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Teacher Leadership Is Linked to Higher Student Test Scores in New Study

Teaching Now

Students who go to schools where their teachers have a leadership role in decision-making perform significantly better on state tests, a new study finds.

But some of the leadership elements that are most related to student achievement are the ones that are least often implemented in schools.

That's according to a new analysis of data from the New Teacher Center's Teaching, Empowering, Leading, and Learning survey, which asks questions about teaching, learning, and working conditions in schools. Richard Ingersoll, a professor of education and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and the report's lead author, studied responses from 2011 to 2015, which included data from nearly 1 million teachers from more than 25,000 schools, in 16 states.

He looked at two aspects of leadership: Do school leaders have an instructional focus, in the sense that they place teaching and learning at the center of their decisionmaking? And are teachers included in that decisionmaking beyond the classroom? 

Schools with the highest levels of instructional and teacher leadership rank at least 10 percentile points higher in both math and English/language arts on state tests, compared to schools with the lowest levels—even after controlling for factors like school poverty, size, and location.

This is the first large-scale study that has linked teacher leadership to student test scores, Ingersoll said.

While the study shows a correlation, not a causation, it backs up what teacher-empowerment advocates have said for years: Teachers are closest to students, so they know what students need to improve.

"It's not a surprise in the viewpoint of professions," Ingersoll said. "The ideal, the theory behind professions—medicine, academia, dentistry—[is that] these are experts, you don't micromanage them, you give them a lot of voice in what they do, ... and then you hold them accountable. You do both."

Areas for Improvement 

But Ingersoll found an imbalance between what elements of leadership correlate to increased student achievement and what schools are actually doing.

Overall, school leaders are more likely to focus on high instructional standards, teacher accountability, evaluations, and performance than on giving teachers voice and input into decision-making. In less than half of the schools surveyed did teachers feel comfortable raising issues and concerns that are important to them.

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