Collective leadership: Leading the schools of tomorrow

In the forthcoming series of blogs in this roundtable, K-12 public education leaders from across the country, working in different parts of the system, will share lessons learned in their efforts to spur collective leadership for school improvement and transformation. Barnett Berry, founder and CEO of CTQ, kicks off the conversation here. Join us at #CTQCollab.

There is nothing new about the importance of leadership development in improving our nation’s system of public education. For the last 90 years or so, our schools have relied on principals as the primary — if not the only — source of leadership in school buildings. And it does not take an archeological dig to unearth the role that principals have been expected to play in managing the work of teachers (see Ellwood Patterson Cubberley’s 1929 edition of Public School Administration).

However, today’s public schools face a number of challenges — including diminishing resources, increasing academic expectations, and growing proportions of students living in poverty, with trauma, and even without homes. The job of leading a school, as reported by principals themselves, has become too complex.[1]

Granted, as Leithwood and colleagues have pointed out, the concept of distributed leadership in education has been around for many decades and often is used “reverentially” by academics in the field. Yet, the ill-defined concept, even when applied, typically translates to principals finding a few teachers to whom they delegate instructional or administrative responsibilities. As Leithwood’s research surfaces, troubled schools rarely turn around “without intervention by a powerful leader.” Deeper learning outcomes for every student mean schools need to look and act differently: student-centered instruction, personalized and competency-based learning, and partnerships with social service and health agencies, universities, and nonprofits, are needed in order to serve the whole child.  

This kind of schooling demands a new kind of leadership and cannot rest on a few individual administrators, or even a handful of assistants and teacher leaders. It requires collective leadership — where teachers and administrators together inform, inspire, and influence colleagues, parents, policymakers, and other stakeholders to improve student outcomes.[2]

Let’s be clear. Collective leadership is not another K-12 program. It is a process that taps into the unique talents and skills of everyone in the school, district, or charter. In schools, collective leadership begins (but does not end) with teachers and administrators leading together, recognizing that long-term success rests on diverse perspectives and contributions. (Check out the Harvard Business Review on data from 3.5 million employees that shows how innovation really works).

As my colleague Jon Eckert explains in his recent book, in distributed leadership, clear boundaries between leaders and followers are always intact. In collective leadership, those boundaries become murky — with poignancy and power in this “murkiness.”  Recent research continues to highlight the power of peer learning, teacher leaders, and collective leadership in improving student achievement. And related research highlights how teaching expertise is more likely to spread among teachers on the basis of relational, not positional, leadership.

No doubt U.S. schools have a long way to go to mirror those in top-performing nations and jurisdictions like Singapore, Finland, and British Columbia — where principals and teachers routinely lead together. For example, Singapore teachers, on average, have 100 hours of paid professional development a year as well as about 15 hours a week, outside of classroom teaching, to collaborate with one another. Collective leadership is baked into both the funding and governance of Singapore schools.

Proudly, CTQ is working with a group of pilot schools in South Carolina, under the leadership of State Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman, to co-construct models of collective leadership that support teacher engagement and retention while improving student learning. Progress has been made. In the next post in this roundtable, Associate Principal and NBCT Tiffany W. Osborne shares the collective leadership efforts of Robert Anderson Middle School, where teachers are designing their own professional development, developing new teaching strategies to serve mobile students, and blogging to communicate what they are learning.

Our work in South Carolina and its Department of Education has spurred interest in a growing number of other state agencies and districts, including Arkansas, California, and Georgia. Together, we are using evidence to develop systems of professional learning and collective leadership so teachers can lead without leaving the classroom. As I reflect on the promise of collective leadership across the region and nation, I recommend the following three principles as a basis for future policy development:

  1.    Overcoming program-itis and finding the “no” in innovation. Schools across the nation are implementing a wide variety of education programs — many related to mandated policies and high stakes accountability. In our work with teachers and administrators, they can readily identify duplicative reading programs, unhelpful benchmark testing, and one-size fits all professional development that gets in the way of creative problem solving and teacherpreneurship. How can policy support schools in learning to say “no” to redundant and unnecessary programs that can be a drain on collective leadership processes?
  2.    Creating time for teachers to learn from one another. Most schools still offer little time for teachers to systematically collaborate and lead. Case studies conducted by Stanford Center for Opportunity in Education (SCOPE), reveal how in the U.S., Hillsdale High School (CA) established 5.2 hours a week for collaboration, and Pagosa Springs Elementary School (CO) teachers collaborated in content teams or grade level teams for up to 90 minutes daily. These schools find time by redesigning the roles of full time equivalent (FTE) staff and their master schedules to prioritize collaboration. How can policy support more educators in rethinking time and people to focus on goals that more deeply serve the whole child?
  3.    Valuing the spread of teaching expertise. The SC Department of Education has launched a far more comprehensive approach to teacher and principal evaluation and is experimenting with micro-credentials in support of competency-based professional development. School districts in South Carolina now have more choice in implementation and a laser focus on growth and constructive feedback. How might policy efforts (including evaluation, professional learning, university-based degree programs, and compensation) provide opportunities for teachers and administrators to spread evidence of impact and teaching expertise?

More so than ever before, principals count on teachers to lead in a variety of ways. And now 16 states, as part of their ESSA plans, have programs or pilots in place to support teacher leadership. Leithwood and his colleagues claim that the core of successful leadership practices in schools is about setting direction, developing people, and redesigning the organization. To do so successfully — especially in schools that serve the needs of all students — means developing a system of collective leadership that is built on the teaching and learning policies of tomorrow, not yesterday.

[1] Markow, D., Macia, L., and Lee, H., (2013). The MetLife survey of the American teacher: Challenges for school leadership. A survey of teachers and principals. New York, NY: MetLife Inc. Retrieved January 14, 2015

[2]Eckert, J. (2018). Leading together: Teachers and administrators improving student outcomes. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.