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Raising Student Achievement: Building A Model for Teacher Leadership

  • Australian College of Researchers


Research abounds in what makes an effective school but there is limited research on how principals use such research to drive school improvement. This paper draws on the guidance of the school improvement literature and claims that the most pivotal element in raising student outcomes is the classroom teacher (Darling-Hammond & Rothman, 2011; Hattie, 2008). It explores one school’s pathway to improving student learning via focusing on building teacher leadership. In doing so, it offers a guide to Principals and Heads of schools wishing to raise student attainment and improve the learning outcomes of their school community.
International Journal of Innovation, Creativity and Change.
Volume 2, Issue 1, May 2015
Raising Student Achievement: Building A
Model for Teacher Leadership
Jake Madden, Head, Dar Al Marefa Private School, Dubai, UAE
Research abounds in what makes an effective school but there is limited
research on how principals use such research to drive school improvement.
This paper draws on the guidance of the school improvement literature and
claims that the most pivotal element in raising student outcomes is the
classroom teacher (Darling-Hammond & Rothman, 2011; Hattie, 2008). It
explores one school’s pathway to improving student learning via focusing on
building teacher leadership. In doing so, it offers a guide to Principals and
Heads of schools wishing to raise student attainment and improve the learning
outcomes of their school community.
International Journal of Innovation, Creativity and Change.
Volume 2, Issue 1, May 2015
Changes in education are inevitable as schools strive for excellence and move to implement
improvement strategies. Reforms in education have come and gone (Darling-Hammond &
McLaughlin, 1995; Elmore, 2004; Andy Hargreaves & Shirley, 2009; Vernez, Karam,
Mariano, & DeMartini, 2006) for decades with minimal improvement in educational
outcomes. The argument lies not in the resistance to change but rather in the model or
methodology leaders use to implement change.
Often educational change in schools fail because of:
A lack of ownership by staff and a deficiency of understanding why improvement is
Not understanding how the change is expected to be implemented,
The pace of change is poorly managed,
The change is mandated from the hierarchy, and
The key leaders in the school lack commitment to the change.
The focus on building an improvement model in a school hinges on the raising of the capacity
of staff to undertake change. Building teacher capacity is about addressing points 2 and 3
above. In doing so it enables the teacher to gain new knowledge and skills, which lead to
changes in teacher practice, attitudes and behaviour.
The catalyst for change in schools is heavily influenced by comparative data. Whether
schools use international data that highlights how countries perform or the implementation of
the norm referenced standardized tests that allow schools to compare individual student data,
the need for accurate base line data to inform school planning is undisputable. Furthermore,
the use of comparative data helps teachers “learn new pedagogical strategies, implement
them in their classrooms, collect evidence of student learning, reflect on practice with others,
and then refine their practice” (Ross et al., 2011).
What Does the Theory of School Improvement Tell Us?
Understanding school improvement practices from the effective schools research (Loeb,
Kalogrides, & Béteille, 2012), studies on teachers’ work (McLaughlin & Talbert, 2006),
turnaround schools (Fullan, 2006) and restructuring schools (Hallinger, Murphy, & Hausman,
2013) have led to theorists and practitioners alike building and creating lists identifying the
critical elements for creating effective schools. Common to most lists are:
A unified vision and mission dedicated on teaching and learning;
A strong professional community based on collaborative work and collective
responsibility for student learning;
Instructional leadership led by the Principal
Sufficient resources particularly human, material, instructional, fiscal;
Timely, accessible and accurate data about students and learning;
Well qualified instructional staff;
Significant professional learning opportunities;
Community support
International Journal of Innovation, Creativity and Change.
Volume 2, Issue 1, May 2015
However, knowing the traits of effective schools is not sufficient. The key task for school
leaders is to turn the knowledge of such lists into creating effective strategies within the
school that produce the traits listed above.
If a school is to improve learning for all students, then school leaders must develop and
implement meaningful curriculum and effective instructional programs to meet the diverse
needs of students within their school. Schools need teachers to have not only the content
knowledge but also be able to diagnose the aliments of student learning so as to prescribe
effective remediation and intervention. They need the requisite skills and the tools to apply
Ultimately school improvement research has demonstrated the adage that if you want to
improve student learning you must improve the schools where the learning takes place.
A Practical Implementation of the Theory
The pressure on schools to improve student learning and classroom teaching has seen a
refocus on the role of the teacher. The Information Age of technology (Treadwell, 2008) has
moved us into an era of instant information necessitating changes pedagogy to facilitating
learning in this 21st century (Beetham & Sharpe, 2013).
The notion of the importance of teacher quality and its influence of student learning has
gained much publicity in recent years (S Dinham, Ingvarson, & Kleinhenz, 2008; Hattie,
2008; Leithwood & Duke, 2000). Unequivocal empirical evidence indicate that:
Students who are assigned to several ineffective teachers in a row have significantly
lower achievement and gains in achievement than those who are assigned to several
highly effective teachers in sequence (Darling-Hammond, 2000, p. 2)
Consequently, the need to build a model of school improvement that centres on the classroom
teacher is a logical pathway for schools wishing to raise academic standards.
Taking the above section as a guide, the key strategies for school improvement used at Dar
Al Marefa Private School include:
1. Building A Desire for Change
2. Building Teacher Capacity
3. Job Embedded Professional Learning
4. Teacher Leadership
Let me provide a brief rationale of each strategy.
Building a Desire to Change
Research on teachers’ job satisfaction, motivation and morale conclude that the main
contributors to high levels of teacher job satisfaction are working with children, the
intellectual challenge of teaching and employee autonomy/independence (S Dinham & Scott,
1998). However, dissatisfaction with teaching was often linked to high workload, low levels
of pay and poor job status (Metlife Inc, 2010).
International Journal of Innovation, Creativity and Change.
Volume 2, Issue 1, May 2015
School leaders cannot mandate a staff member’s desire to change their practice. It is the
choice of the teacher to either undertake any change strategies or disengage from the process
and attempt to continue with current teaching practices. However, leaders are able to help
foster conditions that help influence a teacher’s choice.
Improving teacher commitment to change practice at Dar Al Marefa begins with the
following strategies:
focusing on building strong relationships across the school
aligning professional development to the immediate context of the classroom
increasing staff efficacy
fostering acknowledgement and rewarding classroom excellence
Increasing teacher voice
Whatever strategies are used the success of any change will be dependent on the strength of
teacher’s commitment to the change. Engaging teachers in professional dialogue is a sure
path to promoting acceptance to school-based decision-making.
Building Teacher Capacity
A key aspect of building teacher capacity is moving the teacher from “doing” (the teacher) to
“enabling” (the learner). This strategy is about focusing on results using the professional
learning community framework to galvanise teacher practice and to raise expectations.
Building teacher knowledge and improving their TEACHing competencies is the ultimate
A pathway forward is through the use of external accountability measures (ie national
teaching standards), not by way of a “stick” approach, but rather through professional
dialogue and critiquing teaching excellence.
Raising knowledge about effective teaching practices and immersing staff with examples of
best practice and providing time for teachers to collaborate, discuss and critique the practice
leads to an increase in motivation to change practice.
Job Embedded Professional Learning
Pedagogical improvement for teachers is the key target for increasing student attainment and
must underpin the discussion at the classroom level. Improving teacher learning should be the
focus on the life inside the classroom. Such learning in context is both continuous and
sustained. Having a framework for teacher observation leading to coaching, mentoring and
feedback [read Harnessing Professional Dialogue, Collaboration and Content in Context: An
exploration of a new model for Teacher Professional Learning for further insight (Lynch,
Madden, & Knight, 2014)]
Consequently moving to a Professional Learning Community approach, where there is
connectedness between the various learning communities within the school improves
alignment and understanding. The focus on professional dialogue and collaboration guides
the teacher to not only understand effective teaching strategies but also be able to apply
evidenced based teaching practices on a daily basis.
International Journal of Innovation, Creativity and Change.
Volume 2, Issue 1, May 2015
A number of key international research program reports and institutions (eg TALIS, PISA,
TIMSS, ACER,) offers schools comparative data around important domains including
effective teaching, successful leadership and professional development. These are key
catalysts for re-focusing teachers on best practice and their own teaching performance and
guide the decision making around professional development needs.
We know that teachers are the most important within-school influence on student
achievement (Darling-Hammond & Rothman, 2011; Hattie, 2008). Thus improving teaching
is crucial to improving school performance.
Teacher Leadership
While the definition of effective leadership maybe illusive (Crowther, 2012) it is evident that
good leadership is essential to implementing and sustaining school improvement practices in
schools. Leadership is an important factor for making successful schools. Furthermore,
effective leadership, in focusing the school goals helps staff to connect with their immense
potentials and enable them to accomplish purposeful things collectively that gives the
individual staff member’s sense of personal accomplishment and fulfillment.
At the heart of every successful school are dynamic teacher leaders who inspire, direct,
enable, and empower individuals to do more with less and achieve the school’s vision. By
investing in developing the leadership capacity of each teacher as espoused by the teacher
leadership movement (Katzenmeyer & Moller, 2001)
Literature has provided clear evidence that teachers’ self-efficacy increases with the advent of
a school’s focus on building teacher leadership (Crowther, Ferguson, & Hann, 2008; Harris &
Spillane, 2008). With the recent increase in collaboration and collegiality fostered through
teacher leadership practices, it is within the implementation of professional learning
communities that an enhanced capacity for change and improvement in schools can be
realised (DuFour, DuFour, Eaker, & Many, 2010; A Hargreaves, 2003).
Leaders also impact on teacher professional learning by building learning conditions through
providing spaces for teachers to effectively collaborate and learn from one another. Providing
opportunities for teachers to share good practice, collaborate on effective strategies for
improving student learning and offers teachers the space to learn together leads to better
quality teaching (Madden, 2013).
Having provided an overview of each of the four key strategies I now provide an explanation
of the current school’s implementation of the strategies in the form of a model for
implementing a school improvement scaffold.
Towards a Model of Building Teacher Leadership
Using the elements of the Collaborative Teacher Learning Model (Lynch et al., 2014) and
Teachers As Researchers Initiative (Madden & Lynch, 2014) an initial action plan was
established to guide the school towards improved outcomes. While it is essential to involve
teachers in decisions concerning the school’s mission, vision, and goals in order to create a
collaborative school culture, the ultimate task is the building of each teacher’s capacity to
take control and positively influence student achievement.
International Journal of Innovation, Creativity and Change.
Volume 2, Issue 1, May 2015
This section provides insight into the six facets used by the author to galvanize his school
towards a school improvement program.
1. Begin with the school’s context and then build a vision for learning
Literature on effective schools continually highlights the importance of establishing a school
vision that is deeply rooted in the context of the school (Cavanagh & MacNeill, 2002;
DeMeulle, 1999). In developing a vision for learning the leader is articulating what the school
is striving to become. Given the nature of the school, its demographics and culture, the vision
statement proclaims what it wants to achieve. Uniquely tied up in the vision creation process
is also the communication of how it will be held to account for progressing toward fulfilling
its vision.
In undertaking a full review of the school’s areas of strength and weaknesses a number of
methods were used including focus groups drawn from staff, student and parent communities,
questionnaires, exit interviews, analysis of examination results and meetings with staff either
in a team or individually, a more informed understanding of the status of the school laid the
platform for discussing the preferred future for the school.
2. Focus on building teacher capacity
It is self evident that school improvement mechanisms that seek to improve the abilities,
skills, and expertise of teachers will realize greater gains in student outcomes.
A key mechanism for changing teacher practice to focus on improving the TEACHing is
through deprivatizing instruction. Increasing opportunities for teachers to open up their
classrooms to visiting teachers and placing trust in each of them as observers to be able to
provide valuable feedback (Madden, Wilks, Maoine, Loader, & Robinson, 2012). This
mechanism helps teachers reflect on their teaching practices. By giving teachers regular
feedback teachers can continually work on improving their teaching. Such capacity building
should be the cornerstone of any school leader’s leadership repertoire.
The consequence of deprivatising the teaching and learning within a school is the promotion
of a collective understanding of the instructional practices. The flow on effect is the building
of shared responsibility for the teaching and learning.
3. Provide collaborative time to focus the teaching/learning
In breaking down the barriers of isolation between teachers, leaders need to create structures
to promote a collaborative culture. Part of this process is the provision of time for teachers to
analyze and discuss student data. Beginning with the notion of contrived collegiality where
“specific bureaucratic procedures” are arranged to “get teachers working together” (Andy
Hargreaves & Fullan, 2012), the nurturing of trust and relationships will lead to positive
outcomes for both the teacher and the student.
As a key feature of professional learning communities, collaboration is sometimes difficult to
achieve as meeting times can be derailed. Key norms to guide the school’s various team
meetings include:
Establishing standard operating procedures
Efforts focused on school goals
International Journal of Innovation, Creativity and Change.
Volume 2, Issue 1, May 2015
Focus on student learning
Discuss and use data to inform teaching
Sharing teacher learning across the school
4. Establish a data mindset to monitor effective practices
Data on student achievement offers invaluable support for teachers in making good decisions
about instruction. To gain a deeper understanding of students’ learning needs, teachers need
to collect data from multiple sources, and then they need a system to help identify patterns in
performance. It is through the interpreting of the data that teachers can identify the strengths
and weaknesses of each child. As they examine the data teachers begin to create intervention
plans to address areas of weakness.
An important part of analyzing the data is that it can lead teachers to develop propositions
about the factors that affect students’ learning. This is the prelude to defining ways of
improving their own instructional practices and a vehicle to matching right teaching strategies
to the needs of the learner.
While teacher observation processes (including “walkthroughs”, observation checklists, self
recording lessons and teacher summative reflections) are in place the introduction of using
student performance data to guide teacher practice is gaining momentum in the school. The
introduction of the Hattie formula as a catalyst for discussing effective practice has engaged
staff in the debate on the impact of the teacher in raising student attainment.
5. Create a coaching, mentoring and feedback regime
Literature concludes that those principals, who get󳋡the most out of their teams, spend a high
proportion of their time and energy coaching󳋡or mentoring others (Knight, 2013). While the
role of mentoring is to manage career transition, coaching is used to evaluate a teacher’s
professional capabilities, allowing for genuine continuous professional development.
The key function of coaching and mentoring is to be results oriented. As a beginning point
and built into the collaborative time is the intervention of a collegial peer coaching process.
Teams of teachers, at a pre-conference, meet and discuss the elements that the teacher being
observed wants to focus on. This is followed by the observation󳋡of the teacher. The
important step is the post-conference session to discuss what worked well, what didn’t work
at all, and what could be changed or improved to have a positive impact on the teaching and
Practicing and building the coaching/mentoring mechanics across the staff is the key focus
for the school in the short term. Provision of professional development sessions and
workshops and building a regular schedule for teacher coaching/mentoring framework to
develop is a central part of the school development plan.
6. Build a teacher as researcher culture
Another mechanism to increase teacher leadership is to ensure that teachers reflect on their
practice to learn from and improve it through continuing reflections and interactions. Having
teachers inquire into why some teaching strategies impact on student learning within their
classroom and others do not, engages teachers to be more discerning when planning their
teaching and learning (Lynch et al., 2014).
International Journal of Innovation, Creativity and Change.
Volume 2, Issue 1, May 2015
Teachers with the research skills to share and critique their practice become key collaborative
professionals in the change processes within school communities (S. Dinham & Crowther,
2011). It is evident that collaboration is a key catalyst in engaging teacher participation in
researching their own practice in order to inform school improvement.
In this paper I have offered a practical overview of how literature has informed the
development of a school improvement strategy that focuses on the role of the teacher in
raising student achievement. Although in its infancy having a strategic approach to building
teacher capacity has yielded promising outcomes.
Building a formalized teacher leadership model offers teachers a more concentrated approach
to improving their own teaching and learning. It provides a transparent and focused approach
to the role of the class teacher and offers a pathway for self-improvement.
Having teachers more closely connected to the planning and discussion on school
improvement measures leads to improved outcomes for not only the students but also for the
teachers themselves. Building such a pathway to an outstanding school is centred on creating
a collaborative learning culture in your school. The consequence of such a strategy is the
creation of teacher leaders within the school.
There is evidence in the literature to support notion that as teachers take on leadership
functions, they not only improve their leadership skills and organizational practices but also
change and improve their instructional practices (Barth, 2001). In providing more occasions
for teachers to be exposed to observation and interaction with other teachers around
instructional practice the greater opportunity schools have to improve student learning.
Consequently, a key ingredient for school improvement is the promotion of teacher
leadership and encouraging meaningful collaboration that is centred on the improvement of
teaching and learning.
Schools should play a major factor in teachers’ learning. They need to create continuous
opportunities for reflection of teaching practice, foster dialogue, encourage inquiry, nurture
collaboration and establish systems to share teaching experiences. In doing so they will not
only support teacher growth but also strengthen the learning environment across all facets of
school life.
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