Distributing Leadership to Support Instructional Change

February 10, 2010

Eric Camburn

Eric Camburn

Discussions of comprehensive school reform and distributed leadership have been dominated by descriptions of what they are and what forms they take. Now a plausible case can be made that distributing leadership to teachers can support instructional change, says UW–Madison education professor Eric Camburn.

In a 2008 study, Camburn determined that configuring and activating teacher leadership positions can support the adoption of specific instructional practices advocated by the America’s Choice program.

The America’s Choice program distributes leadership responsibilities to teacher leaders in schools. How this comprehensive school reform program played out in a sample of urban elementary schools was Camburn’s question.

merica’s Choice calls for two teacher leader roles—design coach and literacy coordinator. Design coaches provide broad support for implementing the America’s Choice program. The literacy coordinators specifically help teachers implement the early grades literacy curriculum.

Camburn’s study measured the extent to which these teacher leaders served as resources for adopting new teaching practices. He also measured changes in instructional practice, including the use of ability grouping, individualized instruction, and think-alouds.

Because Camburn wanted to determine how these factors compared over time, he examined 31 schools early in their adoption of America’s Choice and again 2 years later.

Teacher leaders as resources
African American teachers spent significantly more time working with teacher leaders than teachers of other races in both school years sampled. Teachers with fewer years of experience spent more time working with teacher leaders in the 2001–2002 school year, but the estimate for teacher experience was not statistically significant during the 2003–2004 school year. Teachers with less content knowledge for teaching literacy also spent more time working with teacher leaders. Camburn says these latter two results may indicate a rational allocation of leadership resources in schools: Less experienced and less knowledgeable teachers receive greater attention from teacher leaders.

Instructional practice changes
Camburn found that teachers in the sampled America’s Choice schools were much more likely than those in comparison schools to use the kinds of teaching practices called for in the America’s Choice design. These include explicit instruction in writing, teacher conferencing, attention to literary techniques, and guided-reading strategies. Further, African American teachers were much more likely than teachers of other races to engage in these practices. Teachers’ work with teacher leaders was one of the strongest predictors of the instructional outcome measure.

The study next sought to understand whether there is a connection between these two results: Did collaboration between America’s Choice teachers and their teacher leaders actually lead to more use of the practices the program advocates?

Camburn’s study found solid evidence supporting this hypothesis, and the result held across both school years sampled. This finding suggests that design coaches and literacy coordinators continued to support teachers’ adoption of literacy practices consistent with the America’s Choice design.

Camburn mentions two limitations of this study. First, the results are based on a specific case—namely, the distribution of leadership to teachers within the context of a single comprehensive school reform program. A second limitation lies with the study’s use of annual surveys, rather than multiple data sources, to measure instruction and key independent variables. These limitations notwithstanding, the study advances research in this area by going beyond the description of distributed leadership to examine its consequences for instructional change.

Funding: The Atlantic Philanthropies, Hewlett Foundation, U.S. Department of Education, and National Science Foundation.H.