Teacher Leadership in the Spotlight

This is the hour of "teacher leadership." It's one we don't want to waste.

Nationwide, the idea is gaining traction as a school improvement strategy. It's being endorsed by unions, ed reformers, front-line educators, researchers, and policymakers alike.

While we have this powerful consensus, we all must thoughtfully shepherd meaningful opportunities for teachers to take on leadership roles that support their colleagues and improve their schools. That's why we've devoted our most recent issue of our magazine, Points of Practice, to the topic.

There is a push at city, state and federal policy levels to hone role definitions and clarify the conditions necessary for teacher leaders to optimally impact student learning, and we are fully on board with this process.

Teacher leadership has the potential to be a different type of school improvement strategy. Rather than top-down change led by policy makers, teacher leadership is a practitioner-led innovation. We simply can't impose or execute reforms on or for teachers—they must be committed co-creators.

At Teaching Matters we are reading Learning to Improve, a recent book by Anthony Bryk and his colleagues from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Within is a roadmap for school improvement that contrasts starkly with reform efforts to date. We believe it offers a research basis and support for teacher leadership. It is based upon "improvement science" — the way other fields, like medicine, have made dramatic, sustainable progress, through networks of practitioner-led inquiry that look nothing like traditional ed reform.

Bryk and his co-authors emphasize getting "the active, full engagement of educators" to identify and hone the practices that make a difference for students. Reforms often expand big ideas too quickly without due attention to developing the "micro details" that matter most. For example, doctors treating asthma achieved extraordinary gains in patient health by making simple adjustments, such as distributing medication to poor families before leaving the hospital. A more well-known example, hand washing, has saved countless lives.

Even strong educational reform ideas, such as the small schools movement, have foundered not because they were weak proposals, but because they were scaled nationally before practitioners had the body of knowledge required to implement them well.

Teacher leaders must be part of a fundamental shift in how schools and networks of practitioners learn and improve. To create this change, states and districts must develop new roles for teachers. These roles must be skillfully woven into the structures of school leadership and organized as practitioner networks that extend beyond their classrooms and schools.

Having coached and collaborated with teachers and school leaders for over 20 years, Teaching Matters has developed a working theory of teacher leadership and its essential competencies. With an initial group of teacher leaders from across New York City, we have launched a micro-credentialing pilot. Teacher leaders submit exemplars of their work to meet rigorous standards for credentialing. We are working hard to help teacher leaders cultivate the skills necessary to fulfill their roles, support their colleagues, and lead increases in student achievement.

We don't expect to have the final word on teacher leader competencies, but we do intend to advance a model that invites teachers to help shape the very definition of teacher leadership. Together, working alongside districts, principals, and teacher leaders, we believe we can turn this powerful hour of teacher leadership into a new era.