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February 1, 2005
Vol. 62
No. 5

The Power of Teacher Leadership

A cutting-edge rural school is tapping the talent of its National Board-certified teachers to transform teaching and learning.

The Power of Teacher Leadership- thumbnail
Since the early 1990s, a steady flow of research has documented the close relationship between teaching quality and student achievement (Darling-Hammond & Youngs, 2002; Ferguson, 1991; Sanders & Rivers, 1996). In response to these findings, many policymakers have recognized the pressing need to place teachers at the heart of the school improvement agenda.
The strong message broadcast by all this research has been less well-received, however, in some schools and districts that still wish for easy solutions to the problem of lagging student achievement. Administrators in these schools may hope that computer-based instruction, “teacher-proof” curriculum packages, programs designed to sharpen students' test-taking skills, or some other miracle cure will relieve them of the need to confront the complex and difficult task of improving teaching quality.
A growing number of school leaders are paying attention to data showing that expert teachers hold the key to student achievement. But these insightful leaders face a tough challenge: how to identify, attract, and retain a cadre of expert teachers who can help redesign and lead even the most challenged schools. On the basis of our research at the Southeast Center for Teaching Quality, we believe that a solution already exists. In states where decision makers have invested in programs that encourage teachers to seek certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS), some cutting-edge schools are using the expertise of their National Board-certified teachers to transform teaching and learning.

Background: National Board Certification

The mission of NBPTS is to advance the quality of teaching and learning by maintaining rigorous standards for what accomplished teachers should know and be able to do. The organization provides a national voluntary system for certifying teachers who meet these standards, and it advocates related education reforms to integrate National Board certification into standards for all teachers and to capitalize on the expertise of National Board-certified teachers.
The certification process includes both a portfolio and a standardized teaching exam. Teachers submit four portfolio entries, including videotapes that document the candidate's teaching practice, and provide examples of student work. The portfolios demonstrate how teachers analyze student performance and adjust instruction accordingly, work with students' families and the larger community, and collaborate with colleagues.
All 50 U.S. states, the District of Columbia, and approximately 550 local school districts have enacted legislation or policies that create incentives and recognition for National Board certification. In some states, candidates can have their assessment fees paid, gain additional professional development days to complete their portfolios, and earn substantial salary increases once they become certified. South Carolina pays a $7,500 bonus; Florida offers National Board-certified teachers a 10 percent salary supplement if they agree to provide mentoring services for 12 days during the year. California offers a $20,000 incentive award paid in four annual installments to National Board-certified teachers who teach in low-performing schools.
North Carolina has the longest-standing and most comprehensive set of policies in the United States to support National Board certification. The state pays the $2,300 assessment fee, provides three additional days of professional development to meet the Board's standards, and offers a 12 percent salary supplement to all teachers who achieve certification.
Today, more than 40,000 teachers in the United States have earned National Board certification. This figure represents just slightly more than 1 percent of the nation's teachers, but in some states that have long offered incentives and political support for National Board certification, the figure is much higher. In North Carolina, for example, almost 10 percent of teachers are National Board-certified.
Recent studies have examined both the distribution of National Board-certified teachers and their effect on student achievement. Researchers have found that these teachers' students—especially low-income students—perform better on standardized tests (Goldhaber & Anthony, 2004; Vandevoort, Amrein-Beardsley, & Berliner, 2004). At the same time, research suggests that National Board-certified teachers are less likely to teach in low-income, minority, and low-performing schools (Humphrey, Koppich, & Hough, 2004). As a result, criticism of state investments in National Board certification has mounted, and policymakers have questioned whether the growing pool of National Board-certified teachers will have a significant impact on schools that need expert teachers the most (Rotherham, 2004).
To further explore the potential for National Board-certified teachers to help narrow the achievement gap, the Southeast Center for Teaching Quality studied the involvement of these teachers in lower-performing schools in North Carolina. From fall 2003 through fall 2004, we made several visits to selected schools, reviewing documents, observing in classrooms, and interviewing administrators and teachers. All schools in the study had faculties with at least 9 percent National Board-certified teachers and also had student achievement falling in the bottom 30th percentile of the state sometime during the last three years of available data.
The following story highlights one school and school district in the study that successfully used the leadership of National Board-certified teachers to spur school improvement.

Teacher Leadership in a Rural School

Adams Elementary is a rural school serving 560 students in grades 3–5. More than 60 percent of its students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. During the last four years, Adams has progressed from a struggling school—in which slightly more than half of the students performed at or above grade level—to a rapidly improving community of learners with more than 80 percent of students meeting grade-level standards (see fig. 1, p. 59). In the fall of 2004, the district recognized Adams as the school showing “most dramatic improvement.”
Figure 1. North Carolina ABC's Results for Adams Elementary

The Power of Teacher Leadership - table

Percentage at or Above Grade Level


1999–200056Expected Growth
2000–200162No Recognition
2001–200273No Recognition
2002–200381 School of Distinction
2003–200483 School of Distinction
Among Adams's 25 teachers, 9 have National Board certification and 4 more are seeking certification. The school district in which Adams resides has a tradition of teacher professionalism and teacher involvement in decision making. The district offers teachers a variety of incentives to become National Board-certified, from precandidate informational gatherings to weekend retreats during which teacher candidates can polish their assessment portfolios. Five years ago, as Adams struggled to raise the achievement of its students, conditions were ripe in the district for National Board-certified teachers and other expert teachers to make the evolutionary leap from classroom leaders to school leaders.

Opening the Door to Change

When faculty members look back on the days when Adams was struggling, they realize that the ideas and expertise needed to turn the school around were already present, embedded in their own faculty. The school simply needed a catalyst that would encourage more sharing of that expertise and give teachers the confidence to open up their teaching practices to peer critique.
Two events provided such a catalyst. First, the district administration began to apply its collective gleanings from the National Board experience to its ongoing development of a sharply focused, job-embedded approach to professional growth. Second, Adams got a new principal—herself a National Board-certified teacher with a strong commitment to teaching quality and a determination to spread the power of teacher reflection and collaboration throughout the school.

Building Teacher Community

Several strategies have helped Adams become the kind of school where teachers openly discuss their practice and work together to solve knotty instructional problems. With consultant support from a regional education laboratory, teachers organized professional learning teams to research solutions to problems uncovered by a careful analysis of school data. In these professional learning teams, teachers share lessons learned, use protocols to make decisions, and rely on systematic note taking to inform other colleagues about their work.
At one team meeting we observed, members watched a video presentation of various strategies for reading instruction and discussed their own experiences, expanding on the material presented on the tape by using the reflective skills encouraged by NBPTS. In another meeting, a 4th grade team discussed how to use test prep materials in ways that encourage meaningful student learning. In yet another meeting, teachers were involved in a search for a new reading assessment tool. The frank conversation and the high level of trust in these meetings showed that Adams's teachers have constructed a genuine culture of collaboration. As one teacher leader put it, “Teachers talking about their practice is what this school is all about.” Another teacher commented, “Now we're more involved in decision making. We are given data and we're always analyzing it.”
The school replaced traditional “sit and get” staff development with carefully chosen training opportunities that grew out of its data-driven school improvement plan. Literacy circles and reading comprehension workshops drove collective work that teachers did in cross-grade learning teams. The school schedule was redesigned to create common planning time several hours a week so that teachers could learn from one another.
The impact of all this work has been magnified by the presence of respected National Board-certified teachers on the school's faculty and administrative staff. As a result of their own certification experience, these teachers can speak convincingly about the value of conducting regular classroom assessments and engaging in personal reflection; inviting “critical friends” to observe in classrooms and offer constructive criticism; and using such self-improvement strategies as analyzing videotaped lessons, sampling student work, and reading and critiquing professional literature. In addition, National Board-certified teachers try out and model new instructional strategies.

Spreading Teacher Expertise

Teaching's long-standing egalitarian culture, described by Lortie (1975) three decades ago, prevents teachers in many schools from emerging as leaders and influencing their peers. Adams is an exception. The school expects its National Board-certified teachers to lead and serve as role models. As one district administrator noted, “We supported them in order for them to become certified—now we expect them to help the school.” Certified teachers receive the training, support, and time they need to mentor other teachers. They are encouraged to make presentations at state, regional, and national meetings about the impact of National Board certification on themselves and on their school and about the ways in which their district is ratcheting up teaching quality.
Adams also encourages all non-National Board-certified teachers to consider themselves on a path to National Board certification. Teachers often prepare for National Board exams in teams and share with one another as they develop their student-work assessments and teaching videos.
We saw no evidence, however, of a class system at Adams based on whether one has or has not earned National Board certification. District and school leaders expect all teachers—not just those with National Board certification—to be leaders of school improvement. By involving all teachers in multiple learning teams, schoolwide planning committees, and grade-level groups, Adams's principal consciously encourages all teachers to contribute their voices to school decisions and intra- and intergroup modeling and learning. Although certified teachers lead several committees and teams, other formal leadership roles are filled by accomplished educators who have not made that choice. And teachers across the school use Adams's web of interaction to identify and call on experts in specific areas at each grade level—experts who represent a range of experience levels and achievements.
At the same time, teachers respect and value the school's National Board-certified teachers, both for their commitment to hold themselves publicly accountable to high standards and for their drive to continue learning and examining their teaching. Other teachers see National Board-certified teachers as go-to colleagues for support as they try out innovations in the classroom. District planners also welcome teacher leaders' professionalism and assertiveness.

Policy and Political Infrastructure

Adams Elementary and its parent school system have embraced NBPTS principles and place a high value on National Board-certified teachers and their potential for leadership in school reform. These attitudes, uncommon in many states, have flourished in North Carolina because of the state's combination of coherent state policy and political leadership, provided initially by former governor James B. Hunt, who was the founding chairman of NBPTS.
School administrators and teachers throughout the state recognize National Board certification as a tool for teacher development and school reform. Universities have created new master's programs geared toward NBPTS standards, and some National Board-certified teachers now serve as high-profile teacher educators. North Carolina's experience with National Board certification reveals the crucial importance of state leadership in raising standards of teaching quality.

Working on the Work

Although Adams is a small rural school in a district with limited resources, district administrators have used strategic budgeting practices to build a comprehensive professional development program. District leaders report that new teachers are attracted to the district because they know they will get the support they need to earn certification by their fourth or fifth year of teaching. District leaders have also found that encouraging veteran teachers to seek National Board certification not only improves overall teaching quality but also provides an opportunity for veterans to rejuvenate themselves and renew their commitment to the profession.
Teachers at Adams Elementary understand that their school reform work has just begun. They recognize that one hallmark of excellent teaching is a perpetual restlessness to improve. They eagerly look forward to moving Adams from a North Carolina School of Distinction to the next and highest level—School of Excellence—and they are determined to meet the high adequate yearly progress bar set by North Carolina's NCLB requirements.
Administrators at Adams value teaching expertise, understand it deeply, and believe they can rely on the precepts of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards to identify and develop accomplished teachers. They know that no curriculum package, textbook, or software can substitute for good teachers and quality teaching. For them, teacher professionalism is the clearest and most powerful path to improving schools and closing the achievement gap.

Darling-Hammond, L., & Youngs, P. (2002). Defining “highly qualified teachers”: What does “scientifically-based research” tell us? Education Researcher, 31(9), 13–25.

Ferguson, R. F. (1991). Paying for public education: New evidence on how and why money matters. Harvard Journal on Legislation, 28(2), 465–498.

Goldhaber, D., & Anthony, E. (2004). Can teacher quality be effectively assessed? Seattle, WA: Center on Reinventing Public Education, University of Washington.

Humphrey, D., Koppich, J., & Hough, H. (2004). Sharing the wealth: National Board certified teachers and the schools that need them most. Menlo Park, CA: SRI International. Available: www.teachingquality.org/resources/pdfs/NBCT_policy_paper.pdf

Lortie, D. (1975). Schoolteacher. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Rotherham, A. J. (2004). Opportunity and responsibility for National Board certified teachers (Policy Report). Washington, DC: Progressive Policy Institute.

Sanders, W. L., & Rivers, J. C. (1996). Cumulative and residual effects of teachers on future student academic achievement. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Value-Added Research and Assessment Center.

Vandevoort, L. G., Amrein-Beardsley, A., & Berliner, D. (2004, Sept. 8). National Board certified teachers and their students' achievement. Educational Policy Analysis Archives [Online]. Available: http://epaa.asu.edu/epaa/v12n46

End Notes

1 The study, led by SRI International along with the Southeast Center for Teaching Quality, Julia Koppich and Associates, and WestEd, provided the opportunity for our research team to visit six North Carolina schools for one day each in October 2003. Two schools were chosen from that group for follow-up case studies in April 2004. The school described in this article is one of those two.

2 The school's name is a pseudonym.

Barnett Berry has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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