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Will Teacher-Led Schools Be An Improvement?

An experiment that allows teachers to run schools as they see fit is slowly gaining traction across the country. A front-page story on Sept. 7 in the New York Times described the latest effort taking place in Newark N.J. ("In a New Role, Teachers Move to Run Schools"). If the strategy succeeds in turning around failing schools, it will likely encourage more teachers to throw their hats into the ring.

That's because schools that are run by teachers report higher morale, less turnover and greater motivation to improve, according to Education Evolving, a St. Paul policy group specializing in the matter. The finding is not surprising, since teachers have a more direct professional stake in these schools. It's analogous to owning one's own business, rather than being merely an employee.

But several caveats are in order. The best teachers are not necessarily the best candidates to run a school. There are different skills involved that are not always appreciated by teachers. For example, budgets have to be created, safety and health laws have to be followed, and policies have to be enforced. Unless teachers understand the time, energy and expertise involved in these administrative tasks, their dream can easily turn into a nightmare.

Enthusiasm and idealism go just so far. The UFT Charter School in Brooklyn, N.Y. is an example. Although the school is operated by the United Federation of Teachers, two principals resigned over disagreement with teachers, and test scores have been sub-par. Last year, only 22 percent of eight grade students passed state tests in English and 13 percent in math. This compares with citywide rates of 37.5 percent in English and 46.3 percent in math.

In Los Angeles, the school board last March selected groups of teachers to run 29 city schools, much to the surprise of Green Dot Public Schools, which had established a respectable record of achievement with its charter schools and was the heavy favorite. In doing so, the board ignored its own resolution to select operators with successful experience. The agreement calls for teachers to create pilot schools, which are similar to charter schools but employ district personnel. But so far, some of the teacher groups whose applications won haven't been able to follow through on their plans because United Teachers of Los Angeles refused to release them from union work rules.

I hope that more teachers will become involved in this nascent movement. But at the same time, I suggest caution. Schools don't run themselves. It takes different talents to do the job. Shared decisionmaking sounds good in theory, but in practice it can be contentious. Teachers need to ask themselves if they have the proper temperament.

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