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The Nature of Teacher Leadership: Lessons Learned from the California Subject Matter Projects

author: Inverness Research Associates
submitter: Mark St. John
description: This is one of three reports (Including The Contributions of Teacher Leaders and The Work of Teacher Leaders) wrriten by Inverness Associates on the California Subject Matter Projects (CSMP). "The CSMPs consist of nine Projects providing professional development in nine different 101 regional sites--all of which are designed to attract, develop, nurture, sustain, and promote teacher leadership."

This report primarily focuses "on understanding the realities of teacher leadership: what motivates teacher leaders' what sources of knowledge they draw upon in working with their colleagues; what supports they find most useful, what issues and barriers they face."

published in: Inverness Research Associates
published: 1999
posted to site: 01/14/1999


In 1986, two well-known national studies proposed teacher leadership as the solution to problems faced by the nation's schools. The Carnegie Commission task force on Teaching as a Profession and the Holmes Group (a group of education school deans), both acknowledged the central role teachers would have to play in any large-scale successful change or improvement process.

In the introduction to the Holmes Group's report, Tomorrow's Teachers, spokeswoman Judith Lanier hit upon the problem confronting those who called for increased leadership by teachers when she said, "Paradoxically, teachers are the butt of most criticism, yet singled out as the one best hope for reform4." Although teaching historically has been considered a low-status profession, both the Carnegie and Holmes studies agreed that only teachers were strategically situated to implement an ambitious national school reform agenda that would move public education into the twenty-first century. "School systems based on bureaucratic authority," the Carnegie Commission concluded, "must be replaced by schools in which authority is grounded in the professional competence of the teacher, and where teachers work together as colleagues, constantly striving to improve their performance."5

A few questions remained: How could the competency (and leadership capability) of the teaching profession be elevated to carry forward this work? And how would teacher leaders work to move education into the next century?

Both the Carnegie and Holmes groups assumed that leadership would have to be conferred upon teachers by outside authorities: by national boards of certification or in bona fide graduate degree programs. And, in response to the question of what teacher leaders would actually do to turn around education, a subcommittee of Carnegie Commissioners eventually proposed a modest list of tasks. "Such roles might include mentoring of beginning teachers; appraising and critiquing performance to foster individual growth; designing, organizing and conducting staff in-service; and facilitating review of building-level concerns."6

While the outcome of the work of these two groups was to place teachers at the center of the conversation, their views on the sources of authority for teacher leadership, on where and how leadership was to be derived, and their assumptions that leadership would consist of serving as "mentor" or "resource teacher" remained traditional and quite limited.

The following year, an influential educational policy analysis of staff development was undertaken in California. Throughout the 1980's, significant California tax dollars had been allocated to provide professional development for teachers with a goal of educational improvement and reform. In 1987, the California State Legislature initiated a cost/benefit analysis of that investment. Researchers from Far West Laboratory and the Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE) were asked to determine the cost and cost-effectiveness of staff development. The study was designed to advise educational policy makers about whether a more coherent program of staff development could be used as a policy instrument for state and local entities.

California researchers who took a critical look at existing systems of professional development in the state found a sorry and incoherent state of affairs. Staff development activities, they determined, were top-down and market-driven by a training industry that catered to school administrators seeking easy solutions to complex problems.

Five Major Criticisms of Staff Development Programs by Far West/PACE


  • Staff development programs were not discipline-specific.
  • Staff development was "market driven" by the expertise, ideas and availability of outside agents rather than the questions, concerns and challenges faced by classroom teachers.
  • Outside presenters lacked credibility with teachers if they were not teaching or had never taught.
  • The consistent use of outside experts or purchased talent could backfire by implying that expertise could not possibly be found amongst local teachers, and could result in declining morale, lack of commitment and mediocrity on the part of teaching staff.
  • Goals and outcomes of staff development programs were not well-articulated nor long-term.

Source: 1987 Far West/PACE Report7

Far West/PACE Researchers found that a school site administrator's goals of efficiency and fiscal restraint often worked against customized or discipline-specific staff development. The common and cost-effective practice of holding staff development days for an entire teaching staff meant that presentations were not often targeted to a discipline or a grade level. As a result, the sessions remained generic and many times were largely irrelevant to the teaching of specific subjects in real classrooms. In addition, canned 'hired gun' or inspirational-type presenters were not in tune with the specific challenges faced by local staff encountering a unique and diverse student body.

With outside consultants providing the majority of staff development to schools, educational researchers warned that the situation could as easily result in a decline in performance on the part of teachers, rather than the intended opposite. Citing an argument put forward by Rosabeth Kanter in 1983, researchers argued that "an institutional habit of relying on 'purchased talent' may contribute to a 'culture of inferiority' as insiders come to believe that none of them is good enough to do the job."8 As a result, a disaffected teaching staff could lose confidence in their own ability to contribute knowledge or devise solutions to specific problems faced by their students.

It was, in part, a problem of scale. "Few districts," the 1987 study noted, "are of sufficient size to afford the resources necessary to create staff development experiences for all subject areas and grade levels that combine sensitivity to current instructional assignments, intellectual depth, and time for adapting new ideas to established curricula."9 The devastating conclusion of the PACE/Far West team was that most staff development opportunities failed to do what they were meant to do: to circumvent the isolating nature of teaching and to engage teachers in a rigorous examination of their own teaching practices.10

To counter this picture of doom and gloom, researchers suggested remedies. As a part of the study, a survey of teachers revealed the importance of the "credibility factor" in effective staff development. Teachers told researchers that the most frequent question (and criticism) they had for staff development providers was, "have you ever taught?" And, while less than twenty percent of the teachers in the survey reported that they worked in schools where teachers frequently led staff development activities, eighty percent of the teachers surveyed believed teachers should provide the staff development.11

Parallel statistics the research team had gathered from 30 school districts about their staff development programs confirmed the teachers' perceptions. While districts reported that teachers participated in planning or presenting staff development about ten percent of the time, teachers rarely had sole responsibility for overseeing those tasks. So, in the end, teachers accounted for less than ten percent of the total leader hours devoted to planning, presenting and evaluating staff development. Far West/PACE researchers concluded that teachers participated in staff development "as learners not leaders."12

As an alternative, researchers suggested that noteworthy examples of staff development could be identified and supported on a larger scale.13 "In the University of California system," the 1987 report stated, "the California Writing Project serves as a model of substantively rich, strategically sophisticated professional development."14 Far West and PACE researchers identified the following hallmarks of the California Writing Project: The CWP "has explicit goals that are clearly and consistently linked to student learning" and "operates on the principle that "teachers will teach teachers," which results in an atmosphere that "celebrates teaching" rather than "fixing teachers."

Findings from the 1987 Far West/PACE study contributed to the 1988 creation of the discipline-centered California Subject Matter Projects which is based on a "teachers teaching teachers" philosophy for professional development.

Characteristics of Effective Professional Development

  • Staff development is discipline-specific and/or grade level-specific.
  • Teachers teach teachers, which results in a celebration of teaching rather than "fixing" teachers.
  • Knowledge and authority emerges from teaching practices in relation to student achievement.
  • Long-term, explicit goals are clearly and consistently linked to student learning and tied to local school issues and teaching challenges.

Source: 1987 Far West/PACE Report

In summary, in the last decade, reports by national and state educational policy makers promoted visions of reform which placed teachers on the leading edge. Within the context of the national reform documents, "teacher leadership" was a subject that would be taught to teachers and conferred on teachers by higher authorities or national boards. Staff development in local districts reflected state and national conceptions of leadership, with school boards and administrators granting "mentor" or "resource teacher" status to teachers. California researchers confirmed that authority for staff development most often came from administrators or from outside experts. The notion that teachers were best positioned to lead education reform processes was extant at all levels, but the design of the reforms themselves and the knowledge base upon which their efforts were to be formulated were to be derived from "on high." So too was teachers' "authority" to lead their colleagues.

By contrast, and as a result of the Far West/PACE report, California lawmakers in 1988 authored a vision for staff development that confronted prevailing conceptions of teacher leadership and authority. In part because of the work of the California Writing Project, this vision recognized that leadership for improving education need not be granted from outside the teaching community itself. It recognized that such leadership already exists in many schools with experienced teachers leading their colleagues towards improved learning opportunities for students. The California vision established teacher-led, university-school partnerships that would convene leading teachers for purposes of sharing knowledge about teaching and organizing themselves for work with their colleagues. On a very fundamental level, California recognized teachers' authority to identify leadership and situated this authority in effective teaching practices and independent university research rather than in formalized and often politicized reform agendas.

For most of this century, leadership in schools has been viewed as the purview of the school site principal and district administration. Between the years 1920 and 1985, the numbers of school administrators increased, from one for every thirty-two teachers to one for every eleven teachers — an increase of over 300 percent.15 When periodicals and journals were published for leaders in education, they were directed toward an audience of principals, administrators and school board members. By the mid-1980's there were many "leaders" in education, but they were not teachers.

Over the past ten years the situation has changed. Both in the literature and, more importantly, in practice, there has been increased recognition of the importance, and perhaps the inevitability, of the role of teachers in both the design and implementation of reform. The numbers alone dictate that teachers be the major actors in any successful nation-wide reform effort. But beyond the mere numerical necessity of teacher leadership, the very nature of the reforms envisioned in national and state standards (e.g. their democratic and constructivist stance) dictate that teachers be the central leaders in the effort to make such reforms a reality in classrooms. The means by which teachers gain the capacity to assume such leadership roles, and the development of appropriate leadership opportunities, are the subjects of this study.


4 A Report of the Holmes Group, Tomorrow's Teachers. East Lansing: The Holmes Group, April, 1986, p. 3.

5 Report of the Task Force on Teaching as a Profession, A Nation Prepared: Teachers for the 21st Century. New York: Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy, 1986, p. 55.

6 Patricia A. Wasley, Teachers Who Lead; the Rhetoric of Reform and the Realities of Practice. New York: Teachers College Press, Columbia University, 1991, p. 20.

7 Judith Warren Little, et. al, "Staff Development in California; Public and Personal Investments, Program Patterns, and Policy Choices." A Joint Publication of Far West Laboratory for Educational Research and Development and Policy Analysis for California Education, December 1987.

8 Ibid., p. 41.

9 Little, "Staff Development," p. 42.

10 Ibid., p. 7.

11 Ibid., p. 41. Emphasis in original text.

12 Ibid., p. 41.

13 Ibid., p. 6.

14 Ibid., p. 6.

15 Robert Welker, The Teacher as Expert: a Theoretical and Historical Examination. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992, p. 7.

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