By Richard Wilson

Richard Wilson is an associate director in the NJEA Professional Development and Instructional Issues Division. He is currently on special assignment to assist in the development of the NJEA Teacher Leader Academy. He can be reached at rwilson@njea.org.

In a groundbreaking research paper published late last year, School Leadership Counts (Ingersoll, Dougherty and Sirinides 2017), Richard Ingersoll and his team analyzed data from nearly 900,000 teachers in about 25,000 schools across 16 states. Using the Teaching, Empowering, Leading and Learning Survey (TELL), a large-scale survey administered by the New Teacher Center in Santa Cruz, California, they attempted to identify those elements of instructional leadership that had the largest impact on student learning as measured by state testing regimes.

The study looked at multiple facets of instructional leadership from an administrative level as well as teacher leadership in several different forms. I should come as no surprise that there was an increase in student achievement in schools where administrators were seen as instructional leaders. However, what proved more interesting was that the results of the study “clearly show that teacher leadership and the amount of teacher influence into school decision-making are independently and significantly related to student achievement.” The strongest connection between practice and student learning was when teachers had input into establishing student discipline procedures and when teachers were involved in school improvement planning.

Yet while 90 percent of schools had teachers who had a moderate to large role in devising teaching techniques, only 8 percent of schools had teachers report that they had a large role in school decision making. In other words, the elements most closely related to student achievement were found in only a small percentage of the schools.

Strengthening teacher voice

Here in New Jersey, there is a movement to do something about giving teachers a greater voice on instructional issues in schools and school districts.

At the October State Board of Education meeting, regulations for the new teacher leader endorsement were presented for first reading, which is the first step in the board’s formal consideration of regulations. This reading set the stage for preparation programs for this endorsement to begin in the fall of 2019. Pending approval from the New Jersey Department of Education, NJEA intends to open its own Teacher Leader Academy that will lead members to the endorsement.

Advocating for students and profession a key focus of NJEA program

The NJEA program will be based on the nationally recognized Teacher Leader Model Standards, a set of domains that focus on building in-school conditions to enhance student learning. But there are two standards that connect to work outside the classroom. Domain Six deals with improving outreach and collaboration with families and community. Domain 7 focuses on advocating for student learning and the profession, which connects to the most important conclusion drawn by Richard Ingersoll.

The extended description of Domain 7 reads, “The teacher leader understands how educational policy is made at the local, state, and national level as well as the roles of school leaders, boards of education, legislators, and other stakeholders in formulating those policies. The teacher leader uses this knowledge to advocate for student needs and for practices that support effective teaching and increase student learning, and serves as an individual of influence and respect within the school, community, and profession.

Domain 7 emphasizes exactly what Ingersoll finds in his research has the biggest impact on student learning: involving teachers in the decision-making process for the schools in which they work. Yet in many school districts, teacher leaders find themselves battling structures that reinforce a rigid, traditional structure of authority. There is a tremendous cry in today’s education zeitgeist for “research-based practices.” It is incumbent upon us as educator activists to point to the research that supports a more prominent role for teachers in the ways schools are run.

A variety of programs of study for the teacher leader endorsement—each following a different model—is likely to be created. Colleges and universities will develop programs. Some school districts may attempt to gain New Jersey Department of Education approval for teacher leader programs. The New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association, which already runs an alternate program for principal and supervisor certifications, will most certainly create their own program, and, as mentioned above, NJEA intends to open a program as well. Each entity’s program will be based on the Teacher Leader Model Standards, as required by law, but each will have its own focus, allowing candidates to find programs that best meet their needs.

In planning the NJEA program, Domain 7: “Advocating for Students and the Profession” will be the lens through which we look at the question of how teacher leaders can best advocate for students and the profession in light of the other standards. As an advocacy organization, NJEA is well-suited to prepare a generation of teacher leaders from this perspective.

Those working most closely with students have tremendous insight in the ways schools should be run. The NJEA Teacher Leader Academy will work from this premise, confident that this philosophy closely aligns with the most current research on student achievement. 

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