School & District Management Opinion

Teacher-Powered Pilot Schools Face Obstacles

By Contributing Blogger — November 13, 2014 6 min read
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Martin Mejia works with a student in the school’s learning lab at the Social Justice Humanitus Academy, a Pilot School within the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Photo: Amy Junge

By Kristoffer Kohl and Kim Farris-Berg

While teacher-powered schools are a significant step towards teachers owning their profession, Pilot School efforts in L.A. Unified have not come without significant challenges. Here are a few of the difficulties teacher teams have faced--as well as some policy recommendations that could pave the way for more transformative teacher leadership like what we have observed at pilot schools.

1) ‘Teacher-powered’ does not mean cafeteria-worker-powered, bus-driver-powered, or classified-employee-powered. We’re not being glib--only pointing out the variety of constituencies who play an important role in establishing ideal learning environments for students.

For example, while teachers can use their autonomy to modify student schedules (aligning with research indicating later start times are better for high school students), that doesn’t necessary align with the bus schedules that are worked out city-wide. Both contracts and logistics are at play in a system that has twice as many buses as the city’s Metropolitan Transit Authority and 11 times as many bus routes.

Adjusting school schedules is a complex undertaking—and is just part of satisfying a wide range of stakeholders.

Even within United Teachers of Los Angeles, support for pilot schools has been muted Union leaders are seen by some not as encouraging or inhibiting teacher-powered efforts, but merely tolerating them. As the teams running teacher-powered schools seek to sustain their innovations in the long-run, there will be new opportunities for union leaders to vocally support the idea and to commit to identifying and removing barriers standing in the way of their members’ autonomy to cultivate high-performing school cultures.

2) The sustainability of teacher-powered schools is not guaranteed. Pilots represent less than five percent of L.A. Unified’s schools and struggle to maintain visibility within the district. One lead teacher recently recounted a conversation with a district leader who admitted that teacher-powered schools “have yet to permeate the consciousness of the school district.”

The district leader noted that no one in the district office was anti-pilot—they just don’t think of pilots’ needs when making big decisions. However, the district leader encouraged pilot schools to work together and continue to make their successes and needs known.

Teacher teams who followed that advice recently influenced a significant allocation of Local Control Funding Formula funds to pilot schools. Still, many teacher-powered schools struggle to transform bureaucratic structures designed to support traditional school designs.

3) It’s hard to pick the right battles. Student assessment, teacher evaluation, school scheduling, extracurricular offerings--there are no easy decisions about which issues teacher teams should dedicate their efforts and time to. Where is a teacher team to begin?

It is especially difficult for teams to meet the bandwidth required to secure and exercise autonomy over these areas when district and unions have not yet adjusted their practices to support what these teachers need. When district leaders say, for example, “Here are the district tests you have to take,” teachers with assessment autonomy need to have the courage to say, “We don’t have to take those, as the district and union agreed upon in our Memorandum of Understanding.”

Resources for teacher teams

Fortunately, help is on the way. Locally, many teams are connecting to one another through pilot schools networks and community organizations. And as teacher teams refine their school models and learn lessons, they are growing more aware of the advantages and pitfalls associated with teacher-powered schools.

Nationally, teachers can take advantage of numerous resources for teachers being offered by the Teacher-Powered Schools Initiative (TPSI), including a national inventory of existing teacher-powered schools and public opinion survey data finding that 85 percent of the American public supports teachers in advancing them. In addition, the Center for Teaching Quality has documented the work of teacher-powered school pioneers and created two tools for teacher teams: Steps to Creating a Teacher-Powered School, a detailed guide for teachers who are designing and maintaining a teacher-powered school, and a series of discussion guides for teams to work through on their innovative school design journeys.

Looking beyond L.A. Unified

Teacher-powered schools are on the rise, and L.A. Unified deserves credit for trusting teachers to call the shots. We are encouraged by what we have seen these schools accomplish in one of the country’s most complicated and challenging school districts. If this work can be done here, it can be done anywhere.

So what will it take for these exceptional schools to become the norm, rather than the exception? Here are some ideas that will pave a smoother path:

  • Formalizing connections among teacher-powered schools through statewide networks that encourage mentoring, support transitions from low- to high-level use of autonomy, and provide professional development geared specifically to the unique needs of teachers leaders in these schools;
  • State and local unions championing the efforts of accomplished teachers--especially National Board Certified Teachers--to lead schools without leaving the classroom;
  • State, union, and district partnerships organizing grants and release time for teams of teachers who are opening schools, as well as those who are leading schools right now so they can effectively mentor the next crop of school leaders;
  • State, union, district, and charter leaders honoring the trust and confidence that 77 percent of Americans have in public school teachers--by creating more policies that open the door for teachers to transform the profession and learning conditions for students (Minnesota’s Site-Governed Schools Legislation is one good example); and
  • Teacher evaluation systems that leave room for teacher teams to choose peer observation, which has been shown to be more evidence-based, comprehensive, and focused on improving practice than traditional principal observations.

Education policy in California has been appropriately celebrated lately for big bets on equity and subsidiarity, Governor Jerry Brown’s preferred mechanism for encouraging local control of dollars and decision-making.

His 2013 State of the State speech made a succinct case for teacher-powered schools: “Subsidiarity is offended when distant authorities prescribe in minute detail what is taught, how it is taught and how it is to be measured. I would prefer to trust our teachers who are in the classroom each day, doing the real work—lighting fires in young minds.”

We could not agree more.

Kim Farris-Berg and Kristoffer Kohl work with Center for Teaching Quality to elevate teachers’ bold ideas and expert practices. They are developing a cross-organizational network of teacher leaders in California in order to spread their ideas and best practices in a way that is fully integrated with the work of their districts. They wrote this post with research support from Amy Junge at Education Evolving.

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