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What if Teachers Ran the School?

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Guest post by Kim Farris-Berg

Watching A Year at Mission Hill, we come to understand that the school's teachers see the "3-R's" as important. But that's not all they see as important. They expect students to leave Mission Hill with far more knowledge than reading, writing, and math.

As my colleagues and I reported, broadened expectations for student learning are common among many teachers who call the shots. Teachers who have the authority to collectively make decisions influencing their school's success often choose to nurture student engagement and motivation by extending the concept of student achievement beyond their school's mean proficiency score.

These teachers value individual academic improvement in subjects beyond the "3-R's", and they use assessment tools that help them to determine what is necessary to promote each student's learning growth. These teachers also value and measure students' nonacademic achievements, especially as they relate to a student's capacity to become an active citizen who is successful in life and work.

We see these ideas in action in Chapter 2 of the series. Teachers create schools where students learn:

Self direction and self understanding. Mission Hill teacher Jenerra Williams explains to students, "We will talk about how to choose a 'just right' book for yourself." Another teacher gives students many learning alternatives for the day. Students can choose reading, drawing, painting, observing the class turtle or monarch habitat, working in the open art studio, playing piano, or building with Kapla blocks.

Here, student learning is anything but batch-processed. Students learn to understand their own readiness, aptitudes, interests, and rates of learning. They use this knowledge as they take on increasing levels of responsibility for managing their own learning activities.

Habits of Mind. Mission Hill's students learn to approach academic and life problems as flexible thinkers who consider evidence, viewpoint, connections (cause and effect), conjecture, and relevance. Three of the four teacher-run elementary schools that my colleagues and I investigated were using some version of "Habits of Mind," a collection of 16 thinking dispositions identified by Professor Art Costa. The goal is for students to learn an approach for responding to problems they face and to develop a sense of confidence in their ability to respond appropriately.

Empathy for self and others.
The most startling moment in Chapter 2 was when teacher Kathy Clunis D'Andrea gathered in a circle discussion with her students to talk about personal goals, and took the time to ask a frown-faced student what everyone could do to help him feel better. Like other collectively autonomous teachers, Mission Hill's faculty see addressing social and discipline problems as part of the teaching and learning process, not as a distraction from it.

Behaviors of active, lifelong learners. Teacher Nakia Keizer says to his fourth and fifth grade students, "I'm a learner and a teacher, just like all of you." These teachers don't want students to be passive learners who see it as their job to get better at memorizing information they receive from adults, so they put students in the position to be active learners.

Active learners choose their means of learning, have the freedom to move about (and learn to use that freedom wisely), and view their teachers as one of many sources of information and guidance. Active learners understand that they will never be done learning. Graduation isn't an end, but a beginning.

To let their own light shine brighter.
When Chapter 2 concluded with the entire Mission Hill community singing, "This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine," I was reminded of the guiding purpose teachers use to make the decisions at Chrysalis Charter School in Palo Cedro, California. They "help each student's light shine brighter." So many teacher groups who call the shots emphasize that their primary goal is to help each student get to his or her own next level of academic and nonacademic achievement.

All of this is happening at a time when many people proclaim that they've bought a home in a neighborhood with a "good" school while their only source of information is what the home seeker websites reported as the school's mean proficiency score on the state standardized tests for the "3-R's."

Considering what we see in A Year at Mission Hill, it's hard to comprehend why so many of us have bought into using this single measure to judge student achievement and school quality. Where else in our lives do we judge the quality of anything by a single measure? Think about how we evaluate restaurants, select cars, or even how we choose our friends. Even the prospective homeowners who depend on this one statistic to tell them about their neighborhood school would never consider basing their decision to actually buy a home on a single measure.

What's more, teachers who call the shots reported their resentment that so much school funding and time is spent on state- and district-required tests that they do not find useful for making decisions about how and what to teach individual students. They're not against testing. They're for using and developing assessment tools that give them information they deem valuable for improving teaching and learning for the students in their schools.

With this in mind, here's a challenge: Watch Chapter 2 and then raise these questions with your colleagues and other learning networks: If we judged Mission Hill by its mean proficiency score alone (no matter what it may be), what important achievements and qualities would we be failing to acknowledge? What definitions and measurements of student achievement and school quality might teachers lead us to if we gave them authority to make the decisions influencing school success?

Kim Farris-Berg is a Senior Associate with Education Evolving, a policy design shop based in St. Paul, Minnesota.

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