Investing in Teacher Leadership #1: How Districts Can Empower Teacher Leaders

March 1, 2023

Investing in Teacher Leadership #1: How Districts Can Empower Teacher Leaders

In this three-part blog series, we will share tips on how various stakeholders can support and invest in teacher leadership. The blogs will explore recommendations for district leaders, state policymakers, and federal policymakers. When these stakeholders make teacher leadership a priority, schools are better able to provide educators with the high-quality professional learning needed to improve student outcomes.

Every year we invest billions in professional development to build teachers’ capacity to better address the diverse academic needs of every student. Yet student learning continues to fall short of expectations in too many places. We must ask the question: Is there a better way to invest in the professional learning of teachers across America? 

Our  answer is an emphatic yes. NIET has spent more than 20 years building the capacity of teachers and school leaders. We have seen that professional learning is best led by teachers and leaders within the school building. In fact, engaging teacher leaders in the development of their colleagues provides a highly effective and sustainable form of professional learning. Instructional teacher leader roles can become an engine for professional development that incorporates central elements of effective, job-embedded professional learning and improves the effectiveness of teachers. 

Despite the demonstrated impact of investments in teacher leadership on classroom instruction, current policies and funding practices do not yet fully recognize opportunities for teacher leaders to provide an effective form of professional learning. Teacher leadership is alluded to in numerous policies and allowable under many funding streams, but the lack of explicit guidance on how to shift funding from external providers and services to investing in building capacity within the teaching faculty continues to prove a barrier to progress.

Empowering teacher leaders to lead professional learning with colleagues enables principals to ensure that every teacher is part of a collaborative learning team and receives individual classroom coaching. However, this approach represents a significant change from how most districts carry out professional development activities. Building a professional development infrastructure led by teacher leaders takes careful planning, thoughtful shifting of resources, and the intentional seeking of stakeholder buy-in. Based on experience helping district partners make this shift, NIET has developed four recommendations for district leaders.

Recommendation 1: Articulate a vision for teacher leadership and build political will to support it

Teacher leadership will only be successful to the extent that it’s supported by teachers and school leaders and seen by other stakeholders as a key mechanism for improving student achievement. Communicating a vision for teacher leadership that is aligned with demonstrated teacher and student needs will form a strong foundation  to  advocate for a new approach to professional learning with stakeholders. In many cases, the district’s vision for teacher leadership is at the core of its plans for advancing equitable access to effective educators and helps set measurable goals  for  building  the skills of teachers, especially those with students who have the greatest academic needs. While district leaders will largely be responsible for articulating this vision, it is important that district leaders develop it alongside the teachers and principals who would mostly likely be affected. 

District leaders are most effective in this effort when they build support from a wide range of relevant stakeholders including — but not limited to — the  local school board, parents, community members, the teachers union, principals, and teachers.

Recommendation 2: Coordinate funding streams to invest in school-wide systems of instructional improvement by taking advantage of funding flexibility

As teachers solve for the best way to meet their students’ needs and address learning gaps, the common approach of remediation – teaching or re-teaching prior material – is quickly proving to be inadequate. A more effective strategy of learning acceleration starts with teaching current grade-level content and only bringing in remedial content if a student demonstrates the need for it. This requires significant skill on the part of the classroom teacher, along with high-quality instructional materials that engage all students in grade-level learning. Interventions such as high dosage tutoring, extending the school year, and summer sessions are important supplements for students with the greatest learning needs; however, we must increase our focus on ensuring that all classroom teachers are equipped to support learning acceleration strategies during core classroom instruction. This requires a systemic approach to improving classroom teaching and learning. NIET partners are using ESSER Funds to support instructional improvement.

In addition, districts partnering with NIET use a wide range of funding sources to invest in teacher leadership, including state and local general funds, federal dollars, and federal competitive grants like the Teacher and School Leader Incentive Program (TSL). While each blend of funds will look unique based on district context and needs, districts should consider how federal funding streams, particularly Title I and II, can be utilized to invest in teacher leadership as a core strategy for improving classroom instruction and student learning. While many federal funding streams can be used to support the activities of teacher leaders, ESSA’s statutory language and regulatory guidance from the U.S. Department of Education clearly specify that teacher leader roles and responsibilities can be supported by these funding streams.

Districts that have used teacher leadership to improve professional learning in their schools find that teacher leaders have the greatest impact when they are engaged in schoolwide instructional improvement strategies, in addition to providing targeted support to students with the highest academic needs. To ensure that schools have the greatest flexibility to invest in whole school approaches to instructional improvement, districts can support Title I schools in adopting the Schoolwide Program approach for using Title I funds, rather than the Targeted Assistance approach. Under the Schoolwide approach, Title I dollars can be used to implement systemic school-wide interventions to improve academic outcomes for students, whereas the Targeted Assistance approach focuses on targeted support for only the students who meet the qualifications for Title I support.

District leaders are in a unique position to remove district-level barriers to consolidation or to advocate for the removal of state-level barriers in order to support schools in taking a comprehensive approach to building effective school-based professional learning systems.

Recommendation 3: Focus resources on evidence-based practices and away from professional learning and school improvement activities that are not yielding results

While all districts want to support effective professional learning, this often requires taking a hard look at existing professional development activities that do not have evidence of effectiveness or impact. With the growing availability of methods to measure impact, districts can better evaluate whether particular approaches or structures are evidence-based. To do this effectively, districts need a process for tracking current professional learning activities and spending, determining if the activities are evidence-based, and evaluating their impact on student achievement. The process of examining the effectiveness of existing professional learning activities and instructional improvement strategies is challenging, but necessary for making a compelling case for a more effective approach. 

In many cases, the process of reviewing current professional development is the turning point for building support for a more effective system. Below are five steps that districts and schools can take to identify resources for school-based, job-embedded professional learning.

  1. Track spending on professional development and school-wide improvement activities
  2. Analyze whether activities and strategies are evidence-based or meet the criteria of high-quality professional development
  3. Evaluate impact of professional learning strategies and activities on student achievement
  4. Phase out ineffective activities and use funds for school-based professional learning
  5. Analyze expenditures in non-instructional categories

Recommendation 4: Create a strategy for moving to job-embedded, school-based professional learning

Important considerations driving the scope of this strategy include the degree of student academic need across schools, the ability of the district and school to build the support necessary to create and sustain a teacher leadership infrastructure, and the amount and type of funding available to fund teacher leadership. When taking these factors into account, some leaders might start by proposing an ambitious overhaul of professional learning expenditures and structures in all of their high-need schools, while other leaders may choose to start slowly and build proof points for a new approach in selected schools or even within a school. 

Districts that receive school improvement or other federal grants are in a stronger position to fund a broad overhaul of professional learning systems. In contrast, a district leader who is not under immediate pressure to improve or has adequate, but not overwhelming community and school board support or financial resources, may choose to begin in one particular high-need school and expand to other schools as that school’s success provides a compelling proof point for expansion. This enables districts to select schools that want to go first, and to identify potential teacher leaders who want to pilot the role and lead the way. Success in selected schools then enables them to expand the work to additional schools over time. Alternatively, a principal may choose to work at a smaller scale by developing professional learning structures supported by teacher leader roles within an academic department or grade level in their building.

While there is no one-size-fits-all strategy for adequately funding the components of professional learning systems led by teacher leaders, there are some general guidelines that NIET and partner districts have found that have led to success. Leaders should ensure that enough teacher leader roles are funded so that teacher leaders can support a manageable number of teachers. Teacher leader roles also require additional compensation that is commensurate with the position’s responsibilities and additional time commitments. To the extent that they do not yet have time set aside for weekly collaborative teams, schools should also fund release time for teachers to engage in professional development meetings that are of appropriate duration and intensity to move student achievement. When district leaders consider these guidelines and invest in teacher leadership, more often than not, they see a positive impact on educator effectiveness and student achievement.