor their teacher-leadership models to meet their unique needs. For example, a district might assign its teacher leaders to several different coaching roles, including ones on instruction, data, technology, and curriculum development, depending on what teachers and students need. Those teacher leaders would all be compensated for their extra work.

In the 2017-18 school year, 59 districts were part of Tennesse’s statewide teacher-leader network. There are 146 school districts in the state.

Tennessee’s model “emerges from a really deep understanding that the critical work is happening in districts,” said Michael Magee, the CEO of Chiefs for Change. “The state is setting expectations, but ultimately, the work to meet these expectations happens locally, and the kind of input and feedback that we’ve seen teacher leaders providing when it comes to state policies is potentially even more valuable to the decisionmakers at the district level.”

See also: Best State-Level Practices for Teacher Leadership Outlined in Report

The report notes that Tennessee and local districts are funding much of this work through federal Title II-A funds—money designated for recruiting, preparing, and supporting teachers. However, the future of this money is up in the air. President Donald Trump’s budget proposal and the House funding bill eliminated the $2 billion Title II program, while the Senate appropriations bill preserved it. Congress, which is deliberating on the final 2018 budget deal now, could split the difference. (A separate recent report looked at how each state is using Title II money to support the teaching profession.)

Any significant cuts to Title II, said Magee, “will not only hamstring states, but will really suppress the very innovations that I think Congress was hoping for when they passed [the Every Student Succeeds Act] with broad bipartisan support.” But this teacher-leadership work is a high priority for Tennessee, he said: “I hope it can continue regardless of what action Congress takes.”

Tennessee has also developed a state policy requiring that districts incorporate differentiated pay scales into their salary schedules, which could include more pay for additional responsibilities, financial incentives for positive results on teacher evaluations, or extra compensation for hard-to-staff positions and schools.

While the Chiefs for Change report praises this system as one that supports leadership and attracts and retains effective teachers, the state teachers’ union had fought against the plan, which was a departure from the “step-and-lane” salary grid that rewards years of service and advanced degrees. One teacher complained at the time: “Our schools are only interested in the test scores, and would only reward what they consider noteworthy.”

See also: Teacher Performance Pay Boosts Student Scores (and 5 Other Study Takeaways)

Will all this policy work lead to its desired outcomes? Previous research has found that students whose teachers have a leadership role at school perform significantly better on state tests. And while there hasn’t yet been a conclusive study looking at Tennessee’s teacher-leadership model’s effect on student test scores, the Chiefs for Change brief notes that Tennessee’s student achievement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress has been improving at a faster rate than any other state since 2011.

The state education department has also partnered with Vanderbilt University to evaluate the teacher-leadership network—the first results should be released early this year. Part of that research will compare teacher effectiveness scores from schools and districts with teacher leaders to those who are not formally doing this work.

The Tennessee education department cites evidence that districts offering teacher-leadership and advocacy programs are better able to attract and retain teachers—even when paying less than neighboring districts. The department has also conducted surveys in which teacher leaders say they feel like they have improved their teaching practice.

“Tennessee has determined that teacher leadership and teacher voice in decisions about policy and practice are essential to its school improvement strategies, ... because a policy or a practice is only as good as its implementation,” Magee said.

Teachers, he said, should have a deep understanding of the policy and practice before they’re asked to implement it in their classroom—and they should also buy into the change.

Chiefs for Change had previously released a policy brief outlining what makes an effective teacher-leadership system, and a brief highlighting New Mexico’s teacher-leadership work. In New Mexico, highly effective teachers have the opportunity to be “liasons” between the department and their school or to be on an advisory council for the department.

More Tennessee Initiatives on Teacher Effectiveness and Leadership:

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.