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What Happens When Teachers Run Schools?

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Monday, the PBS Newshour carried a John Tulenko story about a teacher-led school, Mission Hill in Boston.  I've been interested in these schools for several years, have written about them, and am actively encouraging their growth. Though still rare, these schools carry valuable lessons about how to expand responsibility and authority for teachers.  Yet, the real payoff occurs in how students step up and take responsibility for their own learning. 

Tulenko's story positioned teacher-led schools as an answer to teacher turnover.  The teachers at Beacon Hill love their jobs and the freedom to design their own teaching.  They are not inclined to resign.  A closer look reveals an organizational model in stark contrast to the usual public school. 

Kim Farris-Berg, the lead author of Trusting Teachers with School Success, counts about 70 schools where teachers control the curriculum and operations, six in California.  Existing teacher-run schools operate under varying governance arrangements.  The Chrysalis School in Palo Cerdo, east of Redding, is a charter.  The San Francisco Community School operates under special arrangement with San Francisco Unified School District.  The High Tech High schools, where teachers have substantial instructional autonomy but lack governance authority, work under a statewide charter issued by the California Board of Education. The Civitas School of Leadership is part of Los Angeles Unified and operates under the school autonomy rules accorded the Belmont Zone of Choice.

The larger teacher autonomy story in Los Angeles concerns the 48 Pilot Schools, which are essentially in-district charters.  Each of these schools has substantial operating autonomy, but the amount of teacher operational control varies, and the story of how these schools work has not been told yet.

There is apparent interest in expanding the idea.  Farris-Berg says she gets two or three calls a week from teachers wanting to start schools.  When polled, a majority of public school teachers say they would be interested in working in a school run and managed by teachers.

The argument for teacher-run schools is three-fold: 

  • First, teachers will like their jobs better and do a better job.  Richard Ingersoll's research suggests that this is the case, and my case study of teacher-run schools including the Avalon School in St. Paul, Minnesota, suggests that given authority, teachers will also hold themselves accountable and take greater risks to achieve success.
  • Teacher-run schools provide an antidote to some of the undesirable side effects of bureaucracy.  Barnett Berry at the Center for Teaching Quality tells the story of growing teacher leadership in his new book, Teacherpreneurs.  For example, more than most schools, teacher-run institutions I have studied put a greater proportion of their operating budgets into adults who have direct instructional contact with students.
  • Ted Kolderie, who has been championing these schools, also sees teacher-run schools as good laboratories.  Most of them have jettisoned conventional classes for projects and other forms of experienced-based learning.  Their work lives and teaching styles are substantially different from a conventional teacher marching a group of students through a pre-packaged curriculum.,

Would more, better understood, teacher-run schools bring robust trials of new educational ideas?  Hope so. 


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