System Leaders

Essential elements: Over many years of career academy development and research, a specific combination of evidence-based reforms have been shown to improve student outcomes by changing how teachers work with student cohorts (Guha 1).

Aspects of teamwork

Rigorous Academics: Students are prepared for college with challenging coursework made relevant through pathways.

Technical Skills: Students receive hands-on training for high-skill, high-wage employment.

Work-based Learning: Students participate in internships and job shadows to work in a professional environment.

Personalized Supports: Students received career counseling and supplemental instruction to help ensure success.

California Partnership Academies, NAF Academies, Linked Learning pathways and many other such pathway programs that have these elements in their design, are rapidly increasing in number and importance.

Changing school changes work: In order to expand career pathways, organizational & leadership structures of the school must be adjusted. Administrators and teacher leaders in high schools expanding career pathways embrace new ways of working together, in order to adapt and build capacity as their roles and responsibilities change. As pathways become more prevalent within high schools, all roles and responsibilities are affected.

Inclusive Leadership: Traditionally, educational leadership has been conceived of as the work of district and site administrators, but increasingly research points to the importance of a broader definition of educational leadership in successful school reform (Bryk 2). in particular including teacher leadership. Recent research identifies school leadership as the most significant factor affecting student performance after classroom instruction (Louis 3). an effect that occurs largely because leaders strengthen teachers’ professional communities of practice, and therefore their engagement in learning about effective instructional practices.

Why Develop Teacher Leaders? Leadership is critical to establishing vision and purpose, which inform the structures and routines that organize people’s work in schools (see process here). Where site administrators create shared leadership structures and make a conscientious effort to nurture teacher leadership, those teachers are a critical resource for spreading that vision. They help teachers understand the why and how of this reform, its benefits for teaching and learning. Empowering teacher leaders allows them to engage in collaboratively solving the problems of transition and transforming instructional practices.

Pathways Change Schools: Career pathway practices differ from long-established norms in high schools. Teaching in the traditional comprehensive high school is traditionally conducted in private, individual classrooms, organized by discipline and segregated into multiple tracks, with little relationship to the world outside the classroom (Little 4). The career pathway interdisciplinary team, on the other hand, is responsible for the education of a small diverse cohort of students over three or four years, in collaboration with multiple partners. These professional learning communities can challenge, mesh with, or even replace traditional departmental organization, but in any case they complicate and change things. Skillful administrative leadership is required to negotiate the resultant disruptions to school routines, and to nurture the new professional skills and expectations among school staff that can enable a focus on changing instructional practices.

Pathways Rely on Skilled Teacher Leaders: Teacher leaders are critical to organizing pathway teams to carry out the many components of this reform. In addition to organizational and instructional leadership skills, pathway teacher leaders are expected to develop many other areas of expertise, such as:

  • adult learning and team development
  • outcomes-driven curriculum and assessment development
  • integration of career technical and academic subjects
  • differentiated instructional practices
  • student supports and data-based decision-making
  • course and program of study development
  • work-based learning integration and internships
  • recruitment and outreach
  • partnership development
  • aligning pathways with post-secondary career pathways
  • adding college-level courses into programs of study

Warnings from the Research: As the Linked Learning approach scales up, developing sustainable teacher leadership structures is a central concern. Researchers studying professional community in reforming schools (Louis 5) have noted that teacher leaders of small learning communities within large restructuring comprehensive high schools face significant challenges as they compete for both human and structural resources. For example, in Washington State’s conversion of large comprehensive schools (Wallach 6) teacher leaders were swamped in the logistical demands of competing programs. One third of the teachers and one fifth of the teacher leaders believed the Lead Teacher position untenable, primarily from lack of authority. Teacher leaders’ turnover was alarmingly high due to workload, peer conflicts, role ambiguity, and lack of preparation.

New Leadership Approaches: Taking to heart the lessons from the small learning community school redesign movement, Linked Learning proponents emphasize the importance of systemic change to support pathway development, with a particular emphasis on developing district commitment and stakeholder involvement, including from local industry and community partners. This has allowed many districts to play a larger role in developing industry and community partnerships, to begin aligning with post-secondary education systems, and align pathway development with other intiatives, such as implementation of common core standards.

New Roles: These shifts bring new responsibilities for administrators, counselors, teachers and teacher leaders, as outlined in a prezi on the right under Resources (If having trouble, please go HERE). As you view this resource, you can use this document to map your leadership assets by identifying the leaders in your district and site who are already taking on these new responsibilities.  District Pathway Administrator Job Descriptions may need to be revamped to more intentionally support the work of Pathway Teacher Teams. Once you have identified the leaders at your site and in your district whose insights and energies can be called upon to engage the school in a transformative process, reflect upon your context.

  • Do you have a community of practice to reflect upon your goals and challenges, with whom to learn and to strategize as you lead toward more equitable outcomes for all students?
  • What is your district’s vision for pathway development?
  • How does it fit with the currently held vision of schooling at your site?
  • How important is pathway development to ensuring that all students at your site have access to both college and career?

New work responsibilities need to be discussed, documented, and often negotiated with unions so that responsibility for building pathways is distributed, while centralized resources support and strengthen pathway sustainability. Understanding your site’s strengths, gaps, and high leverage next steps is a collective process, which offers the opportunity to engage staff in deep discussions about the why and how of schooling.

Teacher Leaders’ Work: In Linked Learning pathways, teacher teams take responsibility for the success of a cohort of students over four years, creating a community of practice to develop interdisciplinary projects and problem-based curricula, as well as performance-based assessments that reflect skills and academic content applied in a specific career field. This work requires regular instructionally-focused collaboration, strong industry partnerships, and administrative prioritization and support. Teacher leaders who develop trusting, collaborative relationships with other leaders and with team members can exert influence as instructional leaders, organizing teams to address the specific challenges and learning opportunities in their particular context (York-Barr 7).

Teacher Leader Overload: When those contexts are embroiled in a complex and comprehensive school reform that is disrupting normal routines, demanding major restructuring of priorities and practices, the stresses on teacher leaders increase.

Says one teacher leader in a large urban high school district committed to the Linked Learning reform:

“I feel like my work load is doubled. I feel like I’m becoming an administrator… Reaching out to the community partners, monitoring internships, the budget, the paperwork. Having to go to a lot of night meetings. Getting the classes a-g approved, recruiting, providing student supports. It’s a lot of work. I’m no longer just a teacher. I feel more mid-management, but haven’t gotten the training and support.”

Says another: “We feel like we are doing two jobs. Being a pathway lead is a full time job. Being a teacher is a full time job. Having one period off from teaching just means that I have to take a full time job and fit it into five hours a week.”

Release Time: Many districts expect pathway teachers to use their single daily preparation period to collaborate with team members to meet the increasing demands as pathways develop – interdisciplinary project-based curriculum, common assessments, program of study development and postsecondary alignment, integration of work-based learning and student support systems all take time, knowledge and skills to develop. Lead teachers are only guaranteed release time if they are a part of a California Partnership Academy, or their district has prioritized their work. Even then they are usually granted only a single period of release (about an hour a day).

Essential Conditions: Linked Learning pathway teacher leaders understand the value of this complex school reform, because they experience the benefits of it, both in their success with students and in their own growth and impact as professionals in a pathway community of practice. Their energy drives the reform yet, they are often severely overloaded. Therefore, key conditions for successful pathway development include:

  • explicit definition of the work of a teacher leader
  • negotiations with unions to appropriately compensate them for their work
  • release time to allow teacher leaders to do the work

Resources that can be helpful in this work include sample job descriptions and union contract language for release time and compensation.

1 Guha, R., Caspary, K., Stites, R., Padilla, C., Arshan, N., Park, C., Tse, V., Astudillo, S., Black, A., & Adelman, N. (2014). Taking stock of the California Linked Learning District Initiative. Fifth-year evaluation report. Menlo Park, CA: SRI International.

2 Bryk, A. S., Sebring, P. B., Allensworth, E., Luppescu, S., & Easton, J. Q. (2010). Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

3 Louis, K. S., Leithwood, K., Wahlstrom, K. L., & Anderson, S. E. (2010). Investigating the links to improved student learning. . St. Paul, MN; Toronto, ON: Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement, University of Minnesota and Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at The University of Toronto.

4 Little, J. W. (1990). The Persistence of Privacy: Autonomy and Initiative in Teachers’ Professional Relations. Teachers College Record, Columbia University, 91(4), 509-536.
Oakes, J., & Guiton, G. (1995). Matchmaking: The dynamics of high school tracking decisions. American Educational Research Journal, 32(1), 3-33.

5 Louis, K. S., & Kruse, S. D. (1995). Professionalism and Community: Perspectives on Reforming Urban Schools. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, Inc.

6 Wallach, C. A., & Lear, R. (2005). A Foot in Two Worlds; The Second Report on Comprehensive High School Conversions: Small Schools Project.

7 York-Barr, J., & Duke, K. (2004). What Do We Know About Teacher Leadership? Findings From Two Decades of Scholarship. Review of Educational Research, 74(3), 255-316.

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