By NIET Co-President and Chief Strategy Officer Dr. Patrice Pujol
For decades, the national conversation surrounding American education has focused on two largely polarizing debates: Should education policy be driven from the federal level or the state and local level, and is the reason for our education challenges simply that we do not have enough proficient teachers?
But while these debates have continued with little resolution, an undeniable reality has emerged: American education has proven chronically unable to reliably and significantly change instruction in classrooms; specifically, to improve the instructional effectiveness of our teachers. What is equally undeniable is why this is taking place.
The real challenge is that school principals, who are traditionally tasked with elevating the quality of their teachers, simply do not have the time and bandwidth because of the other tasks that come with managing their schools. On average, principals manage to spend only eight to 17 percent of their working hours on instructional leadership, and those principals are often spread so thinly during those hours that their efforts produce little impact on teaching and learning. So, while instructional effectiveness needs to be addressed, the root challenge is not one of proficiency. It is one of capacity.
When viewed through this lens, it becomes clear that formal instructional teacher leadership—restructuring schools to incorporate "middle-level" leadership positions with formal titles, commensurate compensation, release time from classroom teaching, as well as professional authority and accountability—can be the answer. For the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching (NIET), an organization that I help lead, formal teacher leadership has been crucial to our mission of advancing educator effectiveness for two decades.
Our flagship initiative for formal teacher leadership is TAP: The System for Teacher and Student Advancement. Teacher leaders operating through TAP are broken out into two types: master teachers who are released from classroom duties to provide instructional leadership, mentoring, and coaching; and mentor teachers who remain in the classroom and devote several hours a week to instructional leadership.
Both master and mentor teachers are given formal authority to work with all teachers to improve instruction: they lead collaborative teams of teachers, formally observe classrooms, and provide weekly classroom-based coaching and support to all teachers; all while working closely with their principals. In the process, these positions provide opportunities for ongoing professional growth, instructionally focused accountability and performance-based compensation.
Overall, our studies have shown that teacher retention in TAP schools is 94 percent. That well surpasses the national average of 84 percent and the retention rate for comparison schools of 80 percent. More importantly, compared to 77 percent of control schools, 88 percent of TAP schools have achieved at least a year’s worth of student growth.
Over the years, we have developed a deep understanding of what it takes to build a successful formal instructional teacher leadership system. For those schools and districts looking to venture in this direction, there are three lessons we would like to share.
The first lesson relates to a question regarding teacher leadership: whether it is better to create several roles that each have specific responsibilities or a few roles that bundle several responsibilities. Our research and experience have found that bundling is the best approach. Giving a corps of teacher leaders multiple duties reinforces the message that they are leaders in action, rather than a specialized member of a larger team. And by having a few leaders take on multiple tasks, this ensures that the strategies for instructional improvement will be aligned and coherent.
The second lesson relates to a challenge affecting most schools: reform fatigue. Fifty-eight percent of teachers surveyed said they have experienced “way too much” or “too much” change in the last few years. More than the number of reforms, it is the lack of coherence that creates fatigue: unrelated imperatives that seem to be coming from many directions at once and send mixed signals about what is most important.
Formal instructional teacher leadership roles offer a strategic opportunity to quell the cacophony by allowing teacher leaders to show how any change fits into the school’s overall instructional design. Teacher Leaders go first, field-testing new curriculum-based teaching strategies in real classrooms with real students. This not only leads to more coherence, but also allows teacher leaders to develop a professional development opportunity for the teachers in the school tailored to their needs in their specific contexts.
The final lesson relates to a misunderstanding: that principals will have a greatly reduced role in this model of instructional leadership. Instructional leadership is not a zero-sum game. It expands the leadership structure of a school—where teachers are driving intelligent solutions alongside principals and administrators—while correcting the very capacity gap that is undermining instructional effectiveness.
The most important lesson we have derived from years of experience and proven results is that teacher leadership could produce several overlapping benefits: growth-oriented teaching evaluation, increased teacher retention and accelerated student learning. Formal teacher leadership in short is the super fuel to elevate American schools and optimize American education. While there has been constant debate over what education policy should look like, these are the benefits we all want.
But to capitalize on that potential, education leaders must understand the unique nature and potential impact that formal instructional teacher leadership offers. The time to harness that full potential in every school and district in America, while bringing a much-needed disruption to the national education conversation, is right now.