How Higher Education Can Play a Key Role in Building Teacher Leaders

December 2, 2019

How Higher Education Can Play a Key Role in Building Teacher Leaders

Why the Next Higher Education Act Should Include a Focus on Formal Leadership

By the NIET Policy Team

It's become painfully obvious that the teaching profession isn't the attractive career option that it should be. Chronically low or uncompetitive salaries have led to a rash of teacher strikes in states across the country. A recent PDK survey indicates that 54% of parents would not recommend their children to enter the profession. While leaders in competitive industries invest heavily in attracting talent and improving employee satisfaction, the teaching profession, in terms of its working conditions and advancement opportunities, looks largely similar to what it did 50 years ago.

What do teachers want? Competitive pay is a fundamental starting point, but it isn't the only thing leaders can do to elevate the teaching profession. Teachers also want career advancement opportunities and greater voice in their building. In fact, some of the biggest reasons teachers leave a school isn't pay – it's dissatisfaction with school leadership and school culture. Teachers, like anyone else, want to get paid well, have the opportunity to build skills and take on new responsibilities, and work in a collegial and collaborative environment.

Teacher leader roles, in which teachers teach part of the day and take on additional instructional leadership responsibilities within the school, offer a compelling solution to these desires. Not only do these roles provide additional compensation, but they also provide opportunities for formal leadership, professional learning, and career advancement – all of which are key tools for attracting and retaining great educators. Yet, teacher leader roles are not the reality in a majority of schools in the United States and, thus, are not commonly seen as part of a teacher's career trajectory.  

While states and districts have the largest role to play in expanding teacher leader roles, Congress can play a supporting role by investing in the development of teacher leader roles. Congress is due to update the Higher Education Act (HEA), which was last reauthorized in 2008. Reauthorization of HEA should include the bipartisan Teachers Are Leaders Act (S. 235/H.R. 3108), led by Sens. Coons (D-DE) and Ernst (R-IA). Last month, the House Democrats released an HEA bill that includes the provisions outlined in the Teachers Are Leaders Act.

The bill makes two important updates to HEA. First, it would allow Teacher Quality Partnership (TQP) grants to invest in teacher leader development programs that support teacher leader roles that address demonstrated school needs, such as providing peer coaching, addressing school climate and discipline needs, or developing new dual enrollment courses. Second, the bill provides the first federal definition of a teacher leader ("a teacher who carries out formalized leadership responsibilities based on demonstrated school needs, while maintaining a role as a classroom instructor"). Teacher leadership can mean many things in education parlance, but formal teacher leader roles work best when clearly defined and focused on carrying out school success strategies. A clear definition would ensure that federal investment is well-targeted and set a standard for the field to consider when creating teacher leader roles.

Involving the higher education community in developing teacher leaders is critical. For one, involving teacher prep recognizes and promotes the idea that the continuum of teacher prep should span the full length of a teacher's career. More importantly, TQP funds can encourage schools of education to explore, develop, and disseminate evidence-based practices for effectively preparing teacher leaders for success. School leaders like principals and assistant principals complete university-based prep programs as a prerequisite for their roles – it should follow that teacher leaders also have the opportunity to receive formal training to prepare for their roles. While a few programs across the country have begun offering teacher leader credentials, more can be done by the research community to understand how to best prepare teacher leaders.

The case for teacher leader roles is strong. A 2017 study from Richard Ingersoll and the New Teacher Center found that students perform better in schools with the highest levels of instructional and teacher leadership. Our data at NIET also shows that teacher leaders can be critical drivers of student achievement growth. Data from TNTP has shown that teacher leadership opportunities could double the percentage of teachers who would choose to work in a low-income school.

Teacher leader roles provide opportunities for individual teachers to learn and advance in their career, while at the same time serving as a strategy to improve student achievement. This is why states are increasingly looking to invest in teacher leadership. Iowa has led the way by allocating $150 million in annual funding for teacher leaders roles in every district. In just the past year, Texas, Indiana, and Colorado have launched grant programs to invest in teacher leader roles and career ladders.

Teacher leader roles are common in many of the world's high-performing school systems and play a vital role in some of the most innovative and successful districts in America. While policymakers at every level have a part to play in making teacher leadership a reality in every school, Congress can add to the building momentum by including investments in teacher leadership in the next Higher Education Act.

Teachers want to lead. Students benefit when teachers lead. It's time to give teachers the opportunity and support they need to be transformative leaders in their schools.