School & District Management Opinion

Can ‘Deeper Learning’ Drive Teacher Power?

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — June 13, 2016 4 min read
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I’ve long been fascinated by producers’ cooperatives, those unusual organizations run by workers. This has led me to examine teacher-run schools or “places where teachers call the shots.” But the conversation about teacher-run schools runs into mental roadblocks.

Teacher-run schools are most often defined by what they don’t have: a principal. Then, the conversation often runs against the claims that it’s improper for teachers to run things (a violation of the law of hierarchy) or that it’s implausible (teachers don’t want to be saddled with all that administrative trivia, which in itself is an interesting commentary on what school administration has become).

In any case, the conversation doesn’t push forward.

Barnett Berry, the fast-talking, idea-a-minute Southerner who runs the Center for Teaching Quality, has reconceptualized expanding teacher roles in an interesting way that may lead to fruitful changes in policy and practice. He argues that teacher leadership ought to be thought of as a way of advancing deeper learning rather than arguing about who ought to be in charge of the school.

Instead of linking expanded teacher agency to something that immediately hammers at the walls of authority, think about it first as giving all students a more in-depth education. Berry’s rethinking is more than just a rhetorical flourish; it provides a practical way forward and a reason to tackle tough organizational issues, such as providing vastly more time for teachers to work together

America’s teachers continue to work in isolation. In a world in which modern management practice involves collaboration and teamwork to solve difficult programs, surveys show that 50 percent of U.S. teachers have never seen one of their colleagues teach. In the education industry that scampers to find good leaders, fully a quarter of American teachers say that they would seek out jobs that allowed them to both teach and lead reforms.

What a huge engine of reform.

Berry’s Teacher Leadership & Deeper Learning for All Students provides a schematic of necessary elements to activate this sleeping giant of reform energy. It’s been downloaded more than 10,000 times.

The report lists the elements necessary to link teachers and deeper learning—adequate resources, vision, and collaboration—nothing too unusual about that, except that Berry shows how they work together.

But to me, the most compelling part of the report illuminates a growing number of forces and organizations that are already moving in the direction of increased teacher leadership.

Existence proofs:

Good examples exist. Teacher Leadership... cites the Impact Academy in Hayward, CA, where students use historians’ tools to analyze the U.S. Constitution and its relationship to immigration policy. And in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the Social Justice Humanitas Academy grew out of a quarter-century-old teacher-led project that has been nurtured by the Los Angeles Education Partnership. Teachers at the social justice academy spend 2.5 hours a week in adult learning communities.

Kim Farris-Berg and Kristoffer Kohl have written about LAUSD’s Pilot Schools, some of which have strong teacher leadership. I’ve studied the well-regarded Avalon School in St. Paul, MN.

Policy Pressure for Deeper Learning

Deeper learning, which links core academic content with critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, and effective communication, has moved from the margins of “soft thinking educators” to the mainstream. Politicians and business leaders along with progressive educators have come to understand that “America must do much, much more than mass-produce a workforce conversant in basic skills.”

The Common Core and deeper learning are not perfectly aligned, but the new standards and the Smarter Balanced Assessment System tests, which California uses, nudge instruction in that direction much more than was the case during the No Child Left Behind era.

The state education leadership has articulated a new way forward—The California Way—one that involves standards, but gives a great deal more flexibility to districts. The open question is whether teachers, and their unions will seize the moment.

Teacher Networks Have Exploded

Technology has made it easier for teachers to connect with one another directly and not through a district hierarchy. Teacher Leadership... tells the story of Wendi Pillars, who gained the courage to lead through a virtual network of colleagues created by CTQ. The ideas she shared led to a book, Visual Notetaking in the Classroom.

The Deeper Learning Network now contains more than 500 schools, nearly 14,000 teachers, and 227,000 students. The Generation Schools Network supports innovative curriculum design. Big Picture Learning links teachers in 60 schools.


The digital badge technology that allows competency-based education for students to extend beyond the school house, is being applied to teacher professional development. In a survey reported by Berry and Karen Cator of Digital Promise, 72 percent of teachers said they participated in informal professional development. A microcredential system allows practitioners to direct their search for personalized education, to identify the competencies they need and submit evidence of mastery rather than documenting “seat time.”

In addition to personalizing professional development and giving it an on-demand quality, microcredentials help teachers break through some of the isolation endemic to work in classrooms. It allows teachers to mentor others, or be mentored, and to link with those who have similar professional trajectories.

Taken together, these forces have the capacity to change teaching as an occupation.

The opinions expressed in On California are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.