By Marisa Saunders
Discussions of educational reform often turn to the influence, competence, and accountability of teachers. While a highly capable and effective teacher workforce is understood as critical for improving student outcomes, teachers are too often viewed as “implementers” rather than as experts who are best positioned to identify and meet the needs of their students. The result is growing teacher dissatisfaction and a mounting teacher shortage, especially within underserved communities.
A recent study conducted by AISR suggests that the conditions that support teacher ownership – a teacher’s sense of alignment with an improvement effort and their agency to influence it – are associated with a range of positive outcomes including greater teacher satisfaction. Teachers who indicate that they have an opportunity to both shape and spread school improvement plans – through shared decision-making, collaborative practices, and leadership – are more likely to indicate positive teacher relationships and an increased sense of accountability. Teachers with a sense of ownership feel invested in their profession, in their schools, and in their students’ learning.
The study was part of the Time for Equity project, funded by the Ford Foundation and carried out by AISR from 2012-2016, with the goal of building the capacity of schools, districts, communities, and partner organizations to improve educational opportunities in the nation’s most underserved school systems through expanded and reimagined learning time.
Focused on a network of schools within the Los Angeles Unified School District, our study paid close attention to the conditions and practices that contribute to teachers’ sense of ownership of their school improvement efforts. We found that teacher ownership develops:
in environments where space and time is provided for them to work with other teachers to co-construct knowledge and to influence and lead school improvement efforts; and
when supports and practices are in place that enable teachers to break down barriers and work collectively to build system coherence.
In other words, teacher ownership is not built in isolated classrooms; it is nested within a school culture that values teachers’ expertise, knowledge, and deep understanding of schools as social and cultural institutions.
Teacher ownership is a powerful construct with the potential to create meaningful change in schools and systems. And, as state departments of education revise accountability systems to meet the new requirements of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), we have an opportunity to support and strengthen teacher ownership.
ESSA signals an important move toward a more holistic approach to accountability by encouraging multiple measures of student and school success. This shift creates new opportunities to develop approaches to accountability and improvement that move beyond test scores to include the resources and conditions that matter most for student success, including measures of school climate. Many districts and states are working to integrate school climate measures as a critical non-academic indicator of school quality into their school accountability systems, and these measures should also include how teachers and other staff experience the school as a work environment. Schools must cultivate a healthy and positive workplace that promotes collaboration, professional learning opportunities, and growth through leadership – all contributors to teacher ownership.
Incorporating measures of teacher ownership into state accountability systems provides a mechanism for dismantling the isolation of classroom teachers; creating the space, time, and autonomy that teachers need to collectively define their schools; encouraging multiple roles for teachers, including leadership; and ensuring that adequate and equitable resources are available to support teaching and learning. By coupling measures of school climate (capturing levels of teacher collaboration, trust, and positive teacher relationships) with teacher ownership, we can begin to shine a light on the importance of creating learning environments that help both students and teachers thrive.
If we are serious about transforming our schools, then we must find ways to engage all teachers in the effort – not only as implementers, but as the creators and directors of change. Teachers have the capacity to transform their classrooms, schools, and educational systems. To promote positive and sustainable change, teachers must be included in the development of transformation efforts, have the opportunity to share their knowledge, and lead. In order for positive change to take hold, teachers need to feel ownership of their craft, of their profession, and of the efforts aimed to improve teaching and learning.
Marisa Saunders is a principal associate on the Research & Policy team at AISR.