Teaching Profession Opinion

Teachers Design and Run L.A. Unified ‘Pilot’ Schools

By Contributing Blogger — November 10, 2014 7 min read
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Graphic: Center for Teaching Quality

By Kim Farris-Berg and Kristoffer Kohl

Pilot Schools may be steering Los Angeles Unified toward more autonomy for teachers to advance their bold ideas and expert practices. For those of us who advocate teacher-powered schools, that’s good news. And a little good news from LAUSD is timely in the wake of the iPad and student information system debacles.

Pilots are district schools with lots of site-based control. By intention, teachers have the opportunity to collectively design and run the schools with charter-like autonomy while remaining district employees and members of the United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA). The Pilot School idea was born in Boston in 1994 and came to Los Angeles in 2007 as the result of two somewhat contradictory political instincts. Reformers, of many different political stripes, wanted school-level flexibility over teacher work rules. And UTLA wanted an internal response to the growing numbers of charters.

LAUSD Has 50 Pilot Schools

The idea has flourished, with the number of pilot schools growing to 50 in the last seven years. Yet, until recently, there’s been little follow-up discussion about whether, in practice, teachers have been able to shift their role to one in which they collectively make many of the decisions influencing these schools’ success.

In our work with the Center for Teaching Quality (CTQ) and the Teacher-Powered Schools Initiative (TPSI), we’ve found that securing information about the teacher-powered aspects of the L.A. movement is tricky. Here are some questions we’ve been asking:

  • Since the launch of L.A. Unified pilot schools, have teachers been able to secure and exercise what pilot schools originally promised: collective teacher autonomy to design and manage schools?
  • In how many of the 50 pilot schools approved by L.A. Unified are teachers actually using any areas of autonomy they’ve secured to make the decisions influencing whole-school success?
  • What have teachers done so far with the autonomy they’ve been able to secure?

In our experience, many people working in LAUSD and UTLA can speak to pilot schools’ innovative and community-based learning programs, but few can specify the extent to which teachers design and manage those programs. Fewer still can articulate any relationship between the teacher leadership in pilot schools and outcomes.

The district’s Pilot Schools Program Office website barely mentions a role for teachers in pilot schools. It describes pilots as a network of public schools with autonomy over budget, staffing, governance, curriculum and assessment, and the school calendar, but does not say teachers can or do make those decisions. A formal Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between L.A. Unified and UTLA exempts pilot schools from district policies and mandates, giving schools (not teachers) greater flexibility in how they meet their students’ needs. Again, there is no explicit mention of teachers. In fact, the MOU establishes that each school has a Governing School Council that holds the decision-making power.

Two Schools With Teacher Power

That doesn’t sound very teacher-powered, does it? As outside observers, we had big doubts that pilot schools had much to do with teacher leadership at all. But we recently arranged visits to two pilot schools in L.A. to learn more. Turns out the teacher teams at UCLA Community School (K-12) and Social Justice Humanitas Academy (SJHA, 9-12) are creating wonderfully new and different schools with guidance and support from their community partners, UCLA Center X and the Los Angeles Education Partnership.

The Governing School Councils at both of these schools are partially composed of teachers. At SJHA, for example, the council is made up of 50% teachers and 50% parents and students. Both Councils honor the choices of the teacher team while providing critical arms-length oversight. Teacher teams establish the school vision as well as the entire instructional approach. They also allocate and manage any budget that remains after complying with the negotiated salary schedule and state and federal mandates.

As a group, teachers at each school set the terms of their annual Elect to Work Agreements, prompting serious discussions about how the team will work to ensure the success of the school that they designed and are continuously improving. In the end, Elect to Work Agreements vary from one school to another and from the negotiated work agreements in traditional schools.

Teachers also set the school’s vision, determine the curriculum and assessment, approve the annual budget, and select and annually evaluate the principal (with a district Superintendent from the Intensive Support and Innovation Center having final authority, which has not been used to overturn teachers’ decisions in these schools). As the saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility, and teacher-powered schools are no exception. When a teacher doesn’t meet contract requirements, the team collectively decides not to renew his or her agreement, and LAUSD looks to place them in a different, traditional school in the district.

In partnership with the Governing Council, the teacher teams at these two schools also select and evaluate their principal and lead teachers. In effect, this means that school leaders are working in service to the teachers’ shared proposes and collective decisions. The Superintendent retains final authority over principal evaluation, but these teacher teams ensure their decisions are respected by spending significant time advocating for the right to select their leaders. While this can be a time consuming and frustrating process, it usually results in teachers getting the outcome that they believe will be best for the school.

So are teachers in all of L.A. Unified’s 50 pilot schools exercising school autonomy in this way? We will need to research many more schools to know for certain. Education|Evolving has begun to evaluate all 50 for inclusion in the National Inventory of Teacher-Powered Schools, and in an effort to prioritize has asked several pilot school teachers and support organizations to give the names of schools where teachers are exercising collective autonomy in most areas of decision-making. That list is already 12 schools long (nearly 25% of the total). The same group reports that many more teacher teams make use of smaller degrees of collective teacher autonomy, but they have the power to exercise more if they decide to do so. What’s more, this LA School Report post from 2013 reports teachers are flocking to Pilot Schools, apparently because of the autonomy and flexibility.

The Nation’s Hotbed of Teacher-Powered Schools

The takeaway? L.A. Unified is easily the biggest hotbed of teacher-powered schools in the nation, even given recent slowed growth.

According to Jeff Austin, one of two Lead Teachers elected by his colleagues at SJHA (and the 2012 Los Angeles County Teacher of the Year), “No one is standing in the way of pilot schools being teacher-powered or traditional schools converting to teacher-powered.” However, “there are pilot schools that have defaulted to principals running the show and others where teachers could assert much more of the authority they’ve been granted. They have trouble imagining that they can push things as far as they can because teachers are not used to that kind of freedom. They come and see the way our team works together to challenge old assumptions and drive new ideas forward and they are surprised. They ask us, ‘We can go that far?’ We say: Yes, you can. We do it all the time.”

Indeed. We saw for ourselves that SJHA and UCLA Community School teachers are using their autonomy to reimagine the possibilities for student learning and the teaching profession. We’ll tell you how in our next post.

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.

Going Deeper

For more information on these Pilot Schools see:

Memorandum of Understanding between L.A. Unified and UTLA

Social Justice Humanitas Academy Proposal & Original Elect To Work Agreement

UCLA Community School Original Elect To Work Agreement

Also, see page 56 of Steps to Creating a Teacher-Powered School to learn more about pursuing autonomy and approval for teacher-powered schools.

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