Answering Tough Questions About Sustainability
Building leadership capacity is a critical component - the foundation of sustainability. Purposeful design and implementation of leadership development increases the capacity of leaders at all levels to make decisions in support of systemic reform efforts. The need for new leaders is continuous and the content and level of expertise developed will shape future programs and impact students. The challenge is to embed leadership development within district culture and structures, ensuring continuation beyond the life of soft money and budget cuts.
Who are the leaders? What are their roles?
Leaders are critical at every level of the district and diversity essential if reform is to flourish. Leaders in the MASE project assume one or more of the following roles: learners, advocates, vision-builders, decision-makers, designers/planners, facilitators, collaborators, and implementers. They reflect on their assumptions, beliefs, and understandings; evaluate project work and student learning from their perspective; communicate their conclusions; and make decisions that impact reform. We recognize that leaders include:
- Teachers on special assignment (TOSAs), project staff
- Classroom teachers
- School team leaders
- Area teacher leaders from the district's six geographic areas
- District-wide teacher leaders
- Principals and assistant principals
- District-level administrators
The context of our work and our assumptions about learning shape our perspectives on leadership development and influence project design. As our work progresses, lessons learned have verified some of our assumptions and have changed others, influencing the direction and design of leadership development.
Teacher development is the foundation of our leadership development program. The power of classroom teachers is evident as they gain knowledge, acquire the ability to answer parent, principal and district administrator questions, and advocate for mathematics and science reform. Teacher leaders are identified and then participate in two parallel components: leadership development and mentorship. Each adds depth of knowledge and reflection in areas such as: 1) teacher-content knowledge; 2) professional development design, implementation and evaluation; and 3) dialogue around issues related to facilitating professional development.
Knowledgeable principals, assistant principals, and district administrators move reform forward and those less informed block progress, often without realizing the negative impact of their decisions. Sessions for principals and assistant principals are designed around ideas of collegial supervision models, knowledge of what teachers are learning, vision and expectation setting, and the support and resources teachers need to successfully provide rigorous science and mathematics for all students. District administrators attend district and national meetings, meet with project leaders, consultants and advisory board members, and visit other project sites to gain knowledge and expertise.
A Sampling of Lessons Learned
- Leadership development is continuous, as there is new knowledge to learn and share and a need for time to dialogue, plan, and reflect.
- Teacher leaders learn by facilitating professional development sessions.
- First-year teachers eagerly join the project and frequently seek leadership roles. By the second and third year, these young teachers are expert leaders, accepted and respected by peers and experienced teachers.
- Interactions with new teachers over time and revisiting topics and issues strengthens the expertise of novice and seasoned leaders.
- Nationally-developed professional development curriculum (e.g., Lenses on Learning and Developing Mathematical Ideas) advances leaders' knowledge while standardizing the program.
- Teacher leaders are motivated by the opportunity to form close, working relationships with national experts. They tell us that they continue in leadership because of the opportunities for collaboration with project consultants over time, to field test curriculum, to co-facilitate sessions with project consultants and to participate in extended sessions at the Exploratorium.
Challenges and Opportunities
- Attrition of teacher leaders is a continuous concern. We find that leaders move, have increased family obligations, become administrators, TOSAs, and middle school science or mathematics teachers, and they "burn out". Teacher leaders become knowledgeable, supportive principals and district leaders, and open doors in middle school.
- The tension created between times needed for leadership development and the demand for sessions resulted in the mentorship component of the leadership program.
- Leadership teams must be reconstituted due to attrition, mobility of teachers and year-round track changes. Leaders bring reform to new schools as they move within the district.
- Too few incentives exist for teacher leaders. A few leaders are generating their own incentives and opportunities.
Decision-makers and community members must understand and value leadership programs to support and sustain it with district funds. A well-planned public relations campaign can showcase how teacher leaders support district priorities by providing reports on professional development sessions that support data-driven decision-making. Public presentations at school board meetings and planned classroom and professional development session visits are effective. Testimonials are often the most powerful PR tool. Personal stories of success by teachers and principals are key to leveraging support. Administrators want to see research and hear how leadership development helps teachers/schools improve student learning and achievement.
Questions We Are Still Asking
A large group of strong leaders, teachers and administrators, representative of the diverse student/ teacher population, is needed to provide professional development opportunities for all teachers over time. Due to the fragile stage of reform and the current demand for accountability, we must structure for success. The questions that we ask, the efforts we make to share and the design for renewal will inform the field of knowledge and increase the likelihood of sustained leadership development and thereby sustainability of reform. When designing, implementing and evaluating leadership development, . . .
- What choices should we make and why?
- Which strategies were considered and not used and why? or used with what result?
- What case studies will inform our work
- What questions will guide our research on leadership development?