Get More Bang for the Buck

With careful planning and resource allocation, teacher leadership can be the key to an effective professional learning strategy.

Topics: Professional Learning, School Management

Empowering teacher leaders to direct professional learning for colleagues can help principals ensure that every teacher is part of a collaborative learning team and receives individual coaching in classroom instruction. This approach often comes with a steep learning curve, however, since it differs from the way in which most schools carry out their professional learning activities.

Teacher leadership functions best as an integral part of a school’s professional learning cycle, not as an add-on. Building a professional learning system that’s led by teacher leaders takes careful planning and a thoughtful shifting of resources including federal funding. Districts and schools should use a variety of funding resources to implement and sustain teacher leadership roles, replacing existing professional development (PD) that falls short of expectations.

Identifying sources, strategizing, and committing to using funds to leverage teacher leadership and improve instruction is helping students, teachers, and principals benefit, districts are finding. And while shifting and reallocating funds might sound like a challenging task for district finance teams, principals also play a big role in determining how funds are used and tracking the impact of federal funding on teacher effectiveness and student achievement.

Identify Funding for Teacher Leadership

Districts can invest in teacher leadership using a range of funding sources, including state and local general funds, federal title funds, and federal competitive grants such as the Teacher and School Leader Incentive Program. These funds, however, often get tied up in other professional learning activities, leaving limited funds for teacher leadership.

Funding will vary based on district context and needs, but districts should consider how federal funding streams, particularly Title I and II funds, can be used to invest in teacher leadership as a core strategy for improving classroom instruction and student learning. Statutory language and regulatory guidance included in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) specify that teacher leader roles and responsibilities can be supported by federal funds, in fact.

Districts that use teacher leadership to improve professional learning find that teacher leaders have the greatest impact when leaders engage in schoolwide instructional improvement strategies and provide targeted supports to students with the greatest academic needs.

District administrators can work with principals to reallocate funds. They have the opportunity to remove district- and state-level barriers to support schools attempting to take a comprehensive approach to building effective, school-based professional learning systems. Key elements of effective systems include salaries for teacher leaders, release time for collaborative learning activities and meetings, and training and coaching that support professional learning.

Funding Impactful Programs

While all principals and district administrators want to support effective professional learning, it requires taking a hard look at existing professional development activities that don’t show evidence of effectiveness or impact. There are now many ways to measure impact to help leaders evaluate whether particular approaches or structures are effective.

Districts need a process for tracking current professional learning activities and spending, determining if the activities are evidence-based, and evaluating their impact on student achievement. Determining the effectiveness of existing professional learning activities might be challenging, but it will be necessary to any argument for a more effective approach.

In many school systems, reviewing current professional development marks a turning point in building support for a more effective system. Here are five steps districts and schools can take to review current expenditures on professional learning and identify resources for teacher leadership and school-based, job-embedded professional learning.

1. Track spending on PD and schoolwide improvement activities. The first step is to categorize the types of professional development provided by the district. Some districts might already have an online management tool to track and categorize professional learning activities; others might need to create one. Once the categories are established, districts can determine the dollar amounts spent on each category and their proportion of total spending on professional learning. Districts should determine how many teachers participate in each category of activity and how many hours they spend.

It might also be beneficial for principals to examine school-level data points to compare how the participation rates in various forms of professional learning are distributed. For example, a principal might discover that science teachers participate in a single type of professional learning and avoid others that might have a bigger impact on student achievement.

2. Determine if activities are evidence-based and meet the criteria for high-quality professional learning. As standards and expectations rise, more districts are reexamining professional learning. For example, ESSA bases its definition of professional development on what researchers have found to be effective, including activities that are sustained, intensive, collaborative, job-embedded, data-driven, and classroom-focused. When clear evidence of impact on student learning is difficult to establish, principals should review whether or not the activities have research or evidence sufficient to indicate a strong likelihood of success.

3. Evaluate the impact of professional learning activities on student achievement. Where possible, principals should evaluate instructional improvement efforts by connecting student achievement data to professional learning activities. This is especially true for activities that research has deemed high-quality but need additional analysis to determine effectiveness in practice.

4. Phase out ineffective activities and use the funds for school-based professional learning. After collecting information on current professional learning activities and evaluating their impact, some activities will likely be identified as ineffective. For instance, some districts and schools have cut expensive pullout programs that showed no positive effect on student achievement. Others have reduced expenditures on one-off professional learning activities that were too expensive or disconnected from daily classroom instruction.

Given the mixed evidence for reductions in class size, for example, some districts have decreased spending on class size reduction to free up funds for professional learning led by teacher leaders. Other districts and principals have repurposed existing roles—for example, transitioning a teacher from a coaching position to a teacher leader role with more clearly defined responsibilities, expectations, and resources.

5. Analyze expenditures in noninstructional categories. Freeing up money from noninstructional sources can provide more fuel to power systems of instructional improvement. Every dollar matters when instructional improvement is a priority, and as a result, districts and schools have found innovative ways to reduce noninstructional spending while maintaining the same services and operations. For instance, some districts have freed up money by eliminating underutilized school equipment or software programs.

Commit to a Clear Strategy

Once districts and schools have analyzed professional learning expenditures and decided to implement teacher leadership, they need a strategy to provide job-​embedded, school-based professional learning.

A district leader might choose to begin the program in one high-need school and expand it to other schools as successes provide a compelling proof point for expansion. This allows districts to identify and select schools and potential teacher leaders willing to pilot the program. Success in the schools selected will encourage districts to expand the work to additional schools over time. Alternatively, a principal might choose to work at a smaller scale by developing professional learning structures with teacher leader roles in an academic department or grade level.

While there is no one-size-fits-all strategy for adequately funding the components of professional learning systems led by teacher leaders, deciding how and why to fund teacher leadership can begin to move the needle on teacher effectiveness and student achievement.

Return on Investment

Over the last 20 years, teacher leaders in innovative districts in multiple states have taken a central role in school improvement. These districts made great classroom instruction the centerpiece of improvement efforts and provided teacher leaders with the authority, resources, and training to lead these efforts in partnership with school leaders.

As a former principal, I know that providing teacher leaders with lead roles in designing and delivering professional learning produces significant and sustained improvements in academic achievement among high-need students. Principals have also found that professional learning systems, led in part by teacher leaders, improve teacher retention and recruitment. By building the capacity of teachers to lead professional learning, schools can better ensure that every student is taught by an effective teacher.

Theresa Hamilton is director of the South Central Region of the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching and has more than 20 years of experience as a teacher and principal.