The ROI on teacher leadership
Brian Curtin
July 27, 2017

After over two years of disagreements and deliberations, Illinois legislators finally passed a budget. While Illinois’ public educators collectively exhaled, district and state administrators must still work within a tight budget, which creates tough decisions around where to cut and where to invest. So to borrow a phrase from the private sector, public administrators must ask: “What’s the return on investment for each budgetary line item?”

From an educational perspective, this question is difficult to answer. Unlike in the private sector, smart investments in education do not result in increased new dollars to reinvest. Therefore, a more productive ROI question might be: “What investments will have the greatest positive impacts on our kids?”

Let’s agree that there are plenty of well-deserving investments that benefit students. One in particular, however, deserves high priority because of its high ROI: teacher leadership.

By investing in formal hybrid teacher leader roles through stipends or reduced teaching loads, states and districts will find that the ROI on teacher leadership is worth every penny.

Here are three outcomes of a teacher leadership investment:

1. It creates a professional development plan that pays dividends.

We’ve all heard the adage about “giving a man a fish” versus “teaching a man to fish.” Investing in teacher leadership is “teaching to fish.” When districts invest in instructional coaching or “training the trainer,” teacher leaders develop their own skill sets for the purpose of developing skills in others.

When states and districts support clear expectations and established frameworks for teacher leaders to share new skills and knowledge, it increases the beneficiaries of those experiences and investments.

2. It creates a clear, incentivized pathway from teacher to leader to administrator.

Most administrators are former teachers, but how did they choose that career shift? And how did their district support the development of their leadership skills to ensure a successful transition?

Many districts might point toward tuition reimbursement for a leadership masters program as evidence of their investment in developing teachers as leaders. While this is certainly a wonderful perk, it costs tens of thousands of dollars per candidate, so districts must be particular about whom to invest in and strategic about how to increase the likelihood that the investment will result in a top-notch administrator. Unless a district invests in other prior supports, this tactic is hit or miss at best. 

Providing opportunities to develop teachers’ leadership skills before investing in their degree programs increases the likelihood of a positive ROI. For example, teacher leaders can serve as committee chairs, lead professional development, or present at a conference. By encouraging these leadership experiences, states and districts establish a clear, supported, incentivized path toward leadership skill development and administration.

This increases the pool of candidates qualified for administrative positions -- candidates who, once hired, will have to make important decisions and spend taxpayer dollars, both of which impact student outcomes. And to put it plainly, having more highly-qualified candidates from which to choose potential leaders of our schools is a good thing.

Which brings me to #3.

3. It creates a direct connection between the decision makers and kids.

All educational decisions (funding-related or otherwise) impact kids directly and/or indirectly. So those decisions should involve the folks who interact with kids most, teachers.

Many districts have already realized the importance of bringing teachers to the table, which is a great start. The next step is giving teachers real decision-making authority. There are a number of models out there, some of which have been discussed in depth by educators in CTQ’s roundtable discussions (see recent roundtables about “Teacher-Powered Schools” and “Collective Leadership”).

Involving teachers in the decision-making process helps schools accurately identify challenges; increases potential solutions; and promotes communication, perspective sharing and empathy among collaborators.

Consider an example where a well-intentioned administration wants to measure student growth in each course by developing pre- and post-course assessments. Without teacher leadership, communication between teachers and administrators breaks down, potentially leaving teachers unclear on the purpose of the assessment; the assessment may not accurately measure the challenges needing attention; and students may not see the benefit of the tool when even teachers are unaware of its value.

Teachers leading assessment development ensures that tests will accurately reflect course material covered, and it mitigates staff and student anxiety since they feel more prepared for what to expect.

Teacher leadership is more than an idea. It involves action.

Bolstered by state funding and strategic district support, teacher leadership can have a sustainable impact by increasing student outcomes. In the interim, I know that teachers will continue to address the broadening challenges in education by volunteering extra time or stepping completely out of the classroom, but it is not a sustainable model nor what’s best for kids.

Formalizing teacher leadership is worth the investment. 

Brian Curtin is an English teacher at Schaumburg High School in Illinois. In 2013, the Illinois State Board of Education named Brian the Illinois Teacher of the Year. He has served as a speaker for the Illinois Speech and Theatre Association, the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and the Raising Student Achievement Conference. In his district, Brian’s leadership roles include designing and delivering professional development workshops, helping develop new teachers and instructing teachers on innovative ways to integrate 1:1 devices in the classroom. Find him on Twitter @BrianCurtinSHS.