How Iowa can cheat the graveyard of failed reforms

The graveyard of failed education reforms is vast. But specific strategies can help Iowa policymakers secure a successful future for a promising new teacher leadership initiative.

The graveyard of failed American education reforms is vast. A significant tract of this gloomy landscape is devoted to efforts to create new career ladders and pay systems that value and spread teachers’ expertise.

But I am hopeful about what is happening in Iowa, where policymakers have approved a three-year, $150-million initiative to overhaul the state’s teacher leadership and compensation system. With Governor Terry Branstad’s leadership, Iowa is poised to become a national exemplar of how smart teaching policy and wise investments can boost student learning and build capacity for the long haul.

Speaking before about 600 Iowa educators last week, I made some predictions about what the first three years of the initiative could bring. And, drawing on the history of American education policy, I shared a few key strategies for thwarting the ill fate many reforms have met:

Develop teachers’ capacity as leaders.

Leaders are made, not born. Research—and CTQ’s experience with a vibrant virtual network of more than 6,400 educators—tells us that teachers learn to lead:

  • Participate in action research;
  • Observe and critique their colleagues’ teaching;
  • Engage in reciprocal mentoring (as opposed to one-way coaching; and
  • Go public with their ideas as writers and spokespeople for their profession.

Develop administrators’ capacity to support teacher leaders.

School principals, in particular, have a critical role to play in advancing teacher leadership by establishing a collaborative culture, aligning resources, and designing structures that help spread teaching expertise among faculty. We know that successful teacher leader roles and tasks are often mutually shaped and negotiated with colleagues and administrators. Iowa would be wise to adopt relevant strategies:

  • Prepare administrators to assess and utilize teachers’ strengths;
  • Create opportunities for administrators to learn from colleagues in networked schools and districts (as routinely occurs in Singapore);
  • Assign principals to teach routinely so more teacher time is freed up (as is the case in Finland); and
  • Evaluate and reward principals for spreading the expertise of teachers.

Redesign schools for teacher leadership.

Implementing even the most well-intentioned teacher leadership reforms can be difficult. The American education system—designed for a bygone, top-down era—poses many barriers. Top-performing nations have been able to “lift” American reforms and implement them effectively at scale by recognizing and mitigating these barriers. We have learned a great deal from these other nations’ agility—as well as from documenting the experiences of more than 20 teachers we have supported in hybrid roles as teacherpreneurs.

Here’s what we’ve discovered: Above all, policy leaders should assess whether school conditions allow teachers to lead effectively, with time to incubate and execute new ideas. Many interventions can address the challenging issues of time: team  teaching (combined with integrated curricular approaches); adaptive class sizes; the strategic assignment of highly qualified permanent substitute teachers; and incentives for school districts to partner with universities and nonprofits to create and fund joint appointments (like CTQ teacherpreneur roles) that let teachers lead.

When teachers are treated as experts—when the context and conditions of their work are configured to maximize all they have to offer and when they can support one another in improving—students benefit.

Iowa’s legislators have made an audacious investment in improving student learning in their state. I hope they will remain steadfast in their commitment, pursuing strategies to ensure the Teacher and Principal Leadership system can help students thrive. Let this initiative become a nationally acclaimed exemplar of how students benefit when teachers lead. It’s time to outsmart the graveyard of well-meant reforms.

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