Teacher leadership: Yet another charter school innovation?

Last week, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute teamed up with the London-based Education Foundation to host a conference, “School Leadership: Lessons from England”; to publish a new paper by University of Pennsylvania professor Jonathan Supovitz and the Center for Policy Research in Education, Building a Lattice for School Leadership: The Top-to-Bottom Rethinking of Leadership Development in England and What It Might Mean for American Education; and to release a short documentary, Leadership Evolving: New Models of Preparing School Heads.

The catalyst for all three was the aggressive reform effort of the English government over the past decade to revamp that country’s approach to school leadership. At the center of the reform is the eminently sensible idea that school leadership needs to be a team endeavor.

No, it’s not a new idea. There’s been plenty of discussion about “distributed leadership” on both sides of the pond for years. But while we’ve mostly jawboned the idea, the Brits got busy doing it.

What they did in particular was clarify and formalize three levels of school leadership, each with distinct roles and responsibilities: headteachers who lead schools (equivalent to the principal’s role in the U.S.), senior leaders or deputy heads who assist the headteacher (similar to the vice principal role in American education, but with additional school-wide responsibilities), and middle leaders responsible for the quality of teaching within a certain department, grade level, or grade cluster. Each level (and some differing roles within the level) comes with its own mix of time devoted to teaching and time spent leading (see figure).

Leadership Roles in British Secondary Schools

Source: Smith, B. “Leadership Role in English Secondary Schools,” Working Paper, 2010 (via Leading Educators).

The concept of “middle leadership”—what we tend to call “teacher leadership” in the U.S.—is particularly innovative. In England, these are teachers who still spend most of their time in the classroom, but also take on additional instruction-related responsibilities. These include jobs (like curriculum development) that we typically assign to administrators, “instructional coaches,” or central office staff, but also line-management duties, especially supervising, supporting, and evaluating other teachers.

England formalized the roles of head, senior, and middle leaders through several key steps. First, its National College for Teaching and Leadership established nationwide standards for all three levels. Then it developed and provided specific training for each role and granted credentials to candidates who successfully completed the programs. More recently, the National College has devolved these training responsibilities to regional providers, and government is now pushing for “school-led improvements” via “teaching schools,” akin to U.S. experiments with “professional development schools” (albeit with less university involvement).

Meanwhile, virtually all public schools on our side of the sea are still led by one principal or by principals and vice-principals, much as they were fifty years ago.

While there’s growing interest in teacher leadership in America today, thanks to the efforts of organizations like Leading Educators and Teach Plus, we’re not yet far from the starting gate.  That’s because most teacher leaders, to the extent that they are even identified, don’t yet have formal authority, particularly when it comes to supervising other teachers. That’s not to say they aren’t exerting leadership in their schools; to be able to get colleagues to follow you without formal authority is one sign of great leadership. But if we believe that organizations are best led by a team, rather than an individual, and if we believe that one person, no matter how great, cannot effectively supervise dozens of teachers (as happens in most American schools), then we have a long way yet to go.

How might we transition to the team-leadership approach? This is where things get tricky. A “National College” is out of the question, for obvious reasons. But even states have been hesitant to establish their own principal-training programs; it’s hard to imagine them developing teacher-leader programs. Might they establish credentials for teacher-leaders that would allow these people to supervise and evaluate their peers? Perhaps. But even if they did, most local districts would need to negotiate new contracts with their teacher unions that would allow one union member to evaluate another union member—another stretch, it seems to us.

As in so many areas of American education, the fragmentation of our system (14,000 districts and 1,200 teacher- and leader-preparation institutions, plus strong unions) makes the adoption of commonsense ideas mighty challenging.

But one sector within American public education is already moving toward this team approach to leadership: Charter schools. The KIPP network, for instance, has developed multiple levels of leadership for its schools, from executive directors of citywide clusters to school principals and vice principals to deans, department- and grade-level chairs, as well as rank-and-file teachers who assume additional leadership or coaching responsibilities. This makes sense for at least two reasons. First, by truly distributing leadership, it makes the job more doable by non-super-humans. Second, it provides a clear career trajectory for KIPP’s teachers—the kind of “career ladder” that reformers have been promoting at least since Lamar Alexander was governor of Tennessee.

As with so many other innovations—blended learning, extended learning time, the smart use of data to guide instruction, etc.—the flexibility afforded by the charter model allows the concept of teacher leadership to go from idea to reality without untangling the Gordian knot of rules, regulations, contractual provisions and HR practices that have been accumulating in the traditional public schools for decades. We’d love to see the district sector embrace a team approach to leadership, too. But there it’s harder to be optimistic. Which, as the English would say, leaves us gutted, while charters make us chuffed to bits.

(Stay tuned for a Fordham Institute paper this winter that will lay out additional new directions and innovations needed in the leadership space.)

photo credit: Iker Merodlo via Flickr

Michael J. Petrilli
Michael J. Petrilli is the President of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.