Genuine Teacher Leadership: What Does it Take?

There are a large number of organizations right now promoting something called, “teacher leadership.” Groups like America Achieves & Teach Plus run competitive fellowship programs, largely focused on policy. Educators 4 Excellence (E4E) is sort of a pro-reform teachers association as an alternative to unions. There are even district/state embedded roles like those facilitated by Leading Educators through its district partnerships, which support half-time teaching, half-time coaching hybrid positions, allowing teachers to lead while staying in the classroom. The state of Lousiana runs a statewide teacher-leader network, with two teacher-leaders selected from every school in the state, as well as a cadre of “teacher-leader advisors” which are basically leaders of the leaders, sort of a “special forces” or “officer corps” of this vast network; together these groups run most of the PD for the state and have created a crowd-sourced, peer-reviewed curriculum called Louisiana Believes. The Gates Foundation has poured millions into its national and regional ECET2 initiatives (Elevating and Celebrating Effecitve Teachers and Teaching), which hosts regional gatherings that are something in between a gala and a PD conference populated by hot-shot teachers from around the country or region respectively. The organization I work for in my day job has its own nationwide teacher-leader network. Education schools have even started offering programs and degrees in teacher-leadership. Clearly people are interested in the topic.

But the question is what are all these initiatives trying to accomplish? And what is the evidence that it is occurring? For full disclosure I should mention that I have had occassion to work with all of the above mentioned orgs (and several others) in some capacity or another. I believe pretty strongly in theconcept of teacher-leadership in much the same way I belive in the concepts of democratic governance and community empowerment. But having been involved with many trying to bring teacher-leadership to life, I find myself feeling skeptical. There are certainly some organizations (or some initiatives within some organizations) that are unleashing and empowering talented people. But there is also a lot of noise, enthusiasm, and wasted money and time.

I was talking to a friend who teaches in Washoe County, NV recently about his experience with teacher-leadership. He is probably one of the most genuine and effective teacher-leaders I’ve ever met, having helped found a profoundly powerful grassroots PD initiative there called the Core Task Project, which has positively impacted the teaching of over a thousand teachers there. But when I was talking to him, he seemed turned off by a lot of the teacher-leader work.

“Organizations come up with their preferred policy, curriculum, practice etc. then they look for teachers they can put in front of them,” he said. This certainly rings true with a lot of my experience as well. Teacher-tokenism as opposed to teacher-leadership. Someone else comes up with the idea, then they ask you to put your name on it. Without pointing fingers I’d say this is particularly prevalent in organizations focused on policy. The reason seems to me pretty simple.

First, policy-focused organizations are not generally interested in teacher voice as an end in itself. They have spent a lot of time focused on policy and have come to strong policy preferences that they wish to advance (very often heavily-overlapping with the typical reform-agenda i.e. teacher-evaluation and hiring/firing policy, compensation and placement reform, governance issues like charter-schools, standards and accountability etc.). But lately a lot of policy folks have noticed that trying to advance a big policy agenda without buy-in from teachers is asking for implementation failure. So the same folks work to build “buy-in” by recruiting teachers who might help them advance their (pre-built) agenda. Nothing wrong with this as a strategy, but the experience for most teachers is what I called teacher-tokenism. Ask me to stand in front of your agenda. The policy came first. The teacher “leaders” came second. And to me that sounds a lot more like teacher-followers. Those are good to have, but we should be honest about what we are.

The second reason policy-focused organizations tend to have this problem is that teachers aren’t actually that good at policy-writing (nor often that interested in it). Teachers (even the best teachers) don’t spend a lot of time working on policy. We spend most of our time teaching. Teachers can certainly tell you about how a policy is playing out in our own classrooms, and to some (significantly diminished) degree in the classrooms down the hall. But that’s a far cry from knowing how it’s playing out in every classroom across the country. Can any given teacher (no matter how smar or thoughtful) tell you if No Child Left Behind is improving elementary mathematics instruction across the country? No chance. It’s about as likely as the average voter being able to predict who will win a national election. We can tell you who we’d vote for. And we can tell you who our friends and neighbors would (likely) vote for. But we are notoriously terrible at guessing who people in a different city, county or state would vote for. Likewise if I teach a suburban upper-middle class student population in the mid-west with a well-funded school district, it’s awfully hard for me to know if a national policy will help, hurt, or do nothing in an urban school-district with a disadvantaged student population, or a rural district etc. To get beyond anecdote or individual experience to aggregate or mass experience you need tools for mass (and representative) information gathering, tools like opinion polls, nationwide surveys (The the Students and Staffing Survey), or big (expensive) impact studies. You need a 10,000 foot view, to complement your ground-level viewpoint and figure out how generalizable it is.

Beyond just the information problem, is the policy-design problem. Even if we knew clearly how a given problem was playing out across the country (or state) we still wouldn’t necessarily know how to design an effective policy to fix it. Having working in policy as well as the classroom, I’m honestly equally skeptical of my policy colleagues ability to design effective policy. Frankly trying to figure out how put forth policies that actually bring about the change you want is very hard, and most people don’t pay enough attention to systems-level analysis (i.e. the educational ecosystem, not just the elimination of the educational wolf), nor to unintended consequences (like how California’s multi-billion dollar class-size reduction backfired with lower achievement, because it required hiring lots of less-qualified teachers).

So both because organizations tend to start with policies in mind then look for teachers, and because teachers don’t tend to have the information or training necessary to design policy, I think teacher-leadership in policy is a tough sell.

What then is the alternative? Am I arguing that policy should be made withoutthe input of people most directly experiencing that policy? Definitely not. But I think there are different models that combine the on-the-ground experience of teachers with the 10,000 foot level, systems-view of policy wonks to design (and test) policy ideas. And I think that the area where teacher-leadership is the most natural and effective fit, is the area teachers know best: teaching and learning. To flesh out those two ideas however is at least one, probably two more blog posts. So for today, I’ll stop on the point of having diagnosed a problem. For solutions, stay tuned.

Max Wagner