Teacher Leadership: A Fresh Solution for School Improvement

In his blog Fixing Schools Again and Again, Larry Cuban takes a big-picture look at the factors that have driven and continue to drive school reform. He outlines a pattern of policymakers jumping from one innovation to another with little regard for history. Cuban suggests that school improvement initiatives across the past century have tried to fix education by altering: 1) students (e.g., preschool programs); 2) schools (e.g., accountability through testing); or 3) teachers (e.g., mentorship programs). He describes a dizzying array of reform efforts arising in part from shifting ideologies. This unflattering description school reform is analogous to trendy discussions of societal problems disguised as nightly news coverage: complex issues presented in condensed and over-simplified versions with a disregard for the entanglement of influences at play. No wonder solutions remain elusive in both these settings.

How might we take a deeper look at the challenges faced by today’s school and then design, as Cuban suggests, evidence-informed solutions? Perhaps we need to consider whether the right people are involved in defining school reform policy and practice. Which individuals are most integral to any reform effort? Where does the greatest body of professional knowledge about effective practice reside? What is the most powerful source of energy for sustaining reform until its goals are achieved? Which players are best equipped to tackle the complexity of school reform? School reform without teacher involvement is like a computer simulation. When we allow school reform to be controlled by politicians and policymakers we treat the evolution of our educational system as if it is a virtual reality. Real children need and deserve hands-on leadership at the most grass-roots level; they need teachers who take on a leadership identity and choose to take an active role in school improvement.

This is not a new idea. Over a decade ago James Stigler and James Hiebert took a hard look at our education system and concluded:

Improving something as complex and culturally embedded as teaching requires the efforts of all the players, including students, parents, and politicians. But teachers must be the primary driving force behind change. They are best positioned to understand the problems that students face and to generate possible solutions. In fact, almost all successful attempts to improve teaching have involved teachers working together to improve students’ learning. The Teaching Gap (2009, p. 135)

It’s time for all teachers to re-create their identities to include responsibility for improving our educational system as a whole. And it’s time for other education leaders and the public to recognize that teacher involvement is critical to successful school reform.

Cuban’s thoughtful post ends with a quote from French novelist Andre Gide: Everything has been said before, but since nobody listens we have to keep going back and beginning all over again. Listening to the accumulated experience and wisdom of our teachers, those closest to the problems and best positioned to implement solutions, is a good place to start.

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