Teacher Preparation

Teacher Leadership Movement Gets Boost From Ed. Dept.

By Ross Brenneman — March 24, 2015 5 min read
U.S. Department of Education Teaching Ambassador Fellow Emily Davis, center, offers instructions to a group at the Teach to Lead summit in Boston.
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U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has pledged continued support for the Department of Education’s Teach to Lead program, an effort that invites teachers to come up with ideas to promote teacher leadership in schools and offers them support for implementation.

Mr. Duncan had announced the creation of Teach to Lead in March 2014 at the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards’ inaugural Teaching & Learning conference here, vowing he would return a year later to be held accountable for the program’s development.

“Our hope is to accelerate the pace of change and build upon the sense of momentum,” he said in a March 13 speech at this year’s conference. “Our teachers and our students simply cannot wait.”

The secretary’s announcement provides some clarity about the program’s future; up until this month, even some of its organizers were unsure of its direction.

However, in an interview with Education Week at the conference, Mr. Duncan also acknowledged that “there’s no huge pot of funding” for Teach to Lead, which relies on financial support from nonprofit and private-sector organizations.

“If we can use [existing] money in smarter and more effective ways,” he said, “we can empower great teachers to lead this [program]; we can be in much better shape.”

Among educators who have coalesced around the idea of teacher leadership, the Teach to Lead initiative has been seen as a significant steppingstone, in part because of its potential to add authority to a movement that has remained stubbornly amorphous.

A Stronger Voice

Teacher-leadership advocates say the interest in the concept speaks to a need many teachers feel to influence education outside the classroom, without leaving it, as well as fatigue from seeing education policy driven by people who aren’t educators and then watching those policies fizzle.

“The eternal optimist in me thinks that ... we’re at a tipping point where we’re realizing that we cannot have those outside education, with no education background, with no education experience, leading the path for our public education students,” said Megan M. Allen, the director of programs in teacher leadership at Mount Holyoke College, in South Hadley, Mass. “We’ve got to be smarter than that, and let our teachers—our experts—lead the charge.”

Supporters of greater teacher input in education policy point to sundry initiatives designed without significant teacher involvement, or implemented without teachers’ buy-in—district-administered programs to transition to the Common Core State Standards, for example, or cuts in enrichment offerings to focus on standardized testing. Noticeably, they say, many such efforts have yet to offer much proof of effectiveness.

"[Policy] implementation has been most effective in the places where it has been teacher-driven and teacher-led, collaborative change,” said Ruthanne Buck, a senior adviser to Mr. Duncan. “And in some places, the structure just hasn’t existed to allow that collaborative environment.”

Teach to Lead emerged, organizers say, in part from a growing understanding inside the Education Department that its own ambitious plans had outpaced implementation, and that implementation appeared to be smoothest when teachers had a strong voice.

“There definitely has been a push to get a lot of things out, a lot of things changed,” said Emily Davis, a teaching ambassador fellow at the department. “And what I’ve seen a lot of the past year is taking a step back, taking a look at what’s working, [and] listening to the field.”

The ambassador fellows, a group of practicing teachers intended to serve as a bridge between the Education Department and the profession, did much of the legwork in designing Teach to Lead, working in partnership with the NBPTS.

While many organizations have championed teacher leadership, the department’s involvement adds heft to the movement.

“What separates [Teach to Lead] is, if you have the backing of the U.S. Department of Education, which has connections and ties to different districts and states, that gives it some authority,” said Geneviève DeBose, a teacher who helped develop Teach to Lead as a liaison for the NBPTS.

In December, Teach to Lead launched a set of three summits across the country, with events held in Louisville, Ky., Denver, and Boston. Each gathering required educators to apply for attendance by submitting an idea to cultivate teacher leadership in their schools or districts. The Teach to Lead events emphasized group work over formal presentations, even giving teachers a chance to hone their elevator pitches. Attendees also received feedback from “critical friends,” experts brought in from the nearly 70 organizations that support Teach to Lead, which include the major unions, ASCD, and the American Institutes for Research.

“It’s amazing to see this many teacher leaders together, and hear all their ideas, and to know that we are not all so different from each other,” said Andrea Shunk, a Denver attendee and a co-creator of the Cadre of Distinguished Educators, a Portland, Ore., teacher-leadership program.

Thirty days after each summit, participants went through a check-in with the Education Department to see how their ideas were progressing. Additional check-ins were slated for the 60- and 90-day marks.

In addition, Teach to Lead organizers are selecting ideas from each event to treat as “leadership labs,” which will get extra investment for implementation support and possible scaling-up.

Structural Supports

Whatever Teach to Lead’s success, the federal government’s interest in teacher leadership is no guarantee that state or district policymakers will exhibit the same enthusiasm, though states like Connecticut and Tennessee have been designing programs that bring teachers into policymaking. If teachers expect broader change and influence, advocates say, they need to pursue additional structural supports.

“Teacher leadership is not just a policy, it’s a systematic change,” said Mount Holyoke’s Ms. Allen.

The structural changes needed, experts say, start with schools providing genuine professional opportunities to teachers.

“If you don’t offer leadership opportunities for teachers to excel in their profession, to grow—to be frank, to make more money—and to have elevated roles, ... you are asking for your best and brightest teachers to leave the classroom in order to excel,” said Ms. Buck, Mr. Duncan’s adviser.

At the same time, teacher-leadership supporters say, administrators need to make space in school cultures to accommodate teacher voice, ensuring that teachers don’t have to worry about reprisals for offering their ideas or feedback.

Finally, advocates say one of the best things school leaders can do to help is give teachers space to collaborate on projects and learn from each other.

“Sometimes, the best thing we can do for teacher leadership is just step back and get out of the way,” Ms. Allen said. “I think you put a bunch of really great, hardworking, dedicated teacher leaders together, and they can do great things.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 25, 2015 edition of Education Week as Teacher-Leadership Movement Gets Boost From Ed. Dept.

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