Only a few years after Elaine Cleary began teaching at Middle School 137 in Queens, New York, she was tapped to become the math coach. With roughly 2,000 students, “there is a need for support personnel,” she said.
But the role took her out of the classroom, which sometimes left her feeling “disconnected” from her colleagues and the instructional strategies she was encouraging them to try.
Then, the New York City Department of Education (NYCDoE) received a five-year, $53 million Teacher Incentive Fund grant from the U.S. Department of Education for the Teacher Career Pathways (TCP) program, designed in partnership with the United Federation of Teachers (UFT).
Her principal, Laura Mastrogiovanni, urged her to apply to become a peer collaborative teacher — one of three TCP positions that allows qualified teachers to earn stipends, ranging from $7,500 to $20,000 per year, for taking on additional roles in their schools. Model teachers open their classrooms as a lab for educators to observe, and master teachers — the position Cleary now holds — organize professional development for their school and can share practices with other schools as well.
“She supports us in any way,” Cleary said about Mastrogiovanni. “She’s realizing that by empowering the teachers, it’s benefiting her and it’s benefiting the students.”
Fostering ‘teacher buy-in’
With more than 1,300 educators in over 600 schools participating in TCP, the program is being held up as a model — not just for other states, but for the world.
The "program can offer many lessons for similar programs, in terms of both structure and implementation,” according to a new report from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP), which have also conducted in-depth studies of teacher career models in Ecuador and South Africa to inform policymakers on the variety of options and related challenges.
Representing a shift from performance-based pay for teachers to a responsibility-based model, the fact that TCP was a collaboration between management and labor is one of the program’s “biggest strengths,” the researchers write.
“At the central level, the management team is made up of UFT and DoE officials, and decisions on how to steer the program are taken jointly,” they write. “This has helped foster teacher buy-in and facilitate communications between the DoE and teachers.”
While the study doesn’t measure the impact of the program on student achievement — because it would be “difficult methodologically” — it does find that it has improved teacher retention. Survey data collected in 2014-15 shows that 98% of TCP participants remained in their schools, compared to 89% of a comparison group. Seventy percent of the principals who responded agreed that the program helped them attract teachers, and even more (81%) said it helped with retention of the most effective educators.
“This is a meaningful benefit,” the authors write. “Although retention at city level is higher than national averages, school-level retention is lower than national averages, and this is where the effects of turnover are felt.”
Teachers also report improvements in student learning. M.S. 137, for example, has seen increases in student performance in both English language arts and math. One reason, Cleary suggests, is because teachers are using some common strategies that students see as they transition through the grades.
“You’re looking at teachers bettering each other, focusing on their pedagogy and sharing those best practices,” she said.
Principals also responded that having a teacher leader in their school has assisted them in their role as instructional leaders. “Definitely the pedagogy has improved,” according to a quote from a principal in the report. “More so, the planning of lessons and curriculum planning has improved a lot. There is a [teacher leader] guiding the conversation, asking the right questions.”
A ‘sustainable form of professional learning’
The UNESCO-IIEP report comes as others are also focusing on teacher leadership as a school improvement strategy. “Engaging teacher leaders in the development of their colleagues provides a highly effective and sustainable form of professional learning,” says a National Institute for Excellence in Teaching report released last week. The Every Student Succeeds Act presents an opportunity for districts to create or expand teacher leadership programs, says the report, which encourages district leaders to “articulate a vision for teacher leadership and build political will to support it.”
Another new report, from Digital Promise and the Center for Teaching Quality, focuses on the role of microcredentials in encouraging and recognizing teachers for taking leadership roles. The authors point, for example, to Members Impacting Students by Improving Curriculum, a district collaborative that began in Iowa and is now offering microcredentials on student engagement.
In another example, Tennessee's Teacher Leader Network supports districts designing teacher leadership programs. Participants can earn microcredentials in areas such as using data and instructional coaching. And Cleary said she earned microcredentials from Teaching Matters, a nonprofit organization, as part of her promotion to the master teacher role.
The authors of the Digital Promise report write that “microcredentials can be utilized to identify teachers to serve in a variety of leadership roles and tasks — not just those related to instructional improvement.” They list teacher leadership responsibilities such as working with community partners, serving as a visiting professor in a school of education, and working on policy development.
The role of the principal
After an application and selection process, NYC teachers considered qualified — based on criteria such as teaching skills, belief in continuous improvement and ability to collaborate — are put into a pool of teacher leaders. But it’s the principals who decide whether to pull from that group, and the researchers suggest that a key element of the design is that principals are not required to hire a teacher leader.
“School leaders who believed in shared leadership generally chose to participate,” they write.
While the grant initially covered the stipends for the teacher leaders, principals now largely cover the cost of the program from the budgets allotted to their schools — a feature that impacts how principals decide to use the teacher leader role. Some teachers responded in the survey that principals initially gave them a lot of additional responsibilities, but the researchers write that, over time, school leaders have shifted toward making sure the program benefits their schools.
A centralized group of 17 teacher team leaders — who work full-time on the program — has contributed to this shift by “liaising with school administrators to discuss their vision for the teacher leadership roles and advise them on how to support the [teacher leaders] in their schools,” the report says.
Because the program is funded year-to-year, however, a teacher who earns a leadership position might not keep it. “Hence the main drawback of this teacher career pathway: It is often not a pathway at all,” they write. “While the model is designed to provide three roles, with increasing pay and responsibility, it is far from common for teachers to begin in one and progress to the next.”
The researchers also note that teachers often have to leave their schools to take a position that opens, which can be a barrier because many want to take on leadership roles in order to improve their own schools.
Overall, the program has led to a more team-oriented culture in the schools, which has attracted attention from principals who were not interested at first, the researchers write. “Even some principals who were initially resistant to the idea ended up on board,“ the report says.
Lessons for other districts include allowing time for that culture to develop. Teacher leaders working in Renewal Schools — a group of low-performing schools that receive technical assistance and additional resources to meet improvement goals — also reported that they were more effective and more satisfied with their leadership roles when they worked in groups of three.
Securing ongoing funding is the biggest challenge facing the program, the researchers write, but add that because so many principals have dedicated money toward the positions — even without strong evidence that it improves student achievement — it “is a truly notable achievement.”