Teaching Profession

New Roles Tap Expertise of Teachers

By Jeff Archer — May 30, 2001 17 min read
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When Broad Acres Elementary School held an all-staff meeting just before the start of classes last August, almost 20 percent of the faces were new to the building.

To get better acquainted, everyone was asked to say something about himself. Many spoke of their favorite books or how they had spent the summer. But when it came to a 29-year-old educator with the strange new title of “staff-development teacher,” all he said was: “My name is David Chia, and I like chocolate-chip cookies.”

What Mr. Chia could have said was that last year, he was both the district’s teacher of the year and the recipient of a prestigious regional award for teaching. Moreover, in his new position, he would play a lead role in helping to improve instruction throughout the school, which serves a pocket of low-income families in a sprawling suburban county that overall enjoys considerable affluence.

David Chia, a staff-development teacher at Broad Acres Elementary School in Silver Spring, Md., leads a planning meeting with fellow teachers. The staff is under pressure to increase test scores.
—Allison Shelley

But, he said recently, “I didn’t want to say, ‘This is my background; I know what I’m doing.’ With my nature, it was easier to build that up from ground zero.”

His delicate approach also says much about the nature of the teaching profession, which isn’t used to seeing one of its own in a position of authority. Since at least the early 20th century, the prevailing paradigm of school management has been one in which teachers teach, and administrators lead.

In recent years, though, a growing number of districts have begun to blur those lines by giving teachers leadership responsibilities beyond their own classrooms.

Mr. Chia’s district—the 134,000-student Montgomery County, Md., schools outside Washington—chipped away at the old culture this school year by creating the position he now holds. Each of its 189 schools has been assigned a staff-development teacher charged with working full time to raise the overall level of instruction. The district also instituted new job-review procedures, in which master teachers help determine who among their peers is up to snuff, and who doesn’t belong in teaching.

Putting all this into practice hasn’t been easy in a district that ranks among the 25 largest in the country. Supporters of the changes have had to struggle to show that they amount to more than just a power grab or another passing fancy. The ultimate aim is to raise student achievement by forging a lasting framework for better tapping the expertise of classroom teachers.

“The path of least resistance for most school systems is to set up an administrative hierarchy that’s based on the factory model, where you have those who supervise and those who ‘do,’” said Mark Simon, the president of the Montgomery County Education Association, the local teachers’ union and an affiliate of the National Education Association. “But instructional policy really has to be driven by people who are closest to the classroom.”

Looming Trouble

More often than not, observers say, talk of improving educational leadership still boils down to attempts to build a better administrator. Efforts to elevate the roles of classroom teachers, they argue, get short shrift as policymakers, academics, and private funders devote the lion’s share of their attention to updating the skills of principals and superintendents.

“The term ‘leadership’ is still not focused on teaching and learning as the main business of education,” said James A. Kelly, the founding president of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. “The word is still tied to status within a bureaucracy.”

A 1997 report from the National Center for Education Statistics, in fact, showed that fewer than 10 percent of teachers agreed that in their schools, teachers had much influence over the budget, hiring, or staff evaluations.

Josie James, right, is a consulting teacher, which requires her to evaluate colleagues such as math teacher Catherine Ruback.
—Allison Shelley

Supporters of a greater leadership role for teachers point to many reasons: Principals and central-office administrators no longer have the time—or all of the skills needed—to be the one-and-only font of guidance. Instructional expertise also has little chance of spreading among teachers unless some are put into positions of greater authority. And without opportunities to exercise leadership, many of the most skillful and ambitious teachers feel forced to go into administration.

The few school systems that have tackled the issue in a big way tend to be well-known mavericks, mostly in urban areas. In 1987, the Rochester, N.Y., schools inaugurated a multifaceted careers-in-teaching program that created a “lead teacher” position for staff members who would split their time between teaching and assuming various school or districtwide leadership tasks. More recently, the Seattle district adopted a new contract that, among other innovations, gave teachers a say in who gets hired at their schools.

Here in Montgomery County, many local leaders concede that the district hasn’t felt the same urge to experiment. Home to numerous high-tech firms—and a bedroom community for professionals working in neighboring Washington—the county boasts one of the highest per capita incomes in the nation. When the district took part in the Third International Mathematics and Science Study two years ago, its 8th graders ranked second only to those in Singapore in algebra.

But signs of trouble loom just below the surface here. On almost any measure of achievement, a nagging gap persists between the average performance of white students and that of their Hispanic and African- American peers—bad news for a county that’s rapidly becoming more racially and ethnically diverse.

‘As Needed’ Basis

In other words, each year, more of the Montgomery County district looks like Broad Acres Elementary School.

Nestled next to a sprawling complex of three-story brick apartment buildings on the county’s southern edge, Broad Acres contends with a 90 percent poverty rate among its 580 pupils. The high transience of its families means more than a third of the students at the school one year are gone the next. Principal Jody Leleck’s fluency in French and Spanish isn’t enough to keep pace with all the languages spoken in her students’ homes.

“By far, it’s the neediest school in the system,” said Mr. Chia, who was born in Singapore and grew up in Montgomery County.

His job as the school’s staff-development teacher is to do whatever he can to help teachers become more effective. Like a coach, he sometimes trains in a group, and other times works one-on-one with those who seek him out. He carries a black, three-ring binder in which he constantly jots the many requests he gets throughout the day.

Bonnie Cullison and Mark Simon, the leaders of the Montgomery County Education Association, used the teaching contract to negotiate new positions that make the most of teachers’ knowledge and skills.
—Allison Shelley

Mr. Chia’s schedule on a recent day included responding to several queries sent by e-mail, speaking with three teachers about their professional development, and attending meetings on a student book club, summer training for teachers, and the procedures used to prepare for, and carry out, state testing.

“You have to choose wisely what you can do,” he said. “For me, that’s been the biggest growth process.”

Like other staff-development teachers, he’s had to tailor his juggling act to the specific needs at Broad Acres.

Last fall, for instance, Mr. Chia quickly realized that a school serving so many students deemed at risk of academic failure had little hope of improving its test scores unless its teachers were exceptionally well versed in the state’s academic standards. So he launched a series of workshops called “MSPAP Mondays"—named for the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program—to give staff more exposure to the state’s expectations.

Although each staff-development teacher plays the role differently, some common threads appear. During a 20-day training program last summer, district leaders stressed their responsibility in helping teachers design their own professional-development plans—a new feature that fits into Montgomery County’s strategy for improving the quality of its workforce. Staff-development teachers also are expected to help others in their schools become more astute users of educational data.

Having someone like Mr. Chia on Broad Acres’ staff has made a “definite, tangible difference,” said Ms. Leleck, the principal. Not only has it freed her from having to play the dual roles of top manager and top instructional leader, but it has better ensured that all teachers are working toward the same ends.

“He keeps us focused,” said Ms. Leleck, now in her second year at the school. “And in a school system this large and this big, it’s easy to lose that focus.”

The focus on improved instruction, the principal added, is now more crucial than ever. The results of state tests administered last spring recently landed Broad Acres on a list of low-performing schools that Maryland education officials consider candidates for a possible state takeover. Hoping to head off such a drastic move, district leaders have responded with their own intervention.

While the district hasn’t opted to reconstitute the school—a move in which all staff members would have to reapply for their jobs—it has made it clear that those unwilling to put forth extra effort should work elsewhere. As of now, it appears that a third of its staff will leave when school ends next month. Mr. Chia decided to stay and help turn things around.

But he stresses that he’s there to support—not to judge—his colleagues. In establishing the position Mr. Chia now holds, in fact, the district took great pains to emphasize that the new staff members would be teachers, not administrators. Staff-development teachers are paid on the same salary scale as classroom teachers, and they don’t have any input into the job evaluations of those they coach.

As Ms. Leleck put it: “David doesn’t report to me on what’s going on in someone’s room, and that lets him be seen by teachers as being there for them.”

Sitting in Judgment

But some teachers in Montgomery County have, in fact, been empowered to help in policing their own. The district this year launched a “peer assistance and review,” or PAR, system that gives both teachers and administrators a say in who keeps their jobs, and who doesn’t.

The move represents a major break with tradition. In most districts, a common scenario unfolds when teachers aren’t up to standards. The principal writes a series of negative job reviews and seeks to have the teachers fired or transferred. In turn, the teachers’ union comes to their defense by filing a grievance claiming that proper procedures weren’t followed.

The result, critics of the system say, is often a protracted battle that gives struggling teachers no assurance that they’ll get the help they need to improve. Moreover, some argue, having only principals evaluate teachers is like having only hospital administrators evaluate the skills of doctors in surgery, when another surgeon would clearly know better what to look for.

“Frankly, some of us have been out of the classroom for a really long time,” said Elizabeth Arons, the associate superintendent for human resources in Montgomery County. “That doesn’t mean we don’t know anything, but we have not kept up with the internal workings of the classroom.”

But peer review has been a divisive topic in education, where the lines between labor and management have been so boldly drawn, not just by the factory-model hierarchy, but also by traditional union contracts. Some administrators fear that teachers will be too soft when evaluating other teachers. And some teachers worry that having teachers sit in judgment of their peers will ruin the collegiality essential to working toward a common goal.

Even still, the approach has gained an increasing number of converts. Since the Toledo, Ohio, schools first put the concept into practice in 1981, forms of peer review have been adopted in Columbus, Ohio; Minneapolis; and Poway, Calif.

Montgomery County uses its new peer-review system to evaluate all new teachers, as well as veteran teachers whose principals have determined they need improvement. A districtwide PAR panel of six teachers and six administrators makes the final decisions.

The linchpin is the “consulting teacher,” an educator assigned full time to both work with, and evaluate, the teachers in the program. Twenty classroom teachers were picked for the new position this year; the number will grow to 60 when the initiative is fully phased in two years from now. Consulting teachers are to serve for three years and then return to the classroom.

In many ways, they walk a fine line. Their job is to help teachers to improve by offering advice, showing how to conduct lessons, and arranging other help, such as visits to the classrooms of highly skilled educators. On the other hand, the reports and recommendations they make carry considerable weight when the PAR panel ultimately makes its decision.

“It is very difficult for us when we have to recommend nonrenewal,” said consulting teacher Josie James. “Some of these people do try very hard. But what we were told, and our mantra is: ‘Would you want this teacher for your kid?’ And we try to keep that in the forefront of our minds.”

Of the 253 teachers in the program this year, 29 resigned before the PAR panel could pass judgement on them. Another 30 were given a second year to improve their skills, and two had their contracts terminated involuntarily. (In all, the district employs about 9,500 teachers.)

Despite the small number of terminations, supporters of the program maintain that it’s actually tougher on teachers than the old way. In the past, district officials say, fewer than 10 teachers would have been let go due to poor performance in a typical year, whereas the PAR program played some role in weeding out 31 educators.

But, say those who back the new system, the program is aimed at helping people to become better teachers before they have to be fired. Indeed, a recent wave of retirements has meant the district can ill afford to send many of its teachers packing.

“I see the success of the program as represented in the fact that 64 percent of the experienced teachers who went through it were saved,” said Bonnie Cullison, the first vice president of the local teachers’ union. “And 98 percent of the new teachers who went through it were saved, and they feel confident in their skills.”

Even supporters of the new leadership roles for teachers here admit to some hitches.

For one, it isn’t cheap. Creating the staff-development and consulting-teacher positions—and training people to fill them—cost the district $11 million, out of a total budget of $1.3 billion. And that doesn’t include new money set aside to guarantee schools enough substitutes to fill in for the regular classroom teachers when they’re engaged in additional training with their staff-development teachers.

Also, no matter how big, each school gets one staff-development position. The potential problems that poses are compounded at the secondary level, where schools are larger and more departmentalized.

Most high schools have chosen to divide the position among teachers in different subject areas, with each teaching a reduced schedule. While that ensures each staff-development teacher has ample subject-matter expertise, it also makes it harder to maintain the focus that Mr. Chia, for example, can bring to Broad Acres Elementary School.

Perhaps the biggest challenge has been simply getting teachers and administrators to understand what the new positions are all about. Union officials say it took a few months for some consulting teachers to realize that the PAR program was aimed at assisting, not just reviewing, classroom educators.

Mr. Simon, the union president, also maintains that a few staff-development teachers were chosen with little advice from the rest of their schools’ staff. Many principals gathered suggestions from faculty members before making their choice, but each school’s top administrator had the final say. Said Mr. Simon: “I know of one school where the person selected had no credibility with the staff.”

Even staff-development teachers who have won accolades from many of their buildings’ teachers worry that they’re still viewed as administrators. Said Mr. Chia: “There are probably some people in this building who are wary of asking for help because of that perception.”

But Mr. Simon remains optimistic about the new system, especially given the financial investment being made and the level of agreement from both union and district leaders. In fact, he believes the current climate of trust has been essential to making the changes work in what was long, in Mr. Simon’s view, “one of the most top-down bureaucratic systems in the country, because of its size.”

Cooperation Essential

Comparisons with other districts that have attempted similar changes hint at the difference such cooperation can make.

District leaders in San Diego, for instance, recently instituted a position akin to that of the staff-development teacher in Montgomery County—a move that kicked up a storm of protest among many teachers in the 142,000-student California district. Schools wound up losing many of their teachers’ aides to pay for the new positions, which some teachers viewed as a tool for keeping tabs on them instead of as a support, said Marc Knapp, the president of the San Diego Education Association, an affiliate of the NEA.

“In San Diego, the impression coming from the administration is, ‘You’re broken, you’re not very good, and our main goal is to fix you,’ ” Mr. Knapp said.

In contrast, the seeds for the current changes in Montgomery County were planted in 1997. The district negotiated a contract using what is called interest-based bargaining, in which talks are guided by the need to achieve common goals instead of by a series of offers and counteroffers.

The resulting agreement called for a joint effort by union and district officials to craft new procedures on job training and evaluation, which led to the creation of the new leadership positions for teachers.

Union leaders here see those negotiations as so critical to the district’s recent accomplishments that they lobbied this year for state legislation aimed at encouraging other districts to embark on similar efforts. Also heavily backed by the Maryland State Teachers’ Association, the union’s state counterpart, the bill sought to alter the state’s collective bargaining laws, which only recognize labor agreements on salaries, wages, and working conditions.

The proposed measure would have opened up that recognition to include agreements on a wide range of policy issues, such as professional development and student discipline. In fact, the contract Montgomery County settled last year does spell out the new policies on staff development and job evaluations, but the labor law gives the union few legal grounds to object should district leaders break those agreements in the future.

“In the current situation, what it boils down to is that one person can undo all the good work that’s been done before,” said Patricia Foerster, the president of the state union.

But critics argued that the bill threatened to consolidate power over local education policy. Making such decisions at the bargaining table, they said, would limit the voice of parents and business organizations, which don’t participate in negotiations.

“It would have given the unions more input into these topics, but at the expense of other stakeholders,” said Eric Schwartz, the deputy executive director of the Maryland Association of Boards of Education.

The bill passed the state House of Delegates, but never made it to the Senate floor. Maryland teachers’ groups pledge to have it introduced again next year.

Regardless of what happens in the state capital, back at Broad Acres Elementary School, Mr. Chia predicts more districts are going to feel pressed to change the way they think about leadership. The demands for school improvement are too great, and the challenges too complex, he argues, to continue keeping teachers’ expertise locked in their own classrooms.

Mr. Chia said: “We are a business like any other. If we keep doing the same thing, we won’t succeed, because our clientele is changing.”

This two-year special project to examine leadership issues in education is underwritten by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. This week’s installment was also underwritten in part by the Ford Foundation. Read previous installments in the series.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 30, 2001 edition of Education Week as New Roles Tap Expertise of Teachers


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