Leading Learning

David Brazer's blog discusses practical issues in education leadership while linking to theory and research

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The Challenge of Teacher Learning That Impacts Student Learning

Algebra 1 teachers gathered in the pre-dawn chill of a portable classroom. Their collaborative team meeting began with three present and three more trickling in hunched around their paper cups of hot coffee. The chair, operating from her written agenda and district protocols, directed discussion to student achievement data. Focused first on areas of persistent student failure, the debate quickly shifted from evidence of learning to airing opinions on the value of having students re-taking tests when their grades fall below a certain level. Bringing the group back to the agenda with about 20 minutes left in the 45-minute period allotted for collaborative team work, the chair energetically presented a new way of factoring polynomials. All were silent until she finished, with the exception of the chair’s special education co-teacher who expressed eagerness to try the method in her self-contained classroom. As the warning bell for first period rang, teachers gathered up papers, books, and coffee and bustled out of the room.

This kind of meeting, tucked away in the far corners of a jam-packed workday, seems typical of attempts to have teachers collaborate in a manner that improves teaching and learning. The meeting was largely focused on achievement, deficiencies were noted, and a solution was presented. I was present as non-participant observer conducting research on the operation and output of teacher collaborative teams. As I left the meeting and walked to my car, I wondered: Did learning happen? How would I know? How does it affect students? Principals and other leaders may want to ask and answer these questions to understand what teacher collaboration means in their schools. Creating a supportive context for teacher learning and connecting what is learned to classroom practices presents a vital challenge to instructional leadership.

Organizational design, deliberate or accidental, greatly influences whether or not teacher learning takes place. The high school in which I observed this collaborative team meeting was, in my view, better designed than most to support teacher learning, though it had some serious weaknesses. The design was deliberate and took place through specific management initiatives over time.

Research colleagues of mine and I use four critical areas of organizational design to analyze the potential for teacher learning: scope, formal structure, decision making process, and support (Bauer, 1998; Bauer, Brazer, Van Lare, & Smith, 2013; Shedd, 1987; Shedd & Bacharach, 1991). For this particular school, scope was clear. Collaborative teams were to focus on issues of student achievement, rather than departmental business. Formal structure was also obvious: teachers knew they were on the Algebra 1 team, meeting for 45 minutes every two weeks. The role of chair was never in doubt. Decision making protocols, in contrast, were not evident. Typical of other teams we observed, ideas such as the new factoring method were presented, but it was never clear if anyone was expected to use them or what would happen based on results. If the factoring method seemed to work well, would all teachers adopt it? No one knew. Most remarkable in this high school was the level of support. The long-serving principal adopted a collaborative team model several years before it was mandated by the district. Having developed a school-based data warehouse and analysis mechanism, the principal used his staffing formula to provide the faculty with a data expert and a pedagogical expert—one to help teachers with analysis and the other to assist with responding to what they learned. Time was a critical support factor that appeared to be in short supply.

What was the result in this apparently well-supported system of teacher collaboration? I caution the reader that what I am about to say is based on very few observations of the people on this particular team, but it is similar to what our research team found in nine other schools in this district. I received permission to observe the two teachers who said they would try the new factoring method in their classes and attended the entire class period on the days they scheduled it into their lesson. The special education teacher ran out of time in her self-contained classroom. The collaborative team chair who initiated the idea taught the new method to her students in the last ten minutes of the class period I observed. I was unable to determine if she returned to it in subsequent lessons, though she seemed motivated to do so.

Did teacher learning happen in the collaborative team? A little. Teachers discussed typical learning problems in Algebra 1 that often lead to a D and F rate among students of at least 30%. Learning was enhanced by the chair’s presentation of a new factoring method she had never tried but wanted to. She explained how the method works and how she envisioned introducing and working with it in her classroom. Horn (2010) calls presentation of learning problems (factoring, in this case) with examples replays and the articulation of possible teaching responses to the problem rehearsals. These are building blocks of teacher learning as they work in teams. (For more detail, see Van Lare & Brazer, 2013; Van Lare, Brazer, Bauer, & Smith, 2013.)

How does such teacher learning affect students in classrooms? In this case, marginally at best, and perhaps not at all. Only two teachers of the six present expressed any intent to try the new factoring method; only one of these two actually did so on the timeline projected to me. I was unable to learn the effects of these trials because the next two bi-weekly collaborative team meetings were cancelled for various reasons. When I finally returned to a second meeting, the focus of discussion was far away from factoring as new imperatives of the waning school year took precedence.

Managing a large school with dozens of collaborative teams is challenging for even the most gifted leaders. Merely setting up teams and hoping they will be productive rarely leads to meaningful change. The challenge for leaders is creating a climate of inquiry that supports and encourages all teachers to engage in learning that is action focused so that classroom improvements are more likely to be attempted and evaluated. Principals and their leadership teams must ensure that the designs of their schools motivate, enhance, and perhaps demand both inquiry and action. Risks of failure are substantial, but improvement is unlikely if action does not follow from inquiry.


Bauer, S.C. (1998). Designing site-based systems, deriving a theory of practice. International Journal of Educational Reform, 7(2), 108 – 21.

Bauer, S.C., Brazer, S.D., Van Lare, M.D., & Smith, R. (2013). Organizational design in support of professional learning communities in one district. In S. Conley & B. Cooper (Eds.), Moving from teacher isolation to collaboration (pp. 49 – 80). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Shedd, J. (1987). Involving teachers in school and district decision making. Ithaca, NY: Organizational Analysis and Practice.

Shedd, J., & Bacharach, S. (1991). Tangled hierarchies: Teachers as professionals and the management of schools. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Van Lare, M.D., & Brazer, S.D. (2013). Analyzing learning in professional learning communities: A conceptual framework. Leadership and Policy in Schools, 12(4), 374 – 396.

Van Lare, M.D., Brazer, S.D., Bauer, S.C., & Smith, R. (2013). Professional learning communities using evidence. In S. Conley & B. Cooper (Eds.), Moving from teacher isolation to collaboration (pp. 157 – 181). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.


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Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Physics

Jordan had a remarkable gift. After 20 years of teaching high school science, he could orchestrate a class of 30 physics students working through a lab that required them to apply what they knew of trigonometry to problems of momentum, trajectory, and gravity. As students struggled to get a ball to roll off a ski jump-like ramp and land in a cup on the floor, they would pepper Jordan with questions that arose from the frustration of their ball landing anywhere but in the cup. With patience born of wisdom, Jordan would answer their questions with more questions, demanding that his students engage in inquiry to solve their own problems, rather than simply “do” a lab.


As an assistant principal preoccupied with discipline and attendance, I was Jordan’s evaluator. My teaching career consisted of teaching high school history and economics, with some brief inept attempts at middle school math and reading. When I emerged from graduate school, my pedagogical content knowledge was weak and narrow. What could I possibly offer to Jordan in the evaluation process? I stumbled upon borrowing from Jordan’s method with students to approach our evaluation discussions from an inquiry stance. “Why did you set up the lab that way? What worked well? What would you have done differently? Was trigonometry helpful, or did it get in the way?” Answering my questions, Jordan helped me write up my observations of his classrooms. But something more important happened, he guided my learning.


Querying veteran teachers assigned to me in the evaluation process, combined with efforts to leverage what I had learned in high school, college, and graduate school, I was able to broaden and deepen my pedagogical content knowledge in a variety of subjects. Enough of my study of the Second British Empire stuck to me to be able to discuss and learn about the World History curriculum. Years of playing in orchestras provided a foundation for assessing the quality of high school ensemble rehearsals. Diving into my shallow reservoir of math knowledge helped me to learn about the difficulties of teaching factoring and applying the quadratic formula. The expert teachers who educated me as we fulfilled our bureaucratic duty of teacher evaluation helped me to become conversant in a wide variety of content and prepared me to lead other teachers’ learning, though I didn’t know it at the time.


The recognition that principals are more effective when they lead instruction has become commonplace. How to lead instruction, however, is a matter of some debate. In many settings, what passes for instructional leadership is actually the monitoring of classroom practice and outcomes. For example, principals are exhorted to analyze data to help them to identify and address achievement gaps. They engage in walk-through visits to classrooms to learn whether and to what extent teachers are in sync with pacing guides and applying what the principal may have promoted as best practice for classroom teaching. What such behaviors represent may be instructional leadership, depending on their emphasis, but my suspicion is that data analysis, classroom walk-throughs, and other highly-touted leadership practices aren’t really leadership at all. They are management tools that focus on compliance in a belief that if teachers do what administrators ask, desired outcomes will follow.


The central problem with prescribing administrator behavior and teacher practice is that the prescriptions may be entirely wrong. Searching for how to improve instruction by looking at various kinds of test data may keep answering the question, “How are we doing?” over and over again, but it will not likely lead to answering the question, “Why do achievement gaps persist?” And if those gaps persist despite teachers’ best efforts to apply what they have been told are best practices, then demoralization follows. Improvement in student performance is not likely to occur as a result of the application of solutions when the nature of classroom problems and challenges is not deeply understood.


It makes sense for principals to engage teachers in learning about teaching and learning outcomes that are less than what was expected. I am not the first to come up with this idea as the current national infatuation with professional learning communities suggests. But how does a principal foster teacher learning? Robinson, Lloyd, and Rowe (2008) argue persuasively that principals learning alongside teachers is one of the most powerful means of improving student achievement. Their meta-analysis does not explain how or why this particular mechanism works, but I have a few hunches.


When principals sit down with teachers to analyze persistent problems such as students’ inability to comprehend and retain non-fiction texts, weaknesses in basic operations that impede algebra achievement, or the ineffectiveness of interventions to improve special education students’ performance, they signal first and foremost that teaching and learning are of primary importance to the principal and to the school. And, the inquiry stance embedded in the act of learning alongside teachers strongly implies that there are no pat answers to the problems that vex teachers every day. Learning more about such problems may help teachers to find more effective solutions than those being handed to them from somewhere else. Learning processes are slow and much less certain than following prescriptions, therefore apparently more risky.


Prospective and practicing principals and assistant principals reading this will likely react the way my administrative team did each time we had to decide who would evaluate the calculus teacher: “I haven’t taken math since high school, so what can I offer in the discussion, and how could I possibly lead learning when I am so ignorant?” Any subject could be substituted in place of calculus. Many administrators, feeling some degree of helplessness, will move to the position that they understand pedagogy generally and can help that way. I believe that is not good enough. To lead teacher learning that improves student learning requires being sufficiently conversant in all the subjects taught to be able to engage in meaningful dialogue with teachers, individually and in groups, about what should be taught and how it should be taught. Teachers should be acknowledged as experts and be celebrated for their expertise, but principals and AP’s need to know enough about a range of content and pedagogical needs to show their appreciation in meaningful ways and challenge teachers to greater effectiveness.


Stein and Nelson (2003) call for administrators to develop their pedagogical content knowledge (PCK) in specific areas in which they did not teach. While a step in the right direction, their prescription does not go far enough. Expanding prospective administrators’ curricular reach should begin in leadership preparation programs by having candidates broadening and deepening their PCK in at least a few areas. Administrators (preferably supported by district professional development) could embrace PCK development as an important aspect of their professional growth throughout their careers because no one can develop the required breadth of expertise all at once, prior to assuming an administrative role. In addition to what administrators are able to learn about curriculum and instruction on the job, they need consistent professional development to help them expand the subjects and levels in which they are conversant in order to lead learning school wide.


I am grateful to Jordan and many others who taught me a great deal. I wish I had known more about how to structure teacher learning and collaboration when I was a principal because I know that for me and for my school, it was hit-or-miss. The next post tackles the issue of managing to maximize teacher learning opportunities.

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The Boring Foundation of Leadership

Working as a new, young assistant principal, I found the department chairs up in arms about their “abatements.” “Where are our abatements?!?!” they would bellow regularly in springtime faculty meetings as budgets were running out. “What the heck is an abatement?” I wondered. Over time, I found out that our decentralized inventory system required department chairs to keep track of books, lab equipment, athletics uniforms, etc. As they collected the various items necessary for education at the end of the school year, there were students who inevitably had lost their book, balance, or jersey; thus, they had to pay the school bookkeeper, creating an abatement or credit to the departmental budget. Where did the money go between the student payment in spring and departmental budgets the following fall? No one seemed to know.

I learned later that the school was running deficits every year of tens of thousands of dollars on an annual books and supplies budget of about $160,000 (some years the English Department alone had $10,000 in lost books). Why was this allowed to continue? It all comes back to the abatements. The budget office for the district looked at the school’s allocation and how much was spent. Should there be a deficit, no matter. They simply looked at the school’s total bottom line. If it added to less than zero, then the cash receipts from the year made up the difference. (Departmental carryover money also filled the deficit, creating anger on another front.) This solved an accounting problem, but it was the source of department chairs’ frustration because they needed their abatements to replace unreturned books and other items. The budgets they received from the principal were never adequate to cover the previous year’s losses.

The abatement problem created an infection of irresponsibility. Without seeing the money back in their budgets, department chairs had little motivation to try to collect it in the first place. Furthermore, why bother to maintain a positive balance in your budget if carryovers simply disappeared and no one seemed to care about the school running a deficit?

Few things are duller to many prospective and practicing education leaders than budget planning and budget control. But when problems such as those I’ve described fester, they hamper leadership in three critical ways: 1) important teacher leaders—such as department chairs—are constantly annoyed and feel as though they cannot be effective in their jobs; 2) trust within the school is eroded when no one really understands why apparently irrational things happen; and 3) money as an important catalyst for change is never available. In these situations, tackling the tedious opens up possibilities for creative leadership.

When I moved into the prinicpalship of this same school a few years later I was determined to transform the department chairs group from a squabbling, discontented collection of respected teachers into a well-functioning collaborative team that could help me to guide the school toward continuous improvement. I started with the budget by inviting the chairs to build it with me—something they had never done before. We also made a compact that had the following critical components:

Principal Responsibilities Department Chair Responsibilities
Provide accurate monthly budget statements Screen budget requests from department members and avoid deficits
Prevent departments from over-spending by comparing records and requisitions Submit requisitions for all purchases, rather than going outside the system with telephone orders or personal payments
Centralize inventory control with a new barcode system, relieving department chairs of the inventory burden Work with faculty to make sure the centralized system is used for all students
Preserve carryovers within district guidelines and return all abatements to departments Avoid deficit spending

Within the first few months of the new school year, trust between department chairs and me regarding the budget was rock solid. Nearly all of them cooperated in the new budget system and were elated when abatements and carryovers showed up in their monthly statements. I was fortunate in three important ways. First, my secretary had bookkeeping education and experience. She designed the monthly spreadsheets in a manner that department chairs could easily understand. She never gave me a requisition to sign unless there were sufficient funds to pay for it. Second, my assistant principals were diligent and persistent in putting the book, equipment, and uniform inventory system together. Third, we had dedicated staff and parent volunteers who bar-coded more than 15,000 volumes and built the database for a computerized inventory and billing system—something brand new to schools in those days.

With budget management under control, I was able to have individual and collective conversations about how our resource allocation, limited though our budget was, could better support academic needs. With much greater certainty about how much he would have to spend, the Social Studies Department chair willingly gave up a few thousand dollars to be used elsewhere. With no more excuses about not knowing what she really had in her budget or where the abatements were going, the athletic director was forced to live within her (rather substantial) means. We funded desperately needed science equipment and supplies, greatly improved copier service, replaced 15 year-old math texts, and never ran a deficit.

Management was at the core of Ellwood P. Cubberley’s early 20th century conception of the professional principal and superintendent and remained for many decades the central focus of what we call education leadership today (Murphy, 1992; Tyack, 1974). As schools and society have become more complex with increased demands for higher graduation rates, more diversified programs, special education, and second language instruction—among countless changes and reforms—obsession with managerial tasks and efficient outcomes has persisted (Cuban, 1988). Although the 21st century has brought a new imperative that principals lead instruction (Leithwood & Jantzi, 2008; Leithwood, Seashore Louis, Anderson, & Wahlstrom, 2004), good management is still highly valued (Grissom & Loeb, 2011). My discussion of the need to resolve a persistent budget deficit emphasizes the importance of sound management.

But good management alone is not sufficient for defining effective leadership for one must ask the kind of question that continually engages me: Management for what? What are we trying to accomplish by managing well? The answer for me lies in improving the quality of instruction for all students. When a school runs well—financially, socially, and structurally—then it becomes possible for the principal to lead teacher learning that fuels student and school improvement.

The next two posts will address the issue of teacher learning as a means to improving educational outcomes for all students by asking the following question: What is the principal’s role in fostering teacher learning and collaboration? The management challenges that underlie this kind of leadership will be explored in these and additional future posts.



Cuban, L. (1988). The managerial imperative and the practice of leadership in schools. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Grissom, J., & Loeb, S. (2011). Triangulating principal effectiveness: How perspectives of parents, teachers, and assistant principals identify the central importance of managerial skills. American Educational Research Journal, 20(10), 1–33.

Leithwood, K., & Jantzi, D. (2008). Linking leadership to student learning: The contributions of leadership efficacy. Educational Administration Quarterly, 44, 496–528.

Leithwood, K., Seashore Louis, K., Anderson, S., & Wahlstrom, K. (2004). How leadership influences student learning. New York, NY: Wallace Foundation.

Murphy, J. (1992). The landscape of leadership preparation: Reframing the education of school administrators. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Tyack, D. (1974). The one best system: A history of American urban education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.