Teacher Preparation

Harvard Expert Questions Teachers’ Readiness for Teacher-Led Schools

By Anthony Rebora — August 22, 2014 2 min read
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Addressing the always-pressing issue of improving teacher retention, PBS newshour had an interesting piece the other night on the growing interest in teacher-led schools. As the name suggests, these are schools in which—under specially granted governance arrangements—teachers collectively run the show, at least theoretically free of top-down mandates from harried administrators.

There are currently between 60 and 70 teacher-led schools in the country. According to a recent survey by Education Evolving, a nonprofit group specializing in school redesign, some 54 percent of teachers say they are “very interested” in the idea of working in a teacher-led school.

The PBS piece, produced by Learning Matters, focuses on Mission Hill School in Boston, a K-8 public pilot school. Among the school’s unique features is a highly democratic decisionmaking process in which all issues, including curriculum, budget, and hiring, are voted on by the entire staff. This can be time-consuming and messy, but it has led to “lots of low lighting and soothing music” throughout the school and an arts-infused curriculum that the teachers take great pride in. While the school’s test scores still aren’t great—the teachers see that as just one “slice of the puzzle"—teacher turnover is very low.

But perhaps the most interesting part of the segment is the interwoven commentary by Harvard education-innovation expert Tony Wagner. Wagner likes the idea of teacher-led schools, but seems to suggest that teachers (albeit through no fault of their own) aren’t really ready for them:

Too often, I think the teaching profession is kind of heads down, get the job done, you know, focus on the kids in front of you, do what's required, without having the time to sort of look around and reflect, how is the world changing, how is what I'm teaching today different from what I taught 10 or 20 years ago, how does it need to be different?

In other words, by virtue of their current work demands and expectations, teachers may not have acquired the education- management knowledge or vision to create truly transformative schools. Wagner goes on to say that, before starting on something like teacher-led schools in a serious way, we need to vastly improve teacher preparation. He cites the example of Finland, which he says embarked on its much-lauded education experiment 35 years go by shuttering most of its teacher-preparation programs.

“So the motto in Finland today,” Wagner continues, “is trust through professionalism—not blind trust, not trust no matter what.”

I’m curious to know how teachers and school leaders react to Wagner’s reservations on teacher-led schools. Are teacher-led schools, often seen as an area of promise and innovation in education, too much a matter of “blind trust” at this point? Do teachers have the background and foresight to make them work? How can teachers become better equipped professionally, if they aren’t already, to take on collaborative school-leadership roles?

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.