Accountability Opinion

Three Lessons From a Teacher-Powered Schools Conference

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — February 02, 2017 5 min read
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The phrase “teacher powered school” still seems strange to many, but there are more than 100 places in the U.S. where teachers have substantial autonomy to determine their school’s operations. Last weekend, about 250 teacher-powered school practitioners, and those who are curious about the practice, gathered in Los Angeles to celebrate their work...even with Dorothy, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion introducing the general session. To a veteran of stuffy academic conferences—and let’s be frank, they are stuffy or at least overly earnest—being among teachers having fun was refreshing.

I’ve advocated greater teacher freedom coupled with increased responsibility for decades. My co-authors and I described breakthrough collective bargaining agreements in A Union of Professionals, a phrase that the American Federation of Teachers uses to describe itself. I’ve had the opportunity of visiting schools in Minnesota and Wisconsin and writing glowingly about how teacher autonomy is coupled with students taking greater responsibility for their work. I learned that to work for yourself (and colleagues) is to have a demanding boss. I was eager to spend the weekend in the company of people who were thriving on self-direction.

The conference included field trips to the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools and the Social Justice Humanitas Academy, both pilot schools within Los Angeles Unified School District. Jose Navarro, the SJHA principal, delivered a keynote about teachers reacting to unacceptable outcomes: “my kids knew more people in prison than they did in college.” [Edutopia interview] And more than a score of breakout sessions gave participants the opportunity to dive into topics ranging from designing personalized learning to the politics of designing strategic alliances and union leadership in teacher powered schools.

The weekend left me encouraged, exhausted, and with three takeaway lessons:

The Movement is Growing. The numbers of schools have increased along with the ability to describe how they work.

When I wrote about the Avalon School in St. Paul and other schools, I described them as islands that needed causeways to connect them to the mainland of public education. Since, the project’s sponsors—The Center for Teaching Quality and Education|Evolving—have created vivid descriptions, answers to frequently asked questions, and the beginnings of a textbook on how to start and manage “schools where teachers call the shots.”

In many ways, teacher powered schools are an answer to a longstanding problem with teaching as an occupation, one made more obvious by the misguided efforts to fix education by naming and shaming teachers. Little wonder that a recent survey of 30,000 teachers found that 73% of them said that they often experience stress at work. Another poll found that only 31% of teachers reported that they were “engaged” in their jobs, scoring last among 14 occupational groups when asked whether their opinions counted at work. [Barnett Berry and Kim Farris-Berg in American Educator]

Creating better jobs for teachers, ones where engagement and authority are built in, is one answer to the current teacher malaise and, not so incidentally, addressing the looming teacher shortage.

If teacher powered schools are viewed as an education innovation that creates better jobs for teachers, the first logical question is: how hard is this? Can ordinary people do this work? And can you show me how? The answers to these questions are at hand.

‘Teacher Powered’ Doesn’t Mean Leaderless. Teacher powered schools are often described as places that “don’t have principals.” That’s not true. Most do. Particularly in big districts, such as the teacher powered Pilot schools in Los Angeles, a principal is required by the district’s organizational model, and the principal fulfills an important function of buffering the school from the constant demands of the district to act like all other schools.

But whether or not a teacher powered school has a person with the job title “principal,” teachers choose their leader. All the successful schools have strong leadership. Many have had the same leader for a decade, which is longer than most district-run schools keep their principals. So, it’s not a question of not having leaders. But leadership is expressed differently. Leaders give fewer orders, delegate better, and build consensus better than ordinary school leaders. They are part of the faculty and usually teach a class; they are accountable to the group’s shared purpose. They are not just being ‘nice’ or ‘democratic.’ They are engaging in the slow and patient work of building an organizational culture. The group is not being held accountable to the principal or other leader; they are holding themselves accountable.

As part of this process, teachers learn how to work with one another efficiently. Joint decision making is a learned capacity. Some of the grandstanding and bloody-minded obstructionism that is traditionally part of traditional “teacher voice” goes away because people train themselves in making decisions rather than “meetings as street theater.”

Teacher Powered Schools Are A Golden Opportunity For Unions. Teacher unions are as varied as the school districts where their teachers work, and thus the hand-crafted, contextually sensitive nature of teacher-powered schools are good option for unions to move from an industrial era workplace and embrace members’ desires for more control over their work as well their working conditions. Efforts at creating constructive relationships between labor and management usually start at the district level. Teacher powered schools start by solving problems at the building and classroom level.

One interesting example comes from the more than 140 PROSE schools in New York City. PROSE is an in-district alternative to chartering. An agreement between the United Federation of Teachers, The Council of School Supervisors, and the school district allows schools to propose innovations and waive both parts of union contracts and district policy. A panel from the three organizations vets the proposals. If approved, the school staff votes on them, and at least 65% must agree to the rule changes. Early indicators suggest that PROSE works. On a number of School Quality Indicator measures, including trust, collaboration, and effective leadership, PROSE schools score higher than either charters or other district schools.

One other remarkable thing about the teacher powered school gathering: no whining. Teacher conclaves are famous for a subtext in which teachers complain about the oppressiveness of administrators and society in general. I didn’t hear a word of this. At #teacherpowered, for example, I found teachers who were excited about their work and confident that their schools were making a difference.

[Updated 2/2/17 at 3:17 pm PST to correct editing errors.]

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