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Contributions of the CSMPs to Teacher Leaders

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 examines the "ways in which the CSMPs provided a bridge between classroom practice and leadership activities."

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




This is a study of the California Subject Matter Projects (CSMPs) and their role in promoting teacher leadership. In fact, the raison d’etre of the California Subject Matter Projects (CSMPs) is the development and support of teacher leaders. Building on the successful model of the Writing Project, the CSMPs have argued that the best teacher of teachers is an accomplished teacher. Over the past ten years they have worked hard to establish a network of CSMP sites so that the most talented and experienced teachers in the state can be recruited into leadership roles, and so that these teacher leaders can share their knowledge with their peers. Teacher leadership lies at the heart of the CSMPs, and it is teacher leadership such as this that supplies the "horsepower" for most local reform efforts. Indeed, it is hard to imagine any statewide reform effort succeeding without the work of thousands of skilled teacher leaders who are committed to the effort. 1

This study

This study complements and builds upon our earlier studies of teacher leadership2. In this study, we sought to learn more about the connection between the leadership abilities of the CSMP teacher leaders and their classroom practices. More specifically, we studied the ways in which the CSMPs provided a bridge between classroom practices and leadership activities. In their responses to our detailed survey, hundreds of CSMP teacher leaders explained how, in a symbiotic fashion, their classroom practices contributed to their leadership skills and, in turn, how their leadership work contributed directly to the improvement of their classroom teaching.

The study also explored more broadly how CSMP teacher leaders assess the strengths and weaknesses of their own teaching, and what outside influences (including the CSMPs) most impact their effectiveness as teachers. In this light we studied carefully the role that assessment (both formal and informal) played in either helping or hindering their efforts to be good teachers. More specifically, we explored how the CSMPs helped teachers study and learn from their students, and how the state’s standardized tests contributed to the improvement of their teaching practice.

Over 400 teacher leaders responded to our survey. They represent all the Subject Matter Projects (except Health/Physical Education), and they represent the full range of grade levels. In a very real sense our respondents represent a sample of some of the state’s best teachers. The respondents average more than 15 years of teaching experience in their respective disciplines. Also, on average, they have served as CSMP teacher leaders for more than five years. Our survey respondents collectively mirror the demographic composition of California’s teachers overall, and the students they are teaching are very diverse.

Our survey focused on four central questions:

  • In what ways are the CSMP teacher leaders, by their own judgment, most effective in their own classrooms? What do they feel enhances or hinders that effectiveness?
  • What evidence, or indicators, do the CSMP teacher leaders use to judge their own effectiveness as teachers?
  • In what ways do the CSMPs contribute to and draw upon their effective classroom practices?
  • How do the CSMPs contribute to the teacher leaders, both in terms of their own classroom practices and in terms of their leadership skills?

Major findings from the survey

1) The CSMPs contribute strongly and directly to the effectiveness of the classroom practices of its teacher leaders.

Our survey responses and comments show clearly that the CSMPs provide teacher leaders with disciplinary knowledge and discipline-specific pedagogy. But the CSMPs also, and perhaps more importantly, provide these teachers with a professional community that creates an ongoing supportive context for the improvement of their teaching. These teachers came to the Projects with knowledge and successful teaching experience, but also with the desire to continually develop their practice. They regard the CSMPs as important to that development. This finding is consistent with that of researchers studying teacher learning as a vital component of school reform3. The teachers responding to this survey find (and help create) that kind of professional community in their CSMP sites.

We believe this is an important finding because these teachers forge the content of their leadership — what they have to offer their colleagues and to the field — in the crucible of their classrooms with real students. This is a strong reinforcement of our earlier in-depth study of teacher leadership4. One teacher summed it up nicely:

"All that I do as a leader is drawn from my classroom experience."

2) The CSMP teacher leaders use and value a wide range of classroom-based strategies for assessing student learning. By contrast, they see standardized tests as counter-productive, providing them with little feedback they can use to improve their teaching.

Teachers responding to our survey have at their disposal a repertoire of strategies for formative assessment embedded in daily instruction, for tracking of cumulative growth over time, and for summative assessment of mastery. They feel assessment strategies are valuable to the extent that they are closely connected to their goals for student learning. The more distant and disconnected assessment is from their actual classrooms and students, the less it contributes to the improvement of their teaching. For the teacher leaders we surveyed, the need to prepare students for standardized tests is almost universally seen as an obstacle to their classroom effectiveness.

This finding has an important implication for state reform policy. These effective teachers feel accountable to their students and are deeply committed to assessing their learning. Yet, external standardized tests do not win their hearts and minds.

The rhetoric of accountability argues that state tests can serve as an incentive for teachers to change, and also provide them with feedback about how to improve their teaching. We found no evidence for either assertion. Also, at the same time the state depends on accomplished teachers (such as these) to serve as teacher leaders in its effort to improve instruction, reform policy is becoming more tightly anchored to standardized tests. Teachers such as those who responded to our survey are not likely to "implement" a reform so disconnected from their teaching goals and real students that it provides negative value. While the fact that standardized tests are barriers to the effectiveness of good teachers may be well known to those who talk with teachers on a regular basis, these survey findings provide grounded evidence of a serious mismatch between state policy assumptions and field realities.

3) The CSMP teacher leaders say their experiences in the CSMP are critically important in their success as leaders in their schools and in broader educational reform efforts.

These teachers identify two general types of CSMP contribution to their leadership development. First, their CSMP experiences validate their own effective practices and otherwise contribute to their confidence and professional judgement as teachers. These teachers say these reinforcing experiences are necessary to their success as leaders. Second, their sites create an array of opportunities that enable them to actually play leadership roles, and their site leaders encourage them to seek out other leadership opportunities on their own.

This finding underscores the capacity-building function CSMP sites can serve. CSMPs can develop teachers’ individual leadership capacities by "helping them recognize, organize, and display their knowledge and skill to others5." Sites can also develop overall site capacity for providing professional development by creating avenues for teacher leaders to put their knowledge to use beyond their classrooms.

4) CSMP teacher leaders take the knowledge, skills and experiences they have gained in CSMP activities and pass them along to their colleagues.

Teachers we surveyed say there is consistency in what they experience in core CSMP institutes and what they provide in workshops and other activities they conduct in the schools. These reports provide some evidence that the CSMPs’ "multiplier effect" model provides professional development that is both cost-effective and of high quality6. As Judith Warren Little suggests, "Policymakers require a way of making sense of costs — or more persuasively, investments... Investments [in teachers’ professional development] are more defensible if they can... be credibly tied to a ripple effect." (p. 145)7 Our survey results suggest that teacher leaders make a real attempt to reproduce their own CSMP experiences with fidelity and integrity.

5) There is a strong and mutually supportive linkage between the experiences these teacher leaders have as participants in the CSMPs, the leadership activities they engage in, and their own classroom practices.

It would be a mistake to assume that there is a simple causal link extending from these teachers’ CSMP experiences, to their practice, and finally, to their leadership. In their extensive written comments on the survey8, these teachers make clear that each contributes to the other. Just as effective classroom practice forms the basis of their leadership, their leadership responsibilities contribute to improvement of their teaching. As one teacher said:

"To be responsible for teaching others helps me to be responsible for better teaching myself and my own students."

These teachers say that their ability to make use of new knowledge for their classroom practice and for their leadership is dependent on their ability to have ongoing interactions with other teachers. CSMP sites provide these teachers with more than a static source of knowledge and ideas. Rather, the CSMPs provide a professional learning community that is an always-flowing conduit of knowledge and always-available group of practitioners with whom to learn and develop.

The teachers described the dynamics of CSMP contributions to their teaching and leadership in terms of the ongoing connections they have as members of a vibrant professional community9. The following diagram (which is centered around each teacher’s classroom practice) portrays mutually supportive relationships that exist between teachers’ CSMP professional development experiences, the knowledge and skills they gain, and the leadership they bring to the field.

Concluding thoughts

Our survey of over 400 CSMP teacher leaders shows that the knowledge and support they gain from their experiences in CSMP programs is important to their ability to foster student learning. In turn, these teachers say they pass on their practitioner knowledge to the many teachers they work with in their roles as leaders. These teachers’ experiences thus suggest that the CSMPs can make a contribution to effective classroom teaching that is both valuable and extensive.

These findings help make the case for ongoing state and university support of the CSMPs — particularly because they document the value of the CSMPs from the perspective of some of the state’s most accomplished teachers. These are the teachers upon whom California depends for the widespread systemic improvement of teaching. There are no other statewide and ongoing professional development systems which can offer the kind of knowledge and support these teachers value as they improve their teaching. And there are no other systems that have the capacity to provide support to a substantial proportion of the state’s teachers.

Our survey also shows that these teacher leaders feel accountable primarily to the students in their classrooms, and secondarily to their students’ parents and to the integrity of their subject disciplines. Their desire to improve their teaching is what motivates them to learn. These teachers are committed to assessing student learning and to using the results of assessment to improve their teaching, but they are not being helped by external standardized assessments, and, in fact, regard them as barriers to their best practice. This suggests that the current policy trend of tying reform efforts tightly to standardized tests may well have the effect of alienating the very teachers the state depends upon for any effort to improve teaching.


1 According to Judith Warren Little, "It is increasingly implausible that we could improve the performance of schools... without promoting leadership in teaching by teachers." See Little, J.W. (1988). Assessing the Prospects for Teacher Leadership. In Lieberman, A. (Ed.), Building a Professional Culture in Schools. New York: Teachers College Press, p. 78.

2See Inverness Research Associates reports: The Nature of Teacher Leadership: Lessons Learned From the CSMPs. June 1997; and The Work of CSMP Teacher Leaders: A Summary of Key Findings From a Statewide Survey. June 1997.

3For example, Milbrey McLaughlin and Joan Talbert found that teachers' capacity to meet reform goals and adapt to a range of students depends, in great part, on "participation in a professional community that discusses new teaching materials and strategies, and that supports the risk-taking and struggle entailed in transforming practice." See McLaughlin, M.W. and Talbert, J. (1993). Contexts that Matter for Teaching and Learning: Strategic Opportunities for Meeting the Nation's Educational Goals. Stanford University: Center for Research on the Context of Teaching, p. 15.

4See Inverness Research Associates report: The Nature of Teacher Leadership: Lessons Learned from the CSMPs. June, 1997.

5Little, J.W. (1988). Assessing the Prospects for Teacher Leadership. In Lieberman, A. (Ed.), Building a Professional Culture in Schools. New York: Teachers College Press, p. 103.

6For a discussion of the quality and qualities of CSMP summer institutes, see Inverness Research Associates' report: Evaluating Professional Development: An Exploration of the Quality (and Qualities) of the California Subject Matter Projects. February 1998. That study suggests that institutes tend to be of higher quality, overall, than programs which sites sponsor in schools.

7Little, J.W. (1993). Teachers' Professional Development in a Climate of Educational Reform. In Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis: 15:2, pp. 129-151.

8Appendix E includes teachers' comments.

9For an analysis of the characteristics of a site's professional community and teachers' experiences in them, see Inverness Research Associates' report: Evaluating Professional Development: An Exploration of the Quality (and Qualities) of the California Subject Matter Projects. February 1998.

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