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TNLI: Action Research: Teacher Leadership in School Change: Teacher Professionalism and Leadership-Catalysts of School Reform

by Carol Horn
William Halley Elementary School,
Fairfax County
AUGUST, 1997

Teacher Professionalism--National Standards
Teacher Professionalism--Teacher Research
Teacher Leadership

Teacher professionalism, identified as the most critical variable of school reform, necessitates a new definition of leadership--a leadership that originates within the culture of a school and is shared by a community of professionals. In successful schools, teachers and administrators work together to build and achieve a dynamic vision that is flexible and responsive to the needs of their students. As teachers are empowered to decide on and ask for what they need, principals find ways to provide them with consistent support and continuous opportunities to grow and expand their repertoire. (Lieberman, 1995) New leadership roles for teachers emerge as their responsibilities expand to include additional assignments such as research coordinators, mentors to new teachers, curriculum developers, and facilitators of professional development activities. "The increasing specialization of teachers . . . signals that the principal can no longer be the master teacher . . . hence, it has become increasingly important to share leadership . . . " (Barth, 1990, p. 133) When schools function as communities of leaders who listen to, value, and respect each other's ideas, increased communication, shared responsibility, and a heightened sense of ownership create a culture of learning that stimulates and nurtures student motivation and achievement. In the words of Thomas Sergiovanni, "an increase in teacher professionalism reduces the need for conventional leadership." (Brandt, 1992, p. 46)

Two essential elements play a critical role as this new perception of leadership evolves. First, we must rethink the occupation of teacher and support the emerging perception of teachers as professionals who value and desire the knowledge and expertise to improve student achievement. Ongoing professional development must be an integral part of the change process, and teachers must be given the opportunity to "take charge of their learning" and select the courses and professional growth experiences that they need to improve their teaching. In a national study of how teachers view career-long learning, 73 percent said they were motivated by a desire to improve student achievement. (NFIE, 1996) As teachers are encouraged to become reflective practitioners and engage in continuous inquiry into their teaching practice, they need opportunities to choose the professional growth activities that will enable them to meet the needs of their students. Second, as the impetus for change shifts from a top-down model to one that is bottom-up, additional roles and increased responsibilities for teacher leaders become essential. A true commitment to improvement requires shared leadership in a collaborative, cooperative climate that will support and sustain reform from within.

Three ongoing efforts that will transform teaching into a true profession are the National Standards Board, teacher research, and increased roles for teacher leaders.

Teacher Professionalism--National Standards

" An occupation becomes a profession when it assumes responsibility for developing a shared knowledge base for all of its members and for transmitting that knowledge through professional education, licensing, and ongoing peer reviews." (Darling-Hammond, 1997, p. 298) The work of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards is making this vision a reality.

A dynamic effort on the part of teachers to raise the level of their profession, the National Board certification process is a powerful professional growth experience created by teachers for teachers. Growing out of a recommendation in Carnegie Corporation of New York's 1986 report, A Nation Prepared: Teachers for the 21st Century, the National Board standards represent a professional consensus about critical aspects of highly accomplished practice in multiple certification fields. Guided by five core propositions that directly connect to improved student learning, the certification process challenges teachers to reflect on and evaluate their own teaching practice against a set of high and rigorous standards. Ultimately, NBPTS will offer more than thirty certificates in all aspects of teaching from kindergarten through high school, providing a powerful tool for assessing and recognizing truly accomplished teachers.

As a National Board Certified Teacher, I know that the national board certification process is the most valuable professional development experience that I have ever encountered. A powerful self-evaluation process, it challenged me to reflect on and critique my own teaching practice. As I progressed through the development of a school site portfolio and later, the assessment center exercises, the standards were gradually internalized so that, even now, they continue to guide and direct the course of my teaching practice. The entire experience gave me a new appreciation for the complex demands our profession places on an accomplished teacher, and it served to strengthen my own role as an advocate for the teaching profession.

The success of the certification process is due in part to its voluntary and objective nature. "It has always been difficult to recognize and reward good teachers in ways that are credible and objective. The merit pay plans of the 1980s . . . have already disappeared because local evaluators did not have useful standards, or the time or expertise, to make reliable judgments about teacher competence. Many such plans created distrust and competition among teachers rather than supporting better practice. In contrast, the careful process of National Board Certification - based on evaluation by experts according to well-developed standards and a collaborative process - provides an alternative that teachers find credible, helpful, and an extraordinary learning experience." (National Commission on Teaching & America's Future, 1996, pp. 72-73) Throughout the National Board certification process, each candidate remains anonymous, identified only by an initial application number. The objectivity and fairness of National Board certification make it possible to recognize and acknowledge accomplished teachers in a way that has never before been possible.

An equally important development are the standards set by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) and the Interstate New Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium (INTASC). NCATE'S standards require schools of education to demonstrate how they are incorporating new knowledge about subject matter, teaching strategies, learning styles, and student diversity into their teacher preparation programs. The INTASC standards outline the skills and knowledge that beginning teachers should demonstrate in order to receive an initial license. The combined efforts of NCATE, INTASC, and NBPTS set standards for teacher preparation, beginning teacher licensing, and advanced certification that provide a professional continuum for teacher development from novice to master teacher. (NCTAF, 1996) These organizations have created a powerful framework on which to build our profession.


  • Promote and support the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards by offering salary incentives. "The central importance of teaching to the mission of schools should be acknowledged by a system in which the highest paid professional in a school system is an experienced National Board teacher, who should be able to earn as much by teaching as by becoming an administrator." (National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, September, 1966, p.96) Several states have already passed legislation that awards National Board Certified Teachers with salary increases. Examples are North Carolina, which provides an annual bonus of 12 percent, and Ohio, which gives certified teachers $2,500 annually. Oklahoma, the most recent state to offer a salary incentive, grants teachers who achieve certification $5,000 per year for the life of the certificate.

Teacher Professionalism--Teacher Research

Teacher research is another significant effort on the part of teachers, as professionals, to discover and share how children learn best. " . . . research has overwhelmingly supported the finding that schools with organizational cultures that support inquiry, learning, and data-based decision making are not only more satisfying workplaces, but also more productive organizations." (Rosenholtz, 1989, as cited in Sagor, 1997, p. 174) When teachers are given the time to collaborate and share their ideas and concerns, they collectively find solutions and alternatives that they might not discover alone. Give teachers responsibility, accountability, and the power to deal with the problems, and they will creatively and collaboratively develop and implement solutions.

In an analysis of collaborative action research, Sagor and Curley, from Washington State University's Project LEARN, identified four cultural markers that predicted whether action research would be a force for educational change in a school:

  1. School goals were clearly defined and included high expectation as a school norm.
  2. Teachers felt that change was within their collective power.
  3. The perception of the school culture by faculty members was very similar.
  4. Faculty members appreciated the leadership (of administrators and other teachers) and viewed leaders as supportive of their work and committed to high expectations. (Sagor, 1997)

In schools where the collaborative action research was combined with the above cultural traits, improved student performance was significant. "The transformational experience of working in an environment that is steeped in professional discourse moves these educators in a continuously upward spiral in both their understandings and their practices." (Sagor, 1997, pp.187-188) Teachers involved in collaborative action research "achieved the freedom to reinvent their work lives and the work lives of the teachers who follow them into those of true professionals." (Sagor, 1997, p. 190) The culture of a school determines the success of new initiatives but the entire community must provide a climate for change. Educators who are committed, respected, and encouraged to search for and share solutions will find those solutions when given the time and opportunity.


Provide time for teachers to conduct research, reflect on the results, meet and share findings, debate differences, and make informed decisions that will directly impact not only their own teaching practice but the larger school community as well. Block scheduling, team teaching, substitute time, and flexible teaching assignments are just a few examples of ways in which school systems can incorporate this time into the existing school day.

Increase funds for ongoing professional development and encourage teachers to select and design their own professional growth experiences in response to the needs of their students and the goals of their school.

Teacher Leadership
The transformation of teaching from an occupation into a profession creates new leadership roles for teachers who wish to stay in the classroom but are willing to take on additional assignments (lead teachers, mentors, curriculum developers, teacher research coordinators). Teachers should be given opportunities to develop leadership skills, assume leadership roles, and earn salaries that are commensurate with the increased responsibility. "In short what we need to do is focus our resources on our people and the conditions of their work and build these conditions into the structure of a true profession." (Saphier, 1994, p.5) An extensive study on the work of teacher leaders, (Lieberman, Saxl, and Miles, 1988) concluded that restructuring school communities to incorporate leadership positions for teachers helped to cultivate a more positive environment by placing a non-judgmental value on providing assistance, modeling collegiality as a mode of work, providing school site opportunities for continuous learning, and encouraging others to provide leadership to their peers. Teachers reported that their knowledge and skills in teaching increased dramatically as a result of their involvement in leadership positions. (Lieberman, et al, 1988) Leadership opportunities lead to increased confidence and a stronger commitment to the profession. "By sharing leadership, teachers feel more ownership of and commitment to decisions. And by providing teachers with leadership opportunities, one accords them recognition . . . In short, research suggests that the greater the participation in decision making, the greater the productivity, job satisfaction, and organizational commitment." (Barth, 1990, p. 130) School systems across the country are beginning to appreciate the importance of recognizing and promoting teacher leadership. As the responsibilities of school administrators become more demanding and complex, teacher leaders can provide valuable assistance and support in many critical areas. The traditional top down model of school governance is no longer adequate in successful learning environments. In communities of professionals, management and control decline as stewardship and empowerment increase. Leadership becomes the ability to bring out the best in others--to motivate others to take on leadership roles.

Recognizing the need to provide leadership opportunities for teachers, Boston Public Schools instituted a Lead Teacher Program in 1994. Working with the Boston Teachers Union, the Boston Public School system made a commitment to "improve the profession of teaching--a profession that offers opportunities for professional growth, involvement in decision-making, communication and collaboration, and increased responsibilities and accountability." The program enables teachers to assume increasingly greater responsibility for the reform effort and provides opportunities for teachers to develop leadership skills and earn correspondingly higher salaries. (The Lead Teacher, Spring 1996) In Boston 300 highly accomplished teachers met the selection criteria for Lead Teacher status during the first year of implementation. Lead teacher status is also conferred on teachers who have successfully achieved National Board Certification. A system-wide publication called The Lead Teacher publishes the names of teachers who have been recognized as lead teachers and includes articles about the contributions they are making to school improvement. Leadership opportunities include mentoring, staff development, program associates, curriculum development, peer coaching and others. Lead teachers receive leadership training and an increase in their salary.

In sharp contrast to the merit pay system, this program publicly recognizes master teachers and gives them an opportunity to receive a salary that is commensurate with the additional roles and responsibilities that they are willing to assume. Similar programs have been successfully implemented in other major school districts to include Cincinnati, Ohio and Rochester, New York. "The Career-in-teaching programs in Rochester, New York, and Cincinnati, Ohio, aim to provide incentives to attract and retain quality teachers in the profession, improve teachers' professional growth opportunities and give teachers broader roles and responsibilities that will improve student achievement and provide better schools." (NCTAF, p. 97) In Rochester, lead teachers serve as mentors, curriculum designers, and project facilitators and receive stipends ranging from 5 to 15 percent of their total salary. In Cincinnati, lead teachers serve as mentors, curriculum developers, clinical faculty, and leaders for school-based initiatives and their salary increments range from $4500 to $5000. In both cities, National Board Certification qualifies a teacher for lead teacher status. (NCTAF, 1996)

These programs not only recognize and reward knowledge and skill, they also ensure that teachers who are willing to take on additional responsibilities are compensated for the extra work. Not every teacher has the time or the desire to take on additional roles, however, those that do should receive a salary increment that is commensurate with the additional responsibility.

Pockets of change are creating results that are being published and shared as models of school reform. Though each school's experience is a unique response to the culture of its community, we can learn from each other's setbacks and successes. Common elements that are identified and found to have a positive impact allow us to learn from and with each other.

"A five-year study by the Center on Organization and Restructuring of Schools (CORS) at the University of Wisconsin, concluded that the most important factor in successful school reform is the presence of a strong professional community in which teachers pursue a clear, shared purpose for student learning; engage in collaborative work; and take collective responsibility for student learning." (The Progress of Education Reform, 1996) In a comprehensive study of 1,500 schools nationwide and field studies of 44 schools in 16 states, the following conditions were identified as important in helping schools develop the type of professional community needed to promote learning of high intellectual quality:

  • Shared governance that increases teachers' influence over school policy and practice
  • Interdependent work structures, such as teaching teams, which encourage collaboration.
  • Staff development that enhances technical skills consistent with the school's mission.
  • Deregulation that provides autonomy for schools to pursue a vision of high intellectual standards.
  • Small school size, which increases opportunities for communication and trust.
  • Parent involvement in a broad range of school affairs. (Newmann and Wehlage, 1995)

Compelling case studies and stories of successful change have been documented and shared in numerous publications. The following story is just one of many that crossed my path as my research progressed. I chose to highlight it because it encompassed all grade levels, k-12, and it appeared to be a pioneer effort with limited resources.

"For the past four years, the Leadership for Change project at Southwest Educational Development Laboratory (SEDL) has been conducting case studies of leaders and their efforts to implement school improvement. One of the sites is Dumas Public Schools, located in one of the nation's poorest regions, the Arkansas Mississippi Delta. Dumas is a small school district, with two elementary schools, a junior high and a high school. Nearly 60 per cent of the district's student population is enrolled in free lunch programs, and 77 percent of the families have incomes below the poverty level.

"Dumas Public Schools has a history of promoting teacher leadership and change... In general, Dumas teachers report freedom to use innovative instructional strategies and programs in their classrooms and to share these ideas with other teachers. Teachers are also encouraged to bring ideas back from conferences or meetings . . . There is a clear expectation in Dumas that teachers will participate in leadership roles. One teacher noted . . . 'We have always been on the leading edge of things because of the attitude of the administration that we should be leaders.'. . . Critical decisions are put in the hands of the people who are most capable of making those decisions - teachers. Results have shown that students are scoring higher on state assessments and college entrance exams. They are taking more challenging courses. Newspaper articles that highlight student achievements are regularly published in the local paper.

"Encouraging teachers to assume leadership roles appears to be working at Dumas. Teachers are teaching differently. They are demonstrating a greater respect for each other and for students . . . teachers are getting excited about teaching again." (SEDL, 1996)

J. D. Villereal, the principal of Waitz Elementary School in Mission, Texas, shared another success story with me. One hundred percent of the students who attend Waitz are from lower socio-economic families. Since the school opened five years ago, their academic success has exceeded all state expectations. Recently, they were ranked number one in the state for continuous consistent progress in student achievement. Mr. Villereal attributes this accomplishment to shared governance and teacher leadership. He explained how the teachers allocate responsibility and participate in all aspects of the school's operation. Decisions are made through consensus and range from budget considerations and hiring staff to establishing schedules and purchasing equipment. Ownership and a shared commitment have paid off and students are the ones who benefit.


Create leadership positions with compensatory pay for teachers who are willing to assume additional responsibilities but do not wish to leave their classrooms to become administrators. This is currently being done in a piecemeal fashion for some. However, positions and responsibilities need to be defined and offered in a standard format for all.

In order to develop communities of professionals that are committed to students and learning, we need to create policies that will support such a community--a community where teachers and administrators can work together in a positive forum to achieve mutual goals. The success of new reform initiatives will depend on the capacity of these initiatives to empower the entire staff to work together as a compelling unit of change. Teachers, as leaders and professionals, should be given the opportunity to take an active role in the change process and thereby facilitate its growth.

Barth, Roland. Improving Schools from Within. Jossey-Bass Publishers: SanFrancisco, 1991.
Brandt, R. 1992. On rethinking leadership: A conversation with Tom Sergiovanni. Educational Leadership, 49(5): 46-9.
Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy. May, 1986. A Nation Prepared: Teachers for the 21st Century. Washington, DC.
Conley, David T. Some Emerging Trends in School Restructuring, ERIC document, 1992
Darling-Hammond, Linda. The Right to Learn. Jossey-Bass Publishers: San Francisco, 1997.
Education Commission of the States. November, 1996. The Progress of Education Reform: 1996.
Evans, Robert. The Human Side of School Change. Jossey-Bass Publishers: San Francisco, 1996
Glatthorn, Allan. Teachers as Agents of Change: A New Look at School Improvement. National Education Association Publication. Washington D.C. 1992.
Lambert, L., Walker, D. Zimmerman, D. Cooper, J. Lambert M. Gardner, M. Slack, P.J. The Constructivist Leader. Teachers College Press: Columbia University, New York, 1995.
Levin, Henry M. Building School Capacity for Effective Teacher Empowerment. CPRE Research Report Series RR-019 1991
Lieberman, A., Saxl, E., & Miles, M. (1988). Teacher leadership: Ideology and practice. In A. Lieberman (Ed.), Building a professional culture in schools. New York: Teachers College Press
Lieberman, Ann, The Work of Restructuring Schools. Teachers College Press. Columbia University, New York. 1995.
Majchrzak, Ann Methods for Policy Research. Sage Publications: London, 1984
National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching (NCREST). August, 1991. Early Lessons in Restructuring Schools.: Lieberman, A., Darling-Hammond, Linda, Zuckerman, David. Teachers College, Columbia University
National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching (NCREST). April 1994. A Culture in the Making: Leadership in Learner-Centered Schools. Lieberman, A., Falk, B., Alexander, L. Teachers College, Columbia University
National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching (NCREST). December, 1992 Professional Development and Restructuring. Darling-Hammond, L., Lieberman, A., McLaughlin, M. Miller, L., Teachers College, Columbia University
National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching (NCREST). July, 1995. Practices and Policies to Support Teacher Development in an Era of Reform. Darling- Hammond, L., Lieberman, A., McLaughlin, M. Miller, L. Teachers College, Columbia University
National Commission on Teaching and AmericaÕs Future (NCTAF). September 1996 What Matters Most: Teaching and America's Future. New York.
National Foundation for the Improvement of Education (NFIE).1996 Teachers Take Charge of Their Learning: Transforming Professional Development for Student Success. Washington D.C.
Newmann, Fred M., and Gary G. Wehlage. Successful School Restructuring: A Report to the Public and Educators Center on Organization and Restructuring of Schools: Wisconsin Center for Education Research, 1995.
Sagor, Richard "Collaborative Action Research for Educational Change" 1997 ASCD Yearbook Rethinking Educational Change with Heart and Mind. Edited by Andy Hargreaves
Saphier, Jonathon D. Bonfires and Magic Bullets Making Teaching a True Profession. Research for Better Teaching. Carlisle, MA, 1994.
Schmoker, Mike. Results: The Key to Continuous School Improvement. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Alexandria, VA, 1996.
Sergiovanni, Thomas J. Building Community in Schools. Jossey-Bass Publishers: San Francisco, 1994.
Southwest Educational Development Laboratory (SEDL), Leadership for Change Project, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education.
Spencer, Dee Ann. Teachers and Educational Reform. Educational Researcher, Vol. 25, No. 9, pp. 15-17, 40.
Weiss, Carol H. Shared Decision Making about What? A Comparison of Schools with and without Teacher Participation, ERIC document, 1992
Weiss, Carol H. The Four "I's" of School Reform: How Interests, Ideology, Information, and Institution Affect Teachers and Principals. Harvard Education Review, Winter, 1995.

Amundson, Kristen J., chairman, Fairfax County School Board
Auton, Sylvia, Ph.D. Director, Office of Staff Development and Training, Fairfax County Public Schools
Axelrod, Ron, English teacher, Woodson High School, Fairfax County Public Schools
Balasalle, Nick, Director, Center for Leadership Development, Boston, MA
Chaille, Claudia, Ed.D. principal, Stratford Landing Elementary School, Fairfax County, VA
Costello, Betty, Office of Staff Development and Training, Fairfax County Public Schools
Funk, Jan, principal, William Halley Elementary School, Fairfax County, VA
Futrell, Mary H., Ed.D., Dean, Graduate School of Education and Human Development, George Washington University
Harris, Maureen, Assistant Director, Center for Leadership Development, Boston, MA
Jukes, N. Yvonne, President, Fairfax Education Association
Lecos, Mary Anne, Ed.D. Director of Teacher Education, George Mason University
Nocerino, Mary Ann, Office of Educational Planning Services, Fairfax County Public Schools
Roesch, Maryanne, Ed.D., Director Office of Educational Planning Services, Fairfax County Public Schools
Rotberg, Iris, Ed.D., Research Professor of Education Policy, George Washington University
Sprague, Nancy F., Ph.D. Assistant Superintendent, Department of Instructional Services, Fairfax County Public Schools
Szabos, Janice, principal, Haycock Elementary School, Fairfax County, VA
Tomlinson, Carol Ann, Ed.D. Associate Professor of Leadership, Foundations & Policy, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia
Villereal, J.D. principal, Waitz Elementary School, Mission, Texas


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