Jerome T. Murphy Professor in Education, Harvard Graduate School of Education
The failure of many urban schools to effectively and consistently serve their high-poverty students continues to be one of the most stubborn problems in U.S. public education. Such schools typically enroll large numbers of minority students, many of whom are English language learners or are identified as having special learning needs. Their families often live in poverty, contend with racism, and encounter danger in their neighborhoods, all conditions that pose extra challenges to these students’ success in school. Moreover, many of the schools have a long history of failure, marked by disorder and a lack of discipline, frequent turnover by administrators, a preponderance of inexperienced teachers who get little meaningful help, a patchwork curriculum, and mismatched professional development.
Given such complex realities and pressing challenges, how does leadership by those within the school guide efforts to improve student learning in high-poverty schools? The principal as the key leader of school change has garnered much recent attention (see for example, The Wallace Foundation, 2011 and Portin, Knapp, Dareff, Feldman, Russell, & Yeh, 2009) and a small number of recent studies have analyzed the potential contributions of teacher leaders who hold formal roles, such as instructional coach and staff developer (York-Barr & Duke, 2004; Donaldson, Johnson, Kirkpatrick, Marinell, Steele & Szczesiul, 2008; Mangin & Stoelinger, 2008). However, effective school improvement ultimately rests not only on the principal and formal teacher leaders, but also on the initiatives and contributions of all teachers within a school. What role do they play in leading the work of school improvement beyond their cumulative efforts as classroom teachers?