Published Online: November 8, 2010

Interview

Teacher-Led Schools Flip the Script

With school districts and education leaders on the lookout for break-the-mold schooling models, the concept of the teacher-led school has received an increasing amount of media attention recently. Teacher-led schools, usually run by groups of teachers known as teacher professional partnerships, vary widely in structure and academics. What they have in common is that they upend the traditional school hierarchy and put teachers—rather than administrators—in control of decisionmaking.

To get more clarity on teacher-led schools and how they work, we recently talked to Ted Kolderie and Joe Graba, co-founders of Education Evolving, a Minnesota-based think tank that advocates rethinking traditional learning environments. Kolderie and Graba have recently focused their efforts on supporting and promoting the use of the teacher professional partnership model.

How is a school that uses a teacher professional partnership structured?

Graba: We think of a school as having first a governance structure and a learning program. It’s possible to have a teacher-led school with almost any kind of learning program. Although, in teacher-led schools the teachers tend to create more student-centered learning programs, since they're responsible for the school. They quickly realize that the more they motivate the students to take responsibility for their own learning, [the more] they increase the likelihood of a school being successful.

Is there a main office?

Graba: It depends on the school. I would say generally speaking, there’s no administrative office. But there are examples. In fact, we have one in St. Paul, where they’ve actually created a position [for an administrator]. It’s administrative, but it’s not the boss actually.

Kolderie: It’s role differentiation without hierarchy.

How do teachers divide their time between instruction and administrative duties?

Kolderie: First, they don’t call themselves teachers. They call themselves advisors.

When you’re an advisor and you’ve offloaded much of the responsibility for learning onto the students, you can multitask—you can answer phone calls, you can talk to somebody else who has a question they want you to answer.

Graba: You become a coach rather than a teacher. Not all [TPPs] have project-based schools, but quite a few do. They make good use of technology for that reason as well.

How big are classes typically?

Graba: There aren’t classes—there are advisories.

The advisories vary, from 17 to 1—so each advisor has 17 students they are advising on their projects—ranging up to 21 or 22 [students] at the highest.

Kolderie: The students select their advisor. … Teachers over time that are not selected, maybe they don’t stay with the school. Sometimes the student stays with the advisor through several years, through all four years of high school.

So do TPPs only work at the high school level?

Graba: No, there are several elementary schools. With the younger age, there is more direction for students and more assistance in developing projects. But students still do learning around projects.

Kolderie: There’s a general core idea here about the school being organized on a professional basis, with the professionals in charge. From that point on, what kind of a learning program it is and what kind an organization it is a) varies, and b) evolves.

How many teacher-led schools are there currently?

Graba: There are about 150.

Kolderie: [But] it's so subject to this range of variation across the spectrum. In some schools, teachers get authority over the academic side but not over anything else. Or at the extreme they're fully in control of all the dimensions of the school.

Graba: We've had a lot of increased interest in the last three or four months. The word is getting around that this is doable. The unions are beginning to get active in proposing it.

What are some of the challenges of getting a TPP school started?

Graba: The districts have to switch how they oversee these schools. Almost every school in the country is run through process control—the central office tells schools what the processes are that they need to follow.

Going to site-governed requires [the district to] go over to performance management [as opposed to control]. You build into the performance measures the outcomes you expect a school to provide. And you say to the school, "We’re not going to tell you how to get there, we’re just going to agree on what the outcomes are going to be. You figure out how to get there."

It’s a tough transition for districts to give up that sense of control and simply oversee schools based on outcomes.

What's the difference between the TPP model and simply having a principal who was a teacher for many years?

Graba: You can have a teacher-led school even if you have a principal. The difference is that in almost every school in the country, the principal is selected by the central administration as opposed to selected by the professionals.

Kolderie: The second difference is, what role does that person play? The teachers at Avalon [School, in St. Paul, Minn.,] are very clear that "we make decisions collegially." There is nobody who tells anybody else what to do.

Graba: We see a majority of teacher-led schools that don’t have a position that handles administration. They divide up the administrative activities among themselves—one person is in charge of reporting to the states, somebody else may handle the payroll.

One of the major complaints about the teaching profession is that teachers have such a wide variety of responsibilities. Doesn't this pile on duties for teachers? How do teachers find time to deal with budgets, suspensions, fire drills, etc.?

Graba: In the case of Avalon, they do half-time teaching and half-time administration. Other teachers and other schools handle advisories all the time and pick up one of the administrative functions and do it in addition.

Do the advisors have the expertise to handle these issues?

Graba: They have to learn it. That’s one of the issues. Either that or they can hire [someone to do] it.

Kolderie: In one [TPP] group there was someone who knew how to operate Quicken, so he took the job of keeping books for the school. He got pretty good at that and went on to get an MBA. Now he’s doing the work for a number of schools, including Avalon.

Graba: I think as a general rule, if you talk to teachers that do this, they say they’re working harder than they’ve ever worked, but they’re not frustrated because they're in charge. They don’t tolerate bureaucracy because they make decisions on the fly. They get themselves together and they don’t have to report to a central office or wait for a school board’s decision.

Are most teacher-led schools charter schools?

Graba: Most teacher-led schools are in the charter sector, but models are getting picked up in the district sector. They’re trying to get as much autonomy for decision-making as they can. But the amount of autonomy they get varies. For instance, the pilot schools in Boston and L.A. are part of the district. Their agreement gives them significant autonomy from the district central offices and teacher-contract provisions.

I think there are 12 or 13 teacher-led schools in Milwaukee. Teachers [there] are part of the district but still form a professional partnership and run schools. They have an MOU [memorandum of understanding] with the union regarding some of the provisions of their contract, and the district has given them significant autonomy.

The master contract has provisions for principals evaluating teachers. But there’s no principal, so [under the MOU] it’s a peer-led thing.

How do salaries at these schools compare to salaries at traditional schools?

Kolderie: In Milwaukee, since they continue to be district employees, they are paid the same. But, because the school gets per-pupil revenue but doesn’t have all the positions, they have some loose cash and can pay people who do extra administrative duties.

Graba: It’s not uncommon for teachers to decide to do their own custodial work [instead of hiring it out].

What are the benefits for students?

Kolderie: One of the most interesting things for us with the teacher-run model is the big gains that can be made by getting students much more actively engaged and responsible for their own learning.

Graba: If you talk to students who come out of teacher-led schools and go into post-secondary learning, they say they’ve been responsible for their own work for years. It’s an easy transition into post-high school learning after they’ve had several years in a project-based school where they were responsible for the design of the project as well as the completion.

How do test scores compare at teacher-led schools?

Graba: Teacher-led schools are not an assurance of student success. It all depends on what you do inside the school. We would be hesitant to see an effort made to connect the teacher-led governance model directly to student achievement because some use one kind of learning program while others use a different learning program. The learning program really decides what students do inside those schools. I’m pretty sure typically for these project-based schools the goal generally is to simply get by on the standards. Because they believe they are teaching and the students are learning things that are never part of the state standards.

Kolderie: Scores are not attributable to the form of the organization. Organizational forms don’t have learning impacts. I know the argument rages on whether private schools kids learn more than district or charter school kids, but we think that discussion is mostly nonsense. You have to look and see what kids see, hear, and do [in the schools].

Why create a TPP if it doesn’t have a direct impact on learning? Is it just for teachers?

Kolderie: It does have an impact on learning and achievement, there are just many dimensions of learning and accomplishment, only a few of which are picked up in state assessments.

Graba: One of the things that come out of a performance agreement is graduation rates. Some also have post-secondary attendance. None of those are in the standards. That’s the kind thing we're suggesting.

For instance, in Minnesota at New Country, the first teacher-led school, they started using a Hope index. They find that students’ belief in themselves and their ability to be successful in life increases with the amount of time spent in that kind of school setting. …But that’s not something anybody talks about in the standards.

A project-based model might not necessarily be good for all kids. What about students who need more structure, such as kids with special needs?

Graba: There are students that quickly learn this is not the kind of school they should be in. They all should be choice schools—we don’t believe anybody ought to be forced to go into any kind of school. We’d like it so kids do not get forced into a traditional school.

Kolderie: A teacher partnership charter of a school can accommodate almost a full range of approaches to learning. While many move toward personalized learn or project-based, it could equally be organized to have students using a much more conventional, traditional, course-like curricula.

How does professional development differ at a TPP?

Kolderie: Because what they do in [TPP] schools is so different than in what we might call a typical school, there really isn’t any organized professional development for that. They have to figure it out as they go along. For example, in a school like Avalon where they delegate so much of the responsibility to students, where are they going to learn how to do that? …The faculty needs a broader skill set than most teachers.

We’ve had all this talk and argument lately about teacher quality. ...If you put these tough decisions—teacher compensation, teacher tenure—into a professional group of teachers, they will solve the questions themselves.

What everyone is gradually coming to see is that teachers accept accountability for student and school success if teachers can control what matters for student and school success.

—Liana Heitin

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