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In Minnesota Experiment, Teachers Replace The Principal

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In what may be an unprecedented move to give teachers increased responsibility in school management, the Taylors Falls School District--a one-school system in Minnesota--has received state approval to replace its principal with an elected group of teachers.

Although a number of districts have moved to increase teacher participation in school decisionmaking, national education observers and teachers' union officials said last week that they know of no other district in which a team of teachers has actually replaced a principal.

The inspiration for the Taylors Falls plan came from last year's report by the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy, A Nation Prepared: Teachers for the 21st Century, according to Sig K. Rimestad, superintendent of the 340-student district.

Among numerous other proposals, the Carnegie report called for the creation of a category of "lead teachers'' who would shoulder more responsibility and receive greater pay than their colleagues, and for the restructuring of schools to give teachers more autonomy.

"In our own small way,'' Mr. Rimestad said, "we are trying to move in that direction.''

The superintendent said he sought and received the full support of the district's 21-member teaching staff before taking the proposal to the Minnesota Board of Education, which last month approved the plan on a three-year experimental basis.

"Obviously, I find this very interesting,'' said Marc Tucker, executive director of the Carnegie Forum.

"We said in the report that there ought to be a lot of ways to run schools, including the model that is out there now,'' Mr. Tucker said. "But there ought to be other models as well, like the one this school district is trying.''

The Carnegie Forum's proposal that lead teachers could run schools--in place of principals--prompted protests by the leaders of the national groups that represent school principals. One such leader termed it "way off base''; others suggested that it ignored decades of research on the role of school leadership.

At least one administrators' group in Minnesota has expressed similar reservations about the Taylors Falls plan.

Five-Member Team

During the past two school years, Taylors Falls has employed a half-time principal to administer the school with the superintendent. But most of the principal's time was spent disciplining students, according to Mr. Rimestad.

Under the new management plan, many of the tasks the principal had performed, and others, will be turned over next year to a five-member team of teachers--two from the elementary grades and three from the upper grades--who will work with the superintendent.

The team and the superintendent will essentially administer the school together, Mr. Rimestad said, adding that he will retain final decisionmaking authority. But, he continued, "there will be much greater shared decisionmaking responsibility.''

"Many of the details still need to be worked out,'' he said. "We want to see what works and what doesn't.''

As currently envisioned, Mr. Rimestad said, the panel will meet with him at least once a week to help make decisions regarding district expenditures, curriculum, student discipline, and staff development.

In addition, he said, the team will conduct staff evaluations.

"This is exactly the type of thing that the Carnegie report has recommended,'' he said. "These are the exact things that teachers on a national level are saying they want.''

The five teachers, who have already been elected by the teaching staff, will receive $800 annual stipends for their administrative work and will retain full teaching loads.

The superintendent said the experiment also represents "a small, tenuous step to try to do something to break ... the adversarial [relationship] that has developed between school boards and teachers'' through unionism.

"It will give the board a chance to see teachers in a different light,'' Mr. Rimestad said. "And it will give teachers a chance to work with the budget and see exactly how the money is being spent.''

The $18,000 the district had paid its former principal will be "redistributed,'' the superintendent said. It will cover the teachers' stipends, he said, and enable the district to hire a full-time secretary for the teacher team and a non-certified staff member to handle several non-instructional duties that teachers currently perform, such as coordinating school clubs and dances.

"This will free teachers to devote more time to school program decisions and student problems,'' he said.

Teachers Voice Support

"We are a small district,'' said Douglas E. Bakkum, president of the Taylors Falls Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association. "It is not easy to justify spending 'X' amount of dollars for two administrators if the same things can be accomplished with just one.''

Mr. Bakkum said the district's teachers voted to try the superintendent's plan without seeking the advice of the Minnesota Education Association, the N.E.A.'s state affiliate.

"We did not feel we needed M.E.A.'s approval,'' he said. "This was not a [union] decision. This was a staff decision.'' Eighteen of the district's 21 teachers, he said, belong to the union.

While the American Federation of Teachers, the nation's second-largest teachers' union, has strongly encouraged its locals to experiment with programs involving lead-teacher and peer-review concepts, the N.E.A. has been less enthusiastic.

In a statement expressing strong reservations about some of the recommendations in the Carnegie report, Mary Hatwood Futrell, president of the N.E.A., criticized the lead-teacher concept, saying it "suggests that some teachers are more equal than others.''

"Collegiality is the track we think teachers should be on,'' Howard Carroll, a spokesman for the N.E.A., said last week. "But we are skeptical about teachers becoming managers when they should be teachers.''

Norman T. Nagasawa, a high-school business and computer teacher at Taylors Falls school and one of the teachers who has been elected to the administrative panel, said that he and other teachers were initially apprehensive about the plan, but that everyone eventually voted to try it on an experimental basis.

"The more we talked about it, the more the concept appeared to be a good one,'' Mr. Nagasawa said. "This gives teachers a direct link to decisionmaking. And I think this is what teachers have always wanted.''

Mr. Nagasawa and Mr. Bakkum said they support the idea of peer evaluation. In the past, they said, teachers were rarely evaluated because what little time the principal had was spent doing other things.

"We feel that teachers evaluating teachers is a good thing,'' Mr. Bakkum said, "especially as opposed to not having anything at all.''

Principals' Concerns

An official for the Minnesota Elementary School Principals Association criticized the Taylors Falls plan last week, calling it "a high-risk approach'' to school management.

"I don't think it is legitimate,'' said Robert F. Arnold, executive director of the principals' association. "I don't think you can effectively run a school by committee.''

Mr. Arnold said he believes the Taylors Falls plan is driven by "economic, rather than reform,'' considerations.

"They think they are saving money,'' he said. "But they are going to be sacrificing what we call good leadership for economics.''

Teachers should play a role in school decisionmaking, he added, "but only in conjunction with a principal.''

"I don't think the teachers really understand what the world of the principalship is about,'' he continued. "I think they will find out that principals' training is there for a purpose, and that people who don't have that training can't be expected to effectively function in that position.''

Scott Thomson, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, expressed similar views.

"It's a good idea for a couple of schools to try this so that they can understand the reason why the title 'principal' was developed 60 years ago,'' Mr. Thomson said.

"Within a year,'' he predicted, "[the committee] will end up appointing a clearly designated chair to respond to the parents and the superintendent.''

And that, he added, "is the first step toward appointing a 'principal' teacher.''

Board Endorsement

Because the state requires all Minnesota districts to employ both a superintendent and a principal, Taylors Falls could not implement the school-management plan without obtaining a waiver from the state board of education.

According to Ted L. Suss, the board's administrator, the vote in favor of the waiver was unanimous.

In fact, Mr. Suss said, board members gave him a "clear message'' that they would be interested in granting waivers to other districts wishing to test similar arrangements.

"The board thinks that leadership models that give teachers the sense they are helping to shape the entire program will have a positive effect on teacher retention and morale, and classroom instruction,'' Mr. Suss said.

If the Taylors Falls experiment proves successful, he added, "it is clearly possible that the board will sanction this type of arrangement so it will no longer be experimental.''

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