Teaching Profession

Teacher Leadership Is Linked to Higher Student Test Scores in New Study

By Madeline Will — October 26, 2017 7 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 responses from 2011 to 2015, which included data from 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 both math and English/language arts on state tests, compared to schools with the lowest levels—even after controlling for factors like 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 backs up what teacher-empowerment advocates have said for years: Teachers are closest to students, so they 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

But 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 high instructional standards, teacher accountability, evaluations, and performance than on giving teachers voice and input into decisionmaking. In less than half of the schools surveyed did teachers feel comfortable raising issues and concerns that are important to them.

Yet while holding teachers to high instructional standards is strongly related to higher student achievement, so are elements of instructional leadership that give teachers more authority. Having an effective school improvement team composed of both administrators and teachers, and fostering a shared vision for the school, are both strongly related to higher achievement.

For instance, holding teachers to high standards and having an effective school improvement team correspond with 21 percentile-point and 14 percentile-point differences in schools’ math proficiency, respectively. Having consistent teacher evaluations is associated with about a 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 the planning. And the role of teachers in establishing student-discipline procedures is associated with a 11 percentile-point difference in that school’s ranking in math proficiency. Teacher voice in student behavioral and discipline decisions has more of an effect on academic success than teacher control over issues seemingly 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—rules that they might not agree with—it may erode their relationship with their students. When teachers have discretion and authority, they are able to tailor discipline to individual students, he said.

“They know the kids. One size doesn’t fit all,” said Ingersoll, a former high school teacher. “I think it’s [better when] teachers have a voice in the culture of the place and some sense of ownership. ... Behavior and discipline stuff—that’s huge. That’s half your job.”

‘Invigorating for the Profession’

The study also found that educators in high-poverty schools report lower levels of both instructional and teacher leadership. For example, in just 8.5 percent of high-poverty schools do teachers have a role in selecting new teachers—compared to about 18 percent of low-poverty schools. And in only 38 percent of high-poverty schools did educators on average say there was a school atmosphere of trust and mutual respect, compared to 50 percent of more affluent schools.

Ellen Moir, the outgoing chief executive officer of the New Teacher Center, said the report’s conclusions are “the North star” of what every school needs to be doing, particularly high-poverty schools, which already struggle with boosting teacher satisfaction and retention.

“I think it’s invigorating for teachers to have these new roles and opportunities to be working side-by-side with school principals,” Moir said. “I think it’s invigorating for the profession.”

See also: There’s Now a Body of Research on What It Means to Be a Teacher Leader

Indeed, teachers who have leadership roles say that it has made their jobs more rewarding. Tiffany Bergen, who is a teacher-mentor at Linden Tree Elementary School in New York, N.Y., said she previously taught in a school where administrators were not receptive to teachers’ ideas. It shut down risk-taking, she said.

But at Linden Tree, all teachers have the opportunity to make decisions in all areas of the school—from curriculum to homework to school beautification. Being able to share ideas that are then implemented in school policy, Bergen said, has strengthened her practice.

“You want to do that more, you want to be that teacher who thinks outside of the box,” she said.

And she sees a direct link between teacher leadership and student achievement: “I think we have to model what we preach. If we want kids to be risk-takers, then we ourselves have to take risks in our teaching practices.”

Still, 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 the North Bronx School, teacher-leaders have the autonomy to decide what professional learning teachers in the school need. (Something that only happens in about 12 percent of schools, according to Ingersoll’s study.)

“For me, it’s reflecting and saying, ‘I can’t do it all,’ finding the right people, and then just trusting them to take on the work,” Neyra said. “It’ll be more effective—it’s more data, more information—when it’s not just my viewpoint.”

Of course, these findings are not a surprise to many educators and teacher-leadership advocates.

“When the teacher roles are larger, the relationships are better, the student interest is higher, the student engagement is higher,” said Ted Kolderie, the co-founder and a senior fellow at Education Evolving, who has advocated for teacher empowerment for decades. One of Education Evolving’s priorities is teacher-powered schools, where teachers have autonomy to make schoolwide decisions and take on shared leadership roles.

He referred to a saying by historian Paul Kennedy, which he paraphrased: The role of leadership is to create a climate of encouragement for innovation.

“This is such a perfect example of that conclusion,” Kolderie said. “This is the one thing that just solves all kinds of problems—it probably solves the teacher-quality problem, the teacher-retention problem.”

Charts via the New Teacher Center’s School Leadership Counts report

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.