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Why Teacher-Powered Schools Are Picking Up Momentum

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By Barnett Berry

In teacher-powered schools, students are at the center of every decision. Teachers secure autonomy to make the big choices about a wide array of factors, such as the learning program, school-community partnerships, and budgeting. In many such schools, teachers evaluate their colleagues with peer review processes, as is so often the case in other professions. While a number of teacher-powered schools do have principals, these administrators share decision-making with teachers--and view themselves as servant leaders. 

It's an extraordinarily sensible way to organize teaching and learning.

And it results in innovative methods for meeting student and community needs. For example, at Social Justice Humanitas Academy, a Los Angeles pilot school, every student has a personalized education plan and teachers are prepared to assess their developmental assets. At the nearby UCLA Community School, teachers and university researchers have co-created assessment processes and tools that--unlike the standardized tests of the No Child Left Behind era--take students' cultural backgrounds into account.

Students at these schools are keen observers of their teachers' leadership. Jonas Bromster is a junior at Avalon School in St. Paul, Minnesota, where students take part in school governance. Jonas described, "It's helpful to see how the teachers lead, cause that kinda improves how we can lead....We try and base our structure off that of the teachers."

Picking Up Momentum

The teacher-powered model isn't new, but it's definitely picking up momentum. More than 80 public teacher-powered schools currently operate in at least 15 states, serving students of all grade levels in urban, suburban, and rural environments. They include both district and charter schools. A growing number have been launched and supported by teacher unions that are beginning to take on the role of professional guilds.

A few weeks ago, more than 200 teacher leaders and administrators from across the country gathered in Minneapolis to strategize about advancing teacher-powered schools. At the conference, organized by the Center for Teaching Quality and Education Evolving, I met teachers like Ashley Capps and Nick Kaczmarek of Pittsburgh (PA), who heard about our conference on Twitter and came to Minneapolis (on their own dime) to learn about teacher-powered schools. As Nick put it, "Teachers can be creators... We really care. And we can design incredible opportunities for kids to learn anything.  I think that is something that has been lost in our country and our climate--that teachers are intellectuals."

I listened in as Saul Straussman (also of Pittsburgh) schemed with Carrie Bakken (a teacher at Avalon School, which was an early pioneer of the model) in a design thinking session. Their task: generate strategies to engage more teachers and administrators in Saul's district in the power and possibilities of teacher-powered schools.

What's so attractive to teachers like Ashley, Nick, and Saul? Evidence is mounting that teacher-powered schools can fuel deeper learning for all students, helping them learn rich academic content, refine critical thinking and problem solving skills, and develop empathy and respect for one another. Teachers in teacher-powered schools often redefine what student success looks like. They explore holistic measures of student achievement beyond high-stakes testing, including development of in-depth portfolios and comprehensive exams.

Emerging Trends Supporting Teacher-Powered Schools

At the conference, I shared observations about five emerging trends that will allow teacher-powered schools to spread--and quickly--:

  1. Teacher networking. New estimates from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation suggest that at least one in six teachers are in teacher networks outside of their school, breaking out of the school structures that have siloed them from one another and tamped down their opportunities to lead in bold ways. It's now easier than ever for teachers to identify others interested in launching their own schools.
  2. Powerful evidence. New research reveals not only the positive effects of teacher collaboration on student achievement, but also the specific factors that contribute most to teachers' professional growth and leadership. For example, teachers improve most, and use what they learn, when they have colleagues with pedagogical credibility and experience to help them take instructional risks and engage in peer review of each other's practices. Teacher-powered schools afford just such opportunities.  
  3. The failings of current reforms. The last fifteen years of high stakes accountability reforms have not yielded the measurable achievement gains promised. Both No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top have focused far more on fixing teachers than on unleashing their potential. Now some of most ardent supporters of "fix the teacher" reforms are calling for teachers to lead.
  4. Parents want teachers to lead. Polling data reveal that the vast majority of parents have trust and confidence in teachers, and while they want more school choices, they are most interested in teachers leading. A 2014 national survey found that 85 percent of the American public stated teacher-powered schools were a "good idea."
  5. Top-performing nations invest in teacher leaders. Worldwide educators, policy makers, and business leaders are becoming more aware of the policies and practices of countries with high student achievement results. They are learning that top-performing nations like Finland and Singapore have invested deeply in teacher-led professional development. In both nations, policy leaders deeply trust teachers to lead, much as our colleague Kim Farris-Berg has described in her book  Trusting Teachers with School Success.

The possibilities give me hope--as do the growing numbers of teachers engaging with the free resources and virtual community available via our Teacher-Powered Schools Initiative.

Ronnda Cargile of Hughes STEM High School (Cincinnati, Ohio) said it best at the close of the first-ever Teacher-Powered Schools National Conference:

"The excitement has been overwhelming. Teachers are thirsty. Administrators are thirsty. Parents are thirsty. And so it's been absolutely energizing to be around a group of people that are interested in taking back strategies and tools to increase student learning and to change the game of education."

Barnett Berry is founder and CEO of the Center for Teaching Quality (CTQ), which launched the nation's first virtual network of teacher leaders in 2003.

Going Deeper

For more on the teacher powered schools movement.

On the first national conference held last month.

A case study of teacher powered schools, particularly Avalon School in St. Paul, MN.

Three 'On California' posts about teacher powered schools in Los Angeles.  Teachers Design and Run Schools, Bold Innovations Emerging, Schools Face Obstacles  

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