Research has shown that teachers having leadership roles in their schools can lead to improved student achievement. So why not formalize those roles?
That's the argument in a new report by the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, a group that works to increase educator effectiveness. The group convened a panel discussion at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday to discuss how state and district leaders can create sustainable systems of teacher leadership. This form of professional learning—in which an accomplished teacher is given instructional leadership responsibilities while still remaining in the classroom—has become popular in many places, but the NIET report says there is a lack of explicit guidance on how to use federal funding to build this capacity.
"We need to have a larger national conversation about how do we formalize what teacher leadership is, in a way that actually moves student growth," said Candice McQueen, the CEO of NIET and the former education commissioner for Tennessee, in an interview. "Giving a title is not the end. Giving the title begins the conversation of, 'Now, what capacity do you need to grow other teachers and serve on this leadership team?' We see too often that we stop at, 'OK, now you're the teacher leader, ... with no release time, no additional compensation, no coaching, no professional learning, and no clarity around goals that are now part of the vision for your particular role.'"
"When you do [teacher leadership] well, you get results," she added. "We sometimes give teacher leadership a bad name by creating a title without any of these other components around it."
See also: Students Fare Better When Teachers Have a Say, Study Finds
Some of NIET's recommendations for building these formal teacher leadership systems include:
Iowa, for instance, invests nearly $160 million per year in the teacher-leadership system. Ryan Wise, the director of the Iowa Department of Education, said on the panel that there are more than 10,000 teachers serving in funded leadership roles.
"Formalizing these roles and having teacher leaders in every building has been the fuel to get things done," Wise said.
For example, the state has been prioritizing early literacy, and making sure every student can read by the end of 3rd grade. To help spread that work, teacher leaders are trained in best practices and then can spread that information to other teachers.
In the 2019-20 school year, NIET will partner with about 90 districts to provide training and supportas they implement the group's instructional framework on teacher leadership. NIET runs a teacher-leadership system called TAP: The System for Teacher and Student Achievement, which puts high-performing teachers into "master teacher" and "mentor teacher" roles.
Education Week highlighted a small-town Iowa district that has implemented this system in this video:
After all, Christina Jamison, a teacher leader in Grand Prairie High School in Texas, said one-size-fits-all district training is rarely useful for teachers.
"None of that is relevant to my work," she said. "Being able to be a leader of professional development on my campus has allowed my students to grow exponentially. ... Teachers want to know stuff that's going to help them."
Indeed, many teachers say that professional development delivered by facilitators from outside groups is often disrespectful to teachers' expertise and experience.
"Teacher leaders can go to a conference and come back and teach what they learned," said Ross Wiener, the executive director of the Education & Society Program at the Aspen Institute, in closing remarks. "No outside vendor can do that with that kind of cadence and that kind of credibility and level of context."