Accelerating Teacher-led Learning and Leadership
Emerging evidence suggests that the district’s recent efforts to utilize teacher leadership to improve student outcomes are paying off. As we sought to understand the role of policy in accelerating more equitable outcomes for students in PUSD, three themes related to professional learning opportunities and challenges surfaced: (1) understanding school readiness for teacher-led learning and leadership, (2) spreading teaching expertise systematically across the district, and (3) building the capacity of the central office in cultivating system-wide teacher-led learning. We unpack these themes next, followed by implications for next generation professional learning policies in California.
1. Understanding school readiness for teacher-led learning and leadership
Both teachers and administrators spoke about the growing expertise among some of their teaching colleagues, witnessed through PLCs, learning walks, and occasional peer observations, and the highly collaborative professional development they are beginning to experience. Their descriptions were quite consistent with the related scholarship on teacher learning and policy.
For example, teachers pointed to the effectiveness of more collaborative professional development of specifically grant-funded initiatives, like the RESPeCT Program (Reinvigorating Elementary Science through a Partnership with California Teachers)‚ a large-scale research study funded by the National Science Foundation in collaboration with Cal Poly-Pomona. Teachers pointed to a number of features of RESPeCT that helped them implement NGSS—including the opportunities to watch, analyze, and discuss video cases of each other, examine student work, and critically analyze instructional activities and decisions.
Additionally, in our interviews teachers also consistently noted how collaboration with a peer(s) fuels the incubation of their own ideas. A third-grade teacher told us:
Because of the teacher specialist, I learned a lot about how to teach the standards. But she also helped me learn what other teachers are doing in other grades and schools (to teach to the new standards).
A central office administrator was asked how many of the district’s schools are ready for the kind of teacher leadership and professional learning observed at the co-teaching pilot schools. He responded, “Maybe 30 percent”; however, he also noted the vast majority of teachers were “hungry to learn.” He continued:
It takes time; it takes a lot of time. And I have to say that one of the biggest things is your leadership at the school. It’s what the belief system is, what they’re trying to achieve, and how they message it. The messaging becomes very important.
For teachers, getting ready for the new standards was pretty straightforward. As one shared, “It is about working with another teacher and co-creating our own curriculum that we know would fit the needs of our students.”
One principal noted that job one in getting teachers and schools ready was the deprivatization of teaching. She said, “The first big change for us was opening your classroom door and just allowing people in and planning with each other.” The second seems to be the power of informal learning, spurred primarily by just a few teachers who are in these co-teaching roles.
Teachers are more likely to help one another when principals do the same. Principals in the schools in the co-teaching pilots have been critically important in support of teachers as instructional leaders. As one Armstrong teacher noted:
Our principal is very supportive. When I first came to Armstrong, she said, “Sure you can open the wall if you can find a key to the wall.” I had never been in a school where the principal is so comfortable with teachers coming up with their own ideas….
The PUSD teachers and administrators were clear about how schools become ready for the instructional shifts demanded by the new academic standards and student needs. Teachers helping each other was at the core of school readiness for those shifts. However, we learned that there did not seem to be a formal way to identify which teachers are good at what so that they may be strategically supported as leaders and deployed to share their expertise with their colleagues. Granted, principals often document which classroom teachers are better at helping students meet certain standards. And most administrators pointed to student performance data as a key source to identify which teachers are good at getting what results. But these data do not point to what teachers do to yield those results. Even when principals have become quite adroit in knowing the strengths of their teaching colleagues, most of this knowledge is informal and not readily known by teachers themselves.
As one administrator noted:
I don’t think anybody sits there and creates a spreadsheet…with everyone’s names. Okay, these are their strengths, these are their needs. We don’t have that. I had Post-Its, and at the end of the day, I’d put them in a file. I had these notes that I could refer to, but it was not a formalized, centralized, and “this is the way everyone does it” type of thing.
In addition, interviews with administrators (as well as teachers) revealed that there was a small percentage of weak teachers in the district who were definitely not ready for the instructional shifts demanded by the new standards. Principals were quick to point out how to address the knotty issues associated with assessing and developing ineffective teachers. One administrator, whose school had rapidly improved of late, noted:
You have to give it to them (the weaker teachers) in increments because, I think, it goes back to relationships. You can give them whatever they want, but if they feel that you’re not doing it for the right reason or because you’re trying to catch them doing something bad, then it’s not going to work. They have to believe that you’re trying to help them. They have to believe that we want them to be the best, and our best teachers are most suited to help them.
These matters raised an important question related to our second theme: How can the district cultivate and utilize more teacher leaders, and how can districts spread teacher leaders’ expertise more equitably within current budgetary constraints?
2. Spreading teaching expertise systematically across the district
We found numerous examples of teachers improving their teaching when they had access to “more authentic collaboration” in school- or cluster-level efforts. A teacher of 18 years teaching in a high–collaboration school told us:
When you learn from other teachers, and you hear their ideas, and you get to share with one another, I think that’s the best way that I learn because I’m not just taking in information from one person. I’m getting ideas that teachers are actually using in their classrooms. So, it’s not just a “try this strategy,” but actually, we have a teacher who’s using this strategy…and we are working together, or they’re trying this and we’re seeing results from it.
As one Armstrong teacher noted on the influence of Richards and Santana in their school: “As a teacher, it excites the rest of us because now we have to keep up with them.” And when teachers talk about how they are influenced by their colleagues, they readily turn to evidence of impact from student portfolios that show growth on a range of cognitive and social and emotional outcomes. Teaching expertise continues to spread organically as teachers begin to use social media to both inform and inspire their colleagues.
As one principal from a high achieving, Title I elementary school noted:
When it starts to become peer pressure…that’s when movement happens. It’s when people begin to learn from each other…. But I can say that today I see my staff at that cusp where we’ve begun to just take off, and part of it has been those opportunities to be pulled out of the classroom and be working with the other teachers, which again, without being a Title I school, we would’ve never had the resources and opportunity to do.
And a teacher in her school who serves in an LCFF-funded co-teaching role told us, “So this job opportunity really attracted me because I’m really interested in building that system of how to give teachers the confidence and telling them it’s okay, you don’t have to have a curriculum in front of you.” However, the challenges of spreading teaching expertise more equitably emerged quickly for us with four issues in mind.
First, four teachers, from the co-teaching classrooms, influenced 487 teachers (311 via professional development, 63 through job embedded support, and 113 by the way of social media). However, there is no way to formally measure their leadership impact so others can learn from how they get the results that they achieve.
Second, teachers in small schools who teach single subjects struggle to find an authentic professional learning community that meets their subject matter and grade-level needs as well as the developmental needs of their students.
Third, building trust and sound relationships among teachers and administrators is key in developing a system of teacher leadership (rather than individual teachers as leaders). However, we found little evidence of the intentional cultivation of school and principal readiness for teacher-led learning and retention of effective educators.
Finally, some principals have acquired knowledge and skill in developing individual teachers as leaders, but their know-how seems very informal. Some schools are more ready for teacher leadership than others, and some are further along in implementation. There seems to be a need for the development of a system or process to leverage the skills and capacities of schools that are good at teacher leadership to help other schools do the same and to assess how schools are progressing with implementation. These findings led to another question: How can the district develop and implement a system of teacher leadership where many more classroom practitioners have opportunities to lead formally and informally?
3. Building the capacity of the district central office in cultivating system-wide teacher-led learning
Over the last several years, the Office of Equity and Professional Learning has supported an array of efforts to spur teacher-led learning and leadership, both formally and informally. Those efforts appear to be paying off. Teacher interviews surfaced at least five ways the central office can cultivate system-wide, teacher-led learning.
First, teachers, even those who teach in schools with collaborative cultures, lament the limited time they have to learn and lead. And we discovered that teachers can be overwhelmed by all the curriculum resources available that have varying degrees of alignment with their students’ needs. They told us that they often resort to creating resources that may already exist. One teacher said, “We’re constantly recreating because we’re all in our self-contained classrooms.” Teachers need to adapt curriculum to the needs of their students, but they do not have time to do so if those resources are not curated. Teachers engaged in the micro-credentialing pilot struggled to find the time in their PLCs for the kind of action research evidence required of them. A teacher leader noted:
Is it not time to look at the master schedule? The way it is set up, when you’re teaching, most of the time I am too. And so how can I come see you teach? So, when we are talking about the flexibility within LCFF, why can we not do something different?
We asked: How can the district master schedule and calendars be designed for the teacher-led learning and leadership that is beginning to emerge?
Second, there are limitations to what 40 teacher leaders can do in a district with 1,400 certified educators—given the current organizational structure, the traditional use of time and face-to-face workshops, one-on-one peer observations, and occasional learning walks. The district office has tried to accommodate the need for teachers to see one another teach by finding and using substitute teachers. During the first quarter of the 2018–19 academic year, district officials recorded 4,700 teacher absences due primarily to professional development and release time (e.g., PBIS training). This did not seem sustainable. As one central office administrator noted:
When it comes to coaches, we have them coming in. We do not have enough. One thing we don’t do well enough with this whole one-to-one and technology and future-ready district is we’re not using technology. We’re scratching the surface of what we can do with it. Where you can actually put a teacher in front of their ViewSonic. They have their big screens in their classroom. They literally could connect with their colleagues in other school sites down the street and be together virtually.
How can the district capitalize on the potential of online communities of practice to leverage the few teacher leaders they have and the need to identify, cultivate, and utilize others?
Third, a number of teachers and administrators alike pointed to the need to abandon some programs that are not needed along with a strategy to do so. Interviews with teachers revealed that they are often overwhelmed with too many programs they must implement. One teacher said, “I’ve often said, why don’t we pick three or four programs that as a school we’re going to be great at, instead of 20 that we’re just good at.” A central office administrator agreed. “We put too many things on teachers’ plates.” How can the district help schools eliminate programs that they do not need?
Fourth, teaching expertise is likely to spread faster by utilizing teacher leaders who teach in a similar context to the colleagues they are assisting. The new teacher observation and feedback tools and processes seem to hold the promise of helping identify teachers who are good at spreading their expertise. And the micro-credentialing pilot participants interviewed indicated a high degree of interest in working on micro-credentials as a community of practice—and less so as individuals. They saw a lot of value in teams identifying a need and working on a micro-credential together to address that need, but without turning it into a compliance activity. The district and the union are beginning to reshape teacher evaluation to focus on both individual growth and teamwork that lead to more equitable student outcomes. Teachers and administrators raised questions about what the current collective bargaining agreement values in terms of teachers and the development and spread of their expertise. How can union and district officials rethink incentives and compensation to meet the new demands on teachers to learn and lead?
Finally, district officials point to the positive effects of National Institute for School Leadership (NISL) training in beginning to shift the culture in the ways that principals need to lead their schools. Principals who have been through the training spoke of its benefits to them and the development of more collaborative forms of leadership. Others recognized they are not as well prepared to lead with teachers as leaders. One central office administrator noted:
Too often we might have a principal that might fit the characteristics of not being collaborative or trying to micromanage maybe too much…. They’re not building capacity and letting their people run with stuff and learn and fail and grow.
In many ways we saw evidence of teachers and administrators leading together in schools like Armstrong—only informally with no means for the model to spread systematically across the district. How can the district begin to train administrators and teachers together around their priorities?