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Teacher Leadership: Revolutionizing public education from the inside-out

It is increasingly implausible that we could improve the performance of schools… without promoting leadership in teaching by teachers. —Judith Warren Little (1988)

Almost 30 years ago, Judith Warren Little, one of our nation’s most prominent scholars, offered a clarion call for teachers to lead school reform, not just be the targets of it. Since then, teachers have been serving in more expansive—and sometimes formal—leadership roles without leaving the classroom, such as chairing a department grade level, mentoring a colleague informally, or facilitating a professional learning community. Now, more opportunities are slowly but surely becoming available for teachers to lead policy and pedagogical reforms, from both inside—and outside—school systems. Progress has been made, but major roadblocks remain for teachers to be positioned to fuel the kind of deeper learning opportunities that students deserve.

Consider just a few examples:

First, eight states and a handful of others have defined and developed formal training to prepare teachers as leaders. However, very few (perhaps other than Iowa) have a strategy to utilize teachers—and offer ways for their collective talents to lead without leaving the classroom.

Second, a few years ago the Council of Great City Schools found that 86 percent of their districts have established teacher leader roles and structures. Conversely, even among the most local robust programs—such as Denver, Baltimore County (MD), and Washington, DC—leadership opportunities are offered to only a few select teachers, and even then, their roles are often tightly prescribed by administrators and related curriculum mandates.

Third, for almost a decade the U.S. Department of Education has offered annual support to the annual Teaching Ambassador Fellowship program, funding classroom experts who were to education policy development across the nation. Yet, researchers (who also participated in the program) found that only two in five Ambassadors claimed their districts, as well as the USDOE, “engaged them with their expertise” and were challenged by a lack of time and administrative support in their efforts to lead after their fellowship.

Finally, growing numbers of nonprofits have engaged teachers as leaders for a wide variety of policy and pedagogical reforms. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation estimates that at least one in three teachers are already in an external network, such as the National Blogging Collaborative, NNSTOY, EdCamp, the Literacy Design Collaborative, and the Center for Teaching Quality (CTQ). While these efforts have spurred the development of increasing number of teacher leaders, their skills and actions are rarely utilized by their districts, states, unions, or charter management organizations.

New evidence abounds on the powerful role that teachers learning and leading can and must play in fueling next generation school reforms, but only if the right conditions are in place for them to do so. CTQ’s work with teacher leaders in documenting their impact suggests that our nation could revolutionize public education from inside of school systems.


Here is where to start in order to leverage teacher leadership for the kinds of schooling every student deserves:

  • Establish a culture of collaboration—including the expectation that principals will cultivate and utilize teachers as leaders;
  • Recognize both formal and informal forms of leadership from the classroom;
  • Redefine professional development, with micro-credentialing, so that it is primarily teacher-led;
  • Offer time and new school structures for teachers to lead, including specific tools and processes that equip our most effective practitioners to incubate and execute their own ideas;
  • Promote teachers conducting action research focused on the effects of their leadership efforts;
  • Utilize teacher evaluation systems that place the highest premium on the spread of teaching expertise; and
  • Invest in opportunities for teacher leaders to go public with their ideas.

Policy and programs, as well as school culture and norms, often have conspired against teachers as leaders. But we can take different actions. Ensuring every student learns in ways that allow them to participate in the global economy and our democratic way of life depends on it.


Warren-Little, J. (1988). Assessing the prospects for teacher leadership. In A. Lieberman (Ed.), Building a professional culture in schools. New York: Teachers College Press, 78-106.

Hohenbrink, J., Stauffer, M., Zigler, T., & Uhlenhake, A. (2011). A ladder to leadership: Ohio steps up to strengthen teachers' collaboration and coaching skills. Journal of Staff Development, 32(3), 42-44.

Berry, B., Byrd, A., & Wieder, A. (2013). Teacherpreneurs: Innovative teachers who lead but don’t leave. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Council of Great City Schools (2015). Assistant principals and teacher leaders in America’s great city schools. Unpublished data.

Berry, B. (forthcoming). Teacher Leadership: Past, Present, & Future. In Hall, G. E., Gollnick, D. M., & Quinn, L. F. (eds.), The Handbook of Teaching and Learning. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Eckert, J., Ulmer, J. , Khachatryan, E., & Ledesma, P. (2014). Career pathways of teacher leaders involved in federal policy. Professional Development in Education.

Berry, B. (2016). Transforming professional learning: Why teachers’ learning must be individualized—and how. Paper commissioned by the Pearson Corporation.


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