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Is Teacher Empowerment Finally Here?

For too long, teachers have not been consulted about efforts to turn around failing schools. This exclusionary strategy has understandably created resentment among them. But that approach is finally beginning to change - at least in Boston- where Teach Plus has assembled teams of experienced teachers who will constitute a quarter of the staff devoted to the task ("Lesson Plan in Boston Schools: Don't Go It Alone," On Education, Aug. 9).

Under Teach Plus, which is financed by the Gates Foundation, teachers will teach a full load, but will act as leaders for their grade level of experience and areas of expertise. They will receive an additional $6,000 a year for working 210 days, compared with the usual 185. Those chosen are already at work so that the initial three target schools will receive the benefit of their talent this fall.

What makes Teach Plus notable is that it puts into practice the principle of teacher empowerment. Although the focus is on Teach Plus today, the hope is that it will serve as a model for similar organizations. It's important to remember that high on the list of reasons for teacher turnover is dissatisfaction with teaching conditions. When teachers feel that their voices are not being heard, they become frustrated and angry until they finally decide to quit.

Teach Plus also serves as evidence that teachers don't simply want to bemoan the existence of a problem; they want to remedy it. The trouble was that in the past teachers had few ways to do so. They turned to their unions or to community groups. But too often their pleas for help went nowhere. By being part of the executive team charged with the responsibility of improving failing schools, they will be in a position of power that they have not possessed in the past.

But one caveat is still in order. Even the best teachers and best principals working as a team cannot by themselves overcome the huge deficits that disadvantaged students bring to class through no fault of their own. Out-of-school factors play a powerful role in learning. That's why Teach Plus and any other groups that follow need to broaden their focus to include the neighborhoods where their students live. By doing so, they enhance their chances of success at a time when public schools are under unprecedented attack.

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