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Ready to Lead, but How? Teachers’ Experiences in High-Poverty Urban Schools


by Susan Moore Johnson, Stefanie K. Reinhorn, Megin Charner-Laird, Matthew A. Kraft, Monica Ng & John P. Papay — 2014

Background/Context:Many strategies to improve failing urban schools rest on efforts to improve leadership within the school. Effective school-based leadership depends not only on the activities of the principal, but also on teachers’ efforts to address school-wide challenges. Research has shown that the principal is pivotal in such ventures, but we know little about how teachers conceive of their role in leadership, how they respond to opportunities provided or denied by their principal, or how they initiate leadership on their own.

Purpose: We studied how teachers in six high-poverty urban schools participate in leadership beyond their classroom. We asked: What role do teachers in high-poverty urban schools play in their school’s improvement? How do principals conceive of teachers’ potential for leadership and how do they act on it? How do teachers respond to the opportunities and constrains they encounter as they seek to exercise leadership in their schools?

Research Design: We interviewed 95 teachers and administrators in six high-poverty schools of one large urban district (two elementary schools, one K–8 school, one middle school, and two high schools). The schools, which served large proportions of low-income and minority students, had varying records of student performance.

Data Collection and Analysis: In each school, we interviewed the principal, other administrators, and a broad sample of teachers. We reviewed documents and observed day-to-day practices. After writing a structured, thematic summary for each respondent and school, we coded all transcripts and analyzed themes and practices within and across schools.

Findings: Teachers were willing and ready to address their school’s challenges. They conditionally granted their principal discretion in setting the agenda, based on the perceived authority and expertise of the principal and teachers’ opportunities for engagement as partners. When the principal took an instrumental approach to their contributions, teachers resented it, withdrew to their classrooms, and considered leaving the school. When the principal took an inclusive approach, demonstrating genuine interest in their views and contributions, teachers invested in school-wide reforms.

Conclusions/Recommendation: Although a principal may develop a strategic plan for improvement, that plan cannot simply be “rolled out.” Doing so without teachers’ contributions and endorsement likely means that the plan is incomplete and will be rejected outright or adopted perfunctorily. District administrators should select and develop principals who take an inclusive approach to teacher leadership. Policy makers and researchers should go beyond assessing the success of specific reforms and study the process of change within schools as reforms are developed and implemented.



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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 116 Number 10, 2014, p. 1-50
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17601, Date Accessed: 12/10/2017 9:12:50 PM

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About the Author
  • Susan Moore Johnson
    Harvard Graduate School of Education
    SUSAN MOORE JOHNSON is the Jerome T. Murphy Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Along with her colleagues at the Project on the Next Generation of Teachers, Johnson published Finders and Keepers: Helping New Teachers Survive and Thrive in Our Schools (2004) and articles in American Educational Research Journal, Educational Administration Quarterly, Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, Educational Leadership, Educational Policy, Journal of Educational Change, Phi Delta Kappan, and Teachers College Record. Recently, Johnson and John P. Papay proposed a new career-based pay plan for teachers in Redesigning Teacher Pay: A System for the Next Generation of Teachers.
  • Stefanie Reinhorn
    Harvard Graduate School of Education
    E-mail Author
    STEFANIE K. REINHORN is an advanced doctoral student in the Education Policy Leadership and Instructional Practice program at Harvard Graduate School of Education. Her research focuses on issues of instructional improvement in urban schools with a concentration on teachers’ working conditions, teacher evaluation, and leadership practices. Previously, Stefanie worked in the Boston Public Schools as an instructional coach for 6 years and as a teacher for 4 years. She also taught for 7 years in several other school systems. Stefanie holds a B.A. in Art History from Princeton University and an Ed.M. from Harvard in Education Policy and Management.
  • Megin Charner-Laird
    Salem State University
    E-mail Author
    MEGIN CHARNER-LAIRD is an assistant professor of education at Salem State University, where she teaches courses on assessment, urban education, and qualitative research methods. Her research focuses on the preparation, induction, and professional learning experiences of urban teachers. She served as a co-editor of Education Past and Present: Reflections on Research, Policy, and Practice, and her work has appeared in The Journal of Teacher Education and the Harvard Educational Review. Additionally, she served as an editor and cochair of the Harvard Educational Review. Previously, she taught 1st and 5th grade in California’s Bay Area. She holds a doctorate in Educational Policy, Leadership, and Instructional Practice and a master’s in Learning and Teaching, both from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
  • Matthew Kraft
    Brown University
    E-mail Author
    MATTHEW A. KRAFT is an assistant professor of education at Brown University. His research interests include human capital policies in education, the economics of education, and applied quantitative methods for causal inference. His primary work focuses on policies to improve educator and organizational effectiveness in K–12 urban public schools. His work appears in the Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, Education Finance and Policy, Teachers College Record, and Educational Researcher. Previously, he taught 8th grade English in Oakland USD and 9th grade humanities at Berkeley High School in California. He holds a doctorate in Quantitative Policy Analysis in Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a master’s in International Comparative Education from the Stanford University School of Education.
  • Monica Ng
    Harvard Graduate School of Education
    E-mail Author
    MONICA NG is an advanced doctoral student in the Education Policy Leadership and Instructional Practice program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Her research focuses on teacher leadership and teacher collaboration. She served as an editor and cochair of the Harvard Educational Review. Before coming to Harvard she taught elementary school in Oakland and San Francisco, California. Ng holds a B.A. in Literature/Writing from the University of California, San Diego and an Ed.M. in School Leadership from Harvard University.
  • John Papay
    Brown University
    E-mail Author
    JOHN P. PAPAY is an assistant professor of education and economics at Brown University and a research affiliate with the Project on the Next Generation of Teachers at Harvard. A former high school history teacher, his research focuses on teacher policy, the economics of education, and teacher labor markets. His work has appeared in the American Educational Research Journal, Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, the Journal of Econometrics, and the Journal of Economic Perspectives. He recently coauthored Redesigning Teacher Pay: A System for the Next Generation of Teachers with Susan Moore Johnson.
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