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Assessing the Prospects for Teacher Leadership

author: Judith Warren Little
description: Judith Warren Little begins with the premise that "it is increasingly implausible that we could improve the performance of schools...without promoting leadership in teaching by teachers." Little then goes on present a collection of studies that "reveal some of the conditions required to promote and sustain rigorous professional relations among teachers that yield benefits for students."

Reprinted by permission of the publisher for Lieberman, A. (Ed.), BUILDING A PROFESSIONAL CULTURE IN SCHOOLS (New York: Teachers College Press, ©1988 by Teachers College, Columbia University. All rights reserved.), pp. 78-106.

published in: from "Building a Professional Culture in Schools," Teachers College
published: 1988
posted to site: 12/17/1998

This chapter is based on research conducted at the center for Action Research, Boulder, Colorado, under contract NIE-G-82-0020, and at the Far West Laboratory for Educational Research and Development under contract 400-83-003, both with the National Institute of Education, U.S. Department of Education. The views expressed herein are not necessarily the views of that agency

This chapter begins with a simple proposition: it is increasingly implausible that we could improve the performance of schools, attract and retain talented teachers, or make sensible demands upon administrators without promoting leadership in teaching by teachers.


Debate over the prospects for teacher leadership threads its way through larger discussions of the professionalization of teaching (see, e.g., Soltis, 1987). Three sets of professionalization problems form the context for questions of teacher leadership (see Figure 5.1). They are:

Conditions of membership in the occupation
The structure of the teaching career
Conditions of productivity in schools

Membership in the Occupation

Teachers have been invited–or pressed–to take a larger role in regulating membership in the teaching occupation. Teachers are increasingly involved in planning and conducting preservice teacher education. In some states, teachers now participate (or soon will) on assessment teams that make decisions governing teacher licensure.

Figure 5.1. Targets of Change in the Professionalization of Teaching Arenas for Teacher Leadership

Conditions of Membership in the Occupation

  • Recruitment
  • Preservice admission and exit standards
  • Licensure/certification
  • Testing and assessment tied to a knowledge base in teaching
  • Teacher evaluation

Structure of the Teaching Career

  • Structure of opportunity for advancement/promotion
  • Structure of opportunity for expanded responsibility or job enlargement
  • Access to meaningful (professional) reference groups in and out of school

Conditions of Productivity in Schools

  • Structure of leadership and decision making that includes well-qualified teachers
  • Administrators' roles in the support of teachers and teaching
  • Collective responsibility for student achievement
  • Reward structure that promotes teacher-to-teacher collaboration and accountability

Teachers and administrators in some districts have reached agreements governing teachers' participation in teacher evaluation. All of these changes are in accord with the recent proposition that, "it is only by regulating [those who become] teachers that we will be able to deregulate teaching" (Darling-Hammond, 1987, 356; emphasis in original).1

Restructuring the Teaching Career

Efforts to diminish the "careerlessness" of teaching (Sykes, 1983) have spawned a wide array of career-ladder plans and special roles or assignments for experienced teachers. Such plans typically present options for teacher leadership as possible steps in an individual career. Over time, according to most plans, some teachers will advance to senior positions on the basis of their demonstrated knowledge, skill, energy, and commitment. Their new positions will be recognized by distinctive titles, access to discretionary resources, and expanded responsibility and authority. The number of such positions will be limited, and teachers will necessarily compete for them.

The development of career-ladder and other incentive plans has been prompted by fears that attractive (and accessible) career options will lure both prospective and practicing teachers away from teaching and by hopes that the promise of career advancement will slow the attrition.

Career ladders and other competition-based incentive systems for teachers were announced with considerable fanfare following the flurry of reform reports in 1983,2 but they have subsequently drawn criticism. It is probably a myth, Susan Rosenholtz (1985b) argues, that "competition between teachers for career advancement and higher pay is a sound way to improve the quality of their teaching" (p. 351) or that "career ladders and incentive pay will attract more academically talented people into the teaching profession" (p. 353). Further, critics have questioned the incentive value of plans that provide attractive options for only a small proportion of the teaching force, and then often after long tenure in the classroom.

Certainly it is hard to detect a groundswell of support from teachers for most of the career-ladder proposals; policy makers, educational reformers, and researchers have been the most vocal advocates.

The element of competition contained in career-ladder plans may be only one of several reasons for their lukewarm reception from teachers. The "promotion and advancement" vision of career reflected in such plans does not necessarily match teachers' conceptions of career. Studies of art and science teachers in British secondary schools conclude that professional identity and career satisfaction derive in part from meaningful contact with professional reference groups outside the school, for example, working scientists or artists or university-based educators (Bennet, 1985). American teachers interviewed by Stanford researchers appear to be less interested in hierarchically arrayed positions than in a richer pool of professional opportunities for all classroom teachers (Yee, 1986).

Conditions of Productivity in School

A third set of problems (and recommendations) centers on the professional environment of the school, or workplace conditions. Among the recommendations are ones calling for richer teacher-student ratios and greater amounts of planning and preparation time; these are conditions that would permit teachers time for critical reflection and closer collaboration. Other recommendations call for differentiated staffing or for school-level "lead-teacher" roles.

The idea behind such proposals is that promoting leadership by teachers in the context of the school will satisfy two needs: it will present attractive opportunities and rewards for teachers, and it will direct greater institutional attention to the quality of teaching.

Such recommendations treat leadership less as a matter of individual career trajectories than as a matter of rigorous professional relations among teachers. Teachers are expected to exert the kind of influence on one another that would enhance success and satisfaction with students. In that respect, workplace reform proposals challenge longstanding patterns of teacher isolation and individual autonomy. They fly in the lace of most cultural, institutional. and occupational precedents (Feiman-Nemser & Floden, 1986).

Some recommendations, particularly those centered on differentiated staffing and the development of lead-teacher positions, have drawn the same criticisms as career ladders, and for some of the same reasons. On the whole, however, the workplace reform recommendations, like the career-ladder proposals, have been deemed by many states and localities to be important enough to deserve a serious trial (Darling-Hammond, 1987; Carnegie Forum, 1986).


This chapter emphasizes the third of the three potential arenas for reform activity: conditions of productivity in schools. It is in this arena that the public interest in teacher leadership is most pressing. There are three main arguments underlying "school workplace" reforms.

First, experiments in teacher leadership will prove to be marginal and ephemeral if they are not demonstrably (and soon) linked to benefits close to the classroom. Teachers themselves test reform proposals by trying to anticipate the effect they might have in their own work. Other observers, including school board members and state legislators, will reasonably ask: What are the promised gains for students, their parents, and their communities when teachers assume greater leadership in the day-to-day life of schools?

Second, the work of schoolteaching is characteristically "professional" work; it is complex and subtle, requiring informed judgment by well-prepared practitioners in circumstances that are often ambiguous or difficult. Current arrangements often retard rather than advance teachers' professional capacities for sound judgment when they restrict opportunities for joint study and problem solving and when complex issues are tackled primarily through the exercise of bureaucratic rule making. The proposed alternative arrangements are held out with the promise that they will produce more successful solutions to problems of student learning and student socialization, at the same time that they build teachers' commitments to teaching.

Finally, we know something about the professionalization of organizations (Benveniste, 1987). These are reforms that are actionable. Despite some increase in real costs, they are reforms that will require clear vision, persistence, and good will far more than money.

In sum, the professionalization of the larger occupation rests in important ways on our ability to professionalize the organizations in which teachers work. Questions of theory, research, policy, and practice coincide in an examination of the prospects for professionalizing the daily work–and workplace–of teaching.

Even the most conservative of the workplace reform proposals requires that teachers, individually and collectively, act differently toward their work and one another. In some fashion or other, each proposal calls for teachers to take the lead in advancing the understanding and practice of teaching.

What are the prospects that such proposals, with their element of leadership by teachers, could be tested on a large enough scale in American schools to guide districts and states in their policy and program choices, or to guide professional associations in building their agendas ?

The rest of this chapter assesses the prospects from one standpoint: the likelihood that teachers will accept one another's initiative on matters of curriculum and instruction and do so in ways that demonstrably affect their own classroom choices.

I have relied primarily on teachers' own perceptions of and participation in school leadership, collected as part of four separate studies.3 The major source is a two-year study of instructional leadership in eight secondary schools. The study included leadership attitudes and practices by both administrators and teachers. The second is a study of "teacher advisors" who were charged with promoting and assisting teacher development in nineteen school districts. The third study examined the introduction of school-level instructional leadership teams in a single district. And the last is a two-year study of the California Mentor Teacher Program.

This collection of studies, and others' work on related topics, reveal some of the conditions required to promote and sustain rigorous professional relations among teachers that yield benefits for students.


Leadership is an empty term when there is nothing to lead, nowhere to go, and no one who follows. Do teachers have reason to lead the work of teaching, and thus have reason to lead one another? Advocates of teacher leadership, it appears, have largely underestimated the magnitude of the change their proposals represent.

Are Schools Organized to Influence Teaching?

When we promote leadership by teachers, we may assume that such an arrangement is an alternative to present conditions–that principals, for example, may have to relinquish some of their own influence as instructional leaders in order to make room for teachers. There is some doubt, however, whether teaching is now led at all, in any meaningful sense, in more than a few exceptional schools.

History would lead us to be skeptical about schools' influence on teaching (Cuban, 1985). This is not to say schools are not organized. Schools have been increasingly well organized for several purposes that are dear to the public interest. Most are organized to provide a humane, safe, orderly environment for students to learn. More and more schools are organized to teach basic academic and social skills. Finally, most schools are organized to maintain good relations with parents and the local public.

Schools are organized, then, for many important functions. Influencing teaching–the long-term directions as well as the daily classroom decisions that affect students–is not typically one of them (Bird & Little, 1986; Feiman-Nemser & Floden, 1986). Teachers are far less likely to defer to another teacher's view of curriculum or instruction than to rely upon habit and personal preference. There is rarely anything in the immediate professional environment that overcomes the effect of other influences on teachers' decisions. Such influences range from the teacher's own experience as a student (Lortie's "apprenticeship of observation"), to students' attempts to "bargain" the curriculum, to teachers' interpretations of parental interests, to personal predilections regarding curriculum content, instructional method, or the social organization of students for learning.

Schools that are organized to influence teaching are relatively rare. There are few precedents in the occupation or in the organization of schools that would encourage teachers to take initiative with regard to the classroom choices made by their colleagues. The arrangements that would underscore teachers' mutual interdependence, such as shared instructional assignments, are few. Traditional authority relations in schools and districts, as well as conventional teacher evaluation procedures, communicate a view of teaching as an individual enterprise. Finally, few of these rare institutions appear able to sustain their productive work norms and structures when the building principal or key teaching staff depart.

Teachers Who Lead

Recall that the task here is to consider how teacher leadership might be promoted in ways that improve productivity conditions in schools. The target of teacher leadership is the stuff of teaching and learning: teachers' choices about curriculum, instruction, how students are helped to learn, and how their progress is judged and rewarded.

Teachers who lead leave their mark on teaching. By their presence and their performance, they change how other teachers think about, plan for, and conduct their work with students.

Teachers invited to lead may well fail to do so. Examples abound. Leadership programs turn out to be mini grant competitions in which successful competitors pursue topics and problems of individual interest and "lead" the same way they teach: alone. Or a position described as "mentor," bearing all the powerful imagery and promise of that term, is steadily diminished in the eyes of teachers as its holder is seen to do little more than ordinary curriculum writing ("extra work for extra pay"). Or a teacher asked to assist first-year teachers worries so much about being "threatening" that he or she turns out to be useless instead.

Teachers placed in positions that bear the titles and resources of leadership display a caution toward their colleagues that is both poignant and eminently sensible. The relation with other teachers that is implied by terms like mentor, advisor, or specialist has little place in the ordinary workings of most schools. Even the simple etiquette of teacher leadership is unclear.

Teachers face a task of considerable magnitude in giving meaning to leadership within their own ranks. Imagine two teachers, one of whom has been accorded a title of "master teacher." Having seen each other teach rarely or not at all, the two teachers must worry about what they will discover about one another. The leader must worry about whether he or she has anything to offer that is not already fully at the command of the person presumably to be led. Having seldom or never talked about teaching in any depth, the two must now quickly learn to communicate in ways that match their complex and subtle sense of teaching; anything less will not satisfy them, because it will fail even to incorporate the accomplishments each has managed alone and because it will not take their work further than either one could carry it alone.

Teachers contemplating a rigorous mutual examination of their teaching may well have good reason to believe it will be difficult, even troublesome, and little reason to believe that the yield could be worth the trouble.

In a paper titled "The Lead Teacher: Ways to Begin," Kathleen Devaney (1987) describes six arenas in which teachers might reasonably demonstrate leadership at the school level. While some have more well-established precedents than others, each of the six has been described in prior studies of school organization. This is a plausible inventory of possibilities. It offers a balance between leadership that advances a school program by making it more suitable or rigorous, and leadership that moves people by strengthening their knowledge, skills, and commitment. In Devaney's view:

  1. Lead teachers continue to teach and to improve their own teaching. They gain their legitimacy by remaining credibly in touch with life in the classroom. They work consistently to apply best practice, and they engage in planned experimentation, often as members or leaders of small groups of colleagues. The California Mentor Teacher Program requires that mentors continue to teach at least a 60 percent load. Programs that release teachers full time to work in a "mentoring" or "advising" capacity (see Kent, 1985) promote demonstration lessons and other classroom consultation as one means of establishing the mentor's legitimacy in the eyes of teachers.

  2. Lead teachers organize and lead well-informed peer reviews of school practice. In practice, such activity has been most fruitful where it develops quickly from review to revision. In one school, teachers described two-year "innovation cycles." The cycle began when a group of five or six teachers decided that some aspect of student progress deserved their collective attention and set out to "get smarter" about the problem and the prospects for solving it. The cycle typically led to clearer formulation of the problem, potential avenues of improvement, skill training where appropriate, and selective classroom experimentation. Experiments that "worked" were marketed to others on the faculty. At the secondary level, we have observed reviews and improvement activities profitably organized by department as reviews of subject-area teaching. (For a discussion of the master teacher as curriculum leader, see Klein, 1985.)

  3. Lead teachers participate productively in school-level decision making. They work with administrators and teachers to arrive at decisions that are well targeted, well informed, and well accepted. Shared decision making has taken a range of forms, from formally organized and specially scheduled goal-setting sessions to a once-a-week staff meeting that engaged principal and grade level team leaders in the routine decision making that kept an entire school roughly headed in the same direction.

  4. Lead teachers organize and lead inservice education that is meaningfully related to the student population and the school program. A faculty effectively organized for its own learning, it appears, can make reasonable use of external staff development options that would otherwise have weak effect (e.g., the one-time workshop).

  5. Lead teachers advise and assist individual teachers through methods that have come to be called mentoring, coaching, or consultation. The literature on coaching has been growing steadily following Joyce and Showers' (1981) review of staff development practices, culminating in their prediction that classroom impacts would remain small unless skill training were accompanied by the kind of classroom assistance and consultation that would enable teachers to establish the "fit" between new ideas and established habits (see also Showers, 1983; Goodwin & Lieberman, 1984). On the whole, the logic underlying mentoring or coaching has been readily accepted (especially when applied to support for beginning teachers), but teachers have remained ill prepared and ill supported to assume mentoring responsibilities (Bird & Little, 1986).

  6. Lead teachers participate in the performance evaluation of teachers by providing appropriate appraisal and feedback. Peer evaluation is promoted as one hallmark of a professionalized occupation, in which standards of performance are monitored by the members of the profession in exchange for substantial guarantees of (collective) autonomy. Evaluation of teaching and teachers is the most problematic of the proposed domains for teacher leadership, though not unknown in our own studies, in studies of effective teacher evaluation (Wise et al., 1984), or in current statewide reform initiatives (Connecticut State Department of Education, 1984).


1. Descriptions of teachers' involvements in preservice teacher education can be found in Lanier, 1983, and in "Teacher Induction Programs and Research," the January-February 1986 issue of the Journal of Teacher Education. On teachers' involvement in teacher licensure, see Eurtwengler, 1985, and the Connecticut State Department of Education, 1984. On teachers' involvement in teacher evaluation, see Wise et al., 1984.

2. The Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI) is preparing a summary of the experience of 55 "teacher incentive" planning grants, most of which were targeted to career ladders. The Career Ladder Clearinghouse of the Southern Regional Education Board has recently prepared an update on its earlier state-by-state review (Career Ladder Clearinghouse, 1986). Wagner (1985) provides an overview of the California Mentor Teacher Program. Other well-established programs have promoted special roles based on teachers' demonstrated knowledge and skill (see Kent, 1985). The most celebrated recent example of "career-restructuring" is the "lead teacher" recommended by the Carnegie Forum in its report A Nation Prepared (1986). Following the Carnegie proposal, Devaney (1987) has prepared a discussion paper for use by local constituencies in deciding an approach to teacher leadership at the school and district level.

3. The following discussion is based on research conducted at the Center for Action Research, Inc., Boulder, Colorado, under Contract NIE-G-82-0020, and at the Far West Laboratory for Educational Research and Development, under Contract 400-83-003, both with the National Institute of Education, U.S. Department of Education. The views expressed herein are not necessarily the views of that agency.

In the first year of the instructional leadership study (Bird & Little, 1985b), case studies were completed in five schools (two districts). In the second year, surveys were completed in the five case-study schools and in three additional schools (four districts). The districts included a small city district, two large suburban districts, and a large urban district. In other related studies, the Professional Development Studies Group investigated the California Mentor Teacher Program (Bird, 1985), a countywide teacher advisor project (Little, 1985; Kent, 1985), and school-level instructional support teams (Little & Long, 1985). The studies described were conducted in partnership with my colleague, Tom Bird. The arguments developed here reflect his thinking in ways I am no longer able to untangle after 14 years of collaboration.

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