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Teachers -- Stop Waiting, and Start Calling the Shots

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Guest post by Kim Farris-Berg

Teachers, have you been inspired by the work teachers do in the 10-part A Year at Mission Hill video series? Maybe you've been watching and saying to yourself, "I wish I could work in a place like that." Perhaps you've been ending that sentence with an "if only..." statement: if only my superintendent, union, or state legislature would say it's OK; if only my school district had pilot schools like Boston Public Schools has; if only someone like Deb Meier would lead my colleagues and me to get started; if only more teachers were already calling the shots so our proposal to our state or district would be easily seen as a worthy investment.

Rick Hess wrote about the perceived need for permission and predecessors in his new book, Cage-Busting Leadership. He argues, "Statutes, policies, rules, regulations, contracts, and case law make it tougher than it should be for school and system leaders to drive improvement and, well, lead. However, it is also the case that leaders have far more freedom to transform, reimagine, and invigorate teaching, learning, and schooling than is widely believed."

While Hess left teachers off the list, it's positively the case that you are among the leaders who already have more freedom than is widely believed. Calling the shots is already in the realm of the possible for you and your colleagues. Indeed, more than 50 groups of teachers around the nation are calling the shots, and at least a dozen more are in planning stages. These teachers are trusted with the authority to collectively make the decisions influencing whole school success, and Mission Hill teachers are among them. My colleagues and I studied eleven of these groups in depth. We found that they use their autonomy to create schools with cultural characteristics that are the same as those in high-performing organizations.

The vast majority of these teachers didn't wait for anyone "higher up" to say, first, "Teachers, we now grant you the opportunity to call the shots." No! They took advantage of an existing opening to seize authority (even if it wasn't explicitly meant for them and even if it wasn't their preferred path). Or, they asked for and negotiated authority (even though it wasn't being offered outright).

These teachers are explorers and pioneers in their field. They have awakened to and taken a new opportunity, despite the risks, and they are willing to accept accountability for the results of their decisions. Like all pioneers, they are doing the arduous work to prepare the path and infrastructure for those who have thus far been reluctant to see the possibilities.

If you want to see what these pioneers look like, watch Chapter 10 of A Year at Mission Hill (or every chapter, if you have not already). You will see all of the teachers in the school acting as leaders who are collectively responsible for whole-school success. They are pursuing their shared purpose using the real, professional roles they have created for themselves. They are willing to embrace possibility and wrestle to figure out new ways of working without any guidebook; sometimes doing things so differently that they put their own jobs on the line.

Importantly, these teachers have the courage to stand and act on principle for the sake of their students, despite the expectation that they will succumb to the dominant culture that seeks to control, from the top down, what teachers do and how they do it. They are bravely challenging the status quo regarding how learning, student assessment, and teacher evaluation happen, and how budgets are spent. They do not accept what "teacher collaboration" and "student discipline" have come to mean in most schools, so they are asserting definitions more in line with high-performing cultures.

I'm no Pollyanna. I realize that pioneering and cage-busting aren't for everyone, and that some pioneers fail. I also know that settlers come after pioneers. They come when they hear that the path has already been blazed; when things are easier and more comfortable. In most stories of change, it's only after the pioneers make the path increasingly more obvious that the people who were once uncertain about the opportunity finally take it, moving it from something radical to something normal. This is how scale happens.

Yet I also know that early signs of settlement are surfacing as more and more champions for teachers' autonomy and accountability emerge to provide systemic support for the pioneers. These champions are also pioneers who are willing to confront factors that make it tough to drive improvement in teaching, learning and schooling. They seek to make things easier for teachers who are interested in calling the shots to get started. Here are some examples:

States. State legislators in Maine have been considering H.P. 775 this session, which is "An Act to Develop a Grant Program to Establish a Teacher-led School Model."

In 2009, Minnesota legislators enacted the Site-Governed Schools law that provides district school boards with a "charter-like" option to approve schools that have significant autonomy and flexibility in exchange for greater accountability. The law makes clear that teams of teachers can run these schools, just as they can (and do, in at least eleven cases) take advantage of the state's charter law to propose and run schools.

State legislators have passed charter school laws in a large majority of states, most recently in Washington, with some laws designed better than others to be a means through which teachers can call the shots.

California Governor Jerry Brown announced in his 2013 State of the State Address that he "would prefer to trust our teachers who are in the classroom each day, doing the real work - lighting fires in young minds." His plans to enact policy that will open up the opportunity for that to happen in practice are not yet clear, but perhaps Maine and Minnesota are laying groundwork he can build upon. Certainly he's opened the door for a new conversation.

Districts. School boards and other district leaders in Denver, Milwaukee, San Francisco as well as in Portland, Maine, Kennewick, Washington, and elsewhere, have, when approached by teachers, been open to approving district and chartered schools where teachers call the shots. But we're now witnessing management taking the initiative. In New York State, Rochester City Schools Superintendent Bolgen Vargas has asked the Rochester Teachers Association to present plans for schools to be run by teachers. The details of this potential labor-management partnership are still under negotiation.

Charter school authorizers.
Innovative Quality Schools, a charter authorizer in Minnesota, put out a call for school proposals that shows specific interest in authorizing new or conversion schools where teachers have collective autonomy. IQS also hosted a conference for teachers and others around the state to come and learn more about the opportunity. Many charter school authorizers -- including states, districts, counties, nonprofits, universities, and those which exist to specifically authorize chartered schools and nothing else -- could do this.

Unions. The National Education Association's (NEA) Commission on Effective Teachers and Teaching declared in 2011, "We envision a teaching profession that embraces collective accountability for student learning balanced with collaborative autonomy that allows educators to do what is best for students." In line with this vision, the NEA hosted a national webinar to help its membership learn about the opportunity and made small grants to groups of teachers who are serious about converting to a teacher autonomy governance model in existing schools. The NEA has also provided professional development relevant to teachers who call the shots to help them be successful.

In 2010, the American Federation of Teachers provided an innovation grant to the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT) to support development of The Guild, a 501(c)(3) organization and single-purpose charter school authorizer that operates as a legal entity separate from the MFT, with its own governing board.**

The Guild's authorizing authority is an incentive for unionized teachers to invest their time in developing schools where they will call the shots because teachers know there will be a real opportunity to secure approval. The MFT opposed chartering for many years, preferring to try and secure professional roles for teachers within the school district. But having been unsuccessful at persuading the Minneapolis school board to approve more than one school that would be run by teachers, MFT leaders now see chartering as an important means for teachers to secure authority to call the shots.

Nonprofits. The Center for Teaching Quality (CTQ) connects, readies, and mobilizes teachers who identify themselves as leaders, and is explicitly making the opportunity to call the shots known to this group. CTQ is now providing technical assistance and offering webinars and other support to help teachers envision new school designs and bring those visions to life.

So, support is coming along now that teachers have stepped out to seize or ask for the opportunity, but there's not enough, yet, for the settlers to move in and bring the idea to scale. Maybe you're a teacher who sees yourself as more of a settler than a pioneer, and you're content to let others work out the details before you take the opportunity. If so, that's okay.

But if you are ready to pioneer, then make no mistake - it's not a requirement to wait for permission. If Mission Hill appeals, perhaps this summer is the time for you to start asking yourself what could be for you, your colleagues, your school, and your students - and, eventually for your entire profession and students across the nation - "if only" you would step into the frontier.

Kim Farris-Berg is an independent education policy consultant based in Southern California. She is lead author of Trusting Teachers with School Success: What Happens When Teachers Call the Shots.

** Minnesota law allows for single-purpose authorizers as part of its K-12 innovation strategy. Unlike districts, universities, and nonprofits that authorize schools amongst all their other work and existing cultures, these state-approved organizations exist only for the purpose of authorizing schools.

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