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The Instructional Leadership Corps: Teachers Leading Sustainable Professional Learning in Their Communities

Two women working together

California's Instructional Leadership Corps (ILC) is changing the paradigm for teacher learning. Rather than using outside consultants, who often conduct one-time "drive-by" workshops that are less likely to provide meaningful, sustained learning, ILC taps the expertise and experience of local teachers, principals, and superintendents who have the training and support to lead ongoing professional development to peers in their own districts—and, in many cases, to other schools and districts in their regions.

The ILC was formed after California shifted to the Common Core State Standards and accompanying new assessments in 2014. The project also addresses the Next Generation Science Standards. It is a collaborative project of the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE), the California Teachers Association (CTA), and the National Board Resource Center (NBRC) at Stanford. Since 2014, when it was established, ILC teacher leaders have provided ongoing professional learning to more than 32,000 educators statewide, in more than 2,000 schools and at least 495 districts in California. An additional 30,000 educators participated in ILC-related conferences and presentations, and 38,000 more were indirectly impacted as ILC members trained instructional coaches in a trainer-of-trainers model. Educators' responses to these ILC conferences and training has been overwhelmingly positive, with many participants identifying this as the best professional learning experience they have had.

The study explored how ILC teams in different settings gained traction and began to transform professional learning opportunities in their communities and regions. These efforts often addressed long-standing problems of practice and inequities in children’s access to high-quality instruction. Given that practitioner-led professional learning has often failed to gain a toehold in districts in which teacher leaders are appointed but not integrated into the work of the schools, the study examined factors that enabled the work of the ILC to grow and become rooted in various communities. The study examined the strategies used by ILC leaders both in conducting professional development and in connecting their work to the broader efforts of their districts and counties and also examined the perceived impacts on practice for teacher participants.

LPI researchers studied the work of ILC teams at four sites:

  • Madera Unified School District in rural San Joaquin Valley, serving largely Latino/a students from low-income families who are at varying levels of English proficiency. The ILC team focused on language development across the curriculum. They led workshops, developed a train-the-trainers program, and reached nearly every teacher and administrator in the district. To further sustain the work, they embedded the workshops as part of induction programs for new teachers in the district.
  • The East Side Alliance, a formal partnership between East Side Union High School District and its seven k-8 feeder districts in East San Jose, which range from moderate to extremely low-income. Two ILC teams supported new approaches to standards-based mathematics instruction. One team participated in large-scale mathematics symposia and professional learning collaboratives that brought together middle and high school mathematics teachers to align mathematics teaching across grades. The team members also led professional learning workshops in their home districts and beyond. A second ILC team led workshops targeting the Standards for Mathematical Practice that complement the Common Core State Standards. These workshops included lesson study, in which teachers plan, observe, and provide feedback to support their colleagues’ teaching practice. The work of these two ILC teams became a regular part of their districts’ professional learning activities
  • Conejo Valley Unified School District is a high-achieving and well-resourced district in Ventura County, where two ILC teams mainly composed of middle and high school teachers focused on building science competencies and aligning instruction from elementary to high school. The teams led professional learning workshops and undertook coaching for colleagues to learn more deeply about how to implement the Next Generation Science Standards. Taking distinct but complementary approaches, one team conducted webinars, summer institutes, and workshops while the other team co-planned and co-taught science lessons with elementary school teachers. Both teams aligned their efforts with those of other science leadership teams in the district and in the county. Their work has become integrated in the district teachers’ professional learning offerings.
  • A partnership between and ILC teacher leaders’ network in North Orange County and the Center for Careers in Teaching at California State University at Fullerton’s College of Education worked across a wide range of districts through a series of “Teachers Teaching Teachers” conferences focused on the instructional shifts in the standards. These efforts led to new mentoring programs for both beginning teachers and high school students interested in teaching.

Key Findings

  1. Teachers value professional learning led by their colleagues.
    When ILC workshops are contrasted with traditional professional development offered by outside consultants, teachers prefer learning from and with their colleagues. They recognize and trust their colleagues’ knowledge and experience. Teacher leaders develop professional learning that is attentive to local needs and attuned to the specific challenges district teachers face in implementing the new state standards and assessments. ILC teacher leaders and their colleagues, as well as site administrators, described increased student engagement as a main effect of the CCSS- and NGSS-aligned curricula and the changing patterns of interactions in the classroom.
  2. ILC membership enhances teacher leaders’ professionalism and sense of efficacy.
    Recognizing that they are helping to shape other teachers’ practice increases teacher leaders’ sense of professional efficacy. They are able to broaden their professional reach beyond their classrooms and thus amplify their leadership skills as they initiate innovative activities and solidify professional relationships. Empowering the profession was a frequent theme in the teacher interviews.
  3. Supportive structural arrangements foster instructional change.
    The curricular and pedagogical shifts that adoption of the CCSS and the NGSS required were ambitious, profound, and demanding. Moving from scripted curriculum and pacing guides to planning lessons with engaging learning activities was neither quick nor effortless. Under the new paradigm of the CCSS and NGSS, site-level administrators need to play different roles from what was customary in the past. Including greater administrator involvement in instructional change is an aim of the ILC going forward. The ILC has increased the number of administrators as members, aided by the fact that many ILC teacher leaders move into roles with the district, owing in part to the success they achieve with the ILC.

    A key structural change in districts in which the ILC is active is granting time and opportunity for professional collaboration. Time and material resources are critical for shaping teaching practice and supporting sustained collaboration. As professional development workdays became integrated with the districts’ professional development calendars, they became institutionalized and part of routine district activities. As such, the ILC activities become legitimate district offerings and can receive regular district resources.
  4. Systematic follow-up contributes to implementation of instructional shifts.
    Lasting changes in pedagogy are more likely when teachers have the opportunity to try out new strategies, receive feedback, address challenges in implementation, and iteratively improve over the course of multiple workshops, with advisors and coaches at hand. Frequency and quality of the follow-up opportunities are variable yet indispensable. Follow-up usually consists of teacher self-reports, verbal or written reflections with colleagues, and sometimes samples of student work. Follow-up that involves either the modeling of teaching practices in the classroom by ILC teacher leaders or observation and feedback of participant teachers trying out the instructional strategies is rare but important. Designing for long-range engagement and follow-up is a key element of lasting change and should be part of initial plans, so that the many benefits of teacher-led professional development can be secured.
  5. Strategic relationships support deep, widespread professional learning.
    ILC teacher leaders get greatest traction when they are able to build relationships with district administrators, teachers associations, county offices of education, universities, and philanthropic organizations. Partnerships with county and district offices, universities, and funding sources support content alignment and leverage financial and logistical resources at the local level. ILC teams are more successful when teacher leaders are able to connect to organizations and institutions that recognize the inherent value of their work and are willing and able to provide support and resources. Maintaining these connections and establishing productive relationships are necessary for project continuation and institutionalization.

The Instructional Leadership Corps: Teachers Leading Sustainable Professional Learning in Their Communities by Rachel A. Lotan and Dion Burns is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Funding for this project was provided by the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation. Core operating support for the Learning Policy Institute is provided by the Sandler Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the Ford Foundation. We are grateful to them for their generous support. The ideas voiced here are those of the authors and not those of our funders.