'I would prefer to trust our teachers …'
Jan 27, 2013 | By Charles Taylor Kerchner
California’s back! Gov. Jerry Brown did himself proud in Thursday’s State of the State address, and he did California proud, too. In the details of the speech, there are prospects for boldness, greatness and innovation, not the tire patching and gridlock we’ve experienced as government.
Others will comment at great length on the wisdom of the San Joaquin delta tunnel project and whether high-speed rail is prescient or folly. And educational interests are putting the pencil to whether they win or lose under the governor’s plan for simplifying public education funding and regulation. (See David Plank’s Los Angeles Times commentary.)
Instead of joining these conversations, or commenting on the literary allusions in the governor’s speech, please zoom in on one sentence that has revolutionary importance: “I would prefer to trust our teachers who are in the classroom each day, doing the real work—lighting fires in young minds.”
Brown knows that we live in a world that profoundly distrusts teachers. Most of what passes for education reform has been crafted with the assumption that teachers are incompetent or malfeasant. Education systems, therefore, are layered with micromanagement rather than characterized by useful feedback mechanisms that make teachers smart about their work. It bends the mind to contemplate what a radical change would be required if public education were built around high-trust assumptions.
But there are places that trust teachers with substantive decisions and hard-nosed accountability. I’ve written about some of them, including the Avalon School in St. Paul, and in a new book, Trusting Teachers with School Success, Kim Farris-Berg and Edward Dirkswager describe practices that build high commitment and performance in schools where teachers:
- Select their colleagues
- Evaluate their colleagues, transferring or terminating them if necessary
- Set the staffing pattern, including the allocation of personnel to teaching and other duties
- Select leaders
- Determine the budget
- Determine salaries and benefits
- Choose and build the instructional program
- Set schedules, including school day and year
- Set school policies, including those for homework and discipline
Teachers in real schools—some district schools, some charters—work with all or most of these powers. These schools are essentially producer cooperatives. Most don’t have a principal, but this doesn’t mean that there is no leadership. There is often a designated teacher leader, and other roles are designated or exercised in common. Authority vests in a professional community rather than a hierarchy.
Along with the shift in authority comes inevitable responsibility, and in the schools I visited teachers coached and evaluated one another, and teachers who couldn’t teach were asked to leave. Teachers balanced the schools’ budgets, including cutting their own salaries when times were tough. They built and rebuilt the curriculum to make it responsive to student wishes. And when, as sometimes happens, their bright ideas didn’t work, they closed down their schools.
While Gov. Brown’s school finance plan will help move money to districts with fewer restrictions, it won’t go very far toward creating the kinds of jobs that Farris-Berg and Dirkswager write about.
There need to be policies that establish legally protected zones of professional practice, and there are several policies the governor might consider:
- Amend statutes to create an easy way for school districts to create autonomous, charter-like schools within their own schools. Boston and Los Angeles have already done this with Pilot Schools, and the San Francisco Community School operates within the conventional public school district.
- Amend charter law to allow special-purpose authorizers that would assist the formation of teacher-run charter schools and review the quality of their proposals. Minnesota passed such a law with wide bipartisan support. It has spawned the Minnesota Guild of Public Charter Schools, founded by the Minnesota Federation of Teachers with the goal of authorizing high-quality teacher-run schools. The first petition for one of these schools has been submitted to the state.
- Amend the state’s collective bargaining statute to make an agreement about student achievement goals a mandatory subject of contracts with teachers unions. This would require that discussions about money and work rules take place in the context of ideas for improving student outcomes. While not necessarily leading to the kinds of autonomy/responsibility that take place in the teacher-run schools, it would push the reset button on the context of labor relations.
All these ideas are radical—much more radical than a high-speed train or a tube under the delta.
But in his speech, the governor decried “The laws that are in fashion demand tightly constrained curricula and reams of accountability data. All the better if it requires quiz-bits of information, regurgitated at regular intervals and stored in vast computers. Performance metrics, of course, are invoked like talismans. Distant authorities crack the whip, demanding quantitative measures and a stark, single number to encapsulate the precise achievement level of every child.”
This vision won’t materialize without intervention from the top. If the governor wants to build a different world of teaching and learning than that being pushed by U.S. Secretary Arne Duncan, then California will have to construct and pull some new policy levers.
• • •
Charles Taylor Kerchner is Research Professor in the School of Educational Studies at Claremont Graduate University, and a specialist in educational organizations, educational policy, and teachers unions. In 2008, he and his colleagues completed a four-year study of education reform of the Los Angeles Unified School District. The results of that research can be found in The Transformation of Great American School Districts and in Learning from L.A.: Institutional Change in American Public Education, published by Harvard Education Press.
For previous commentaries that Charles Taylor Kerchner has written for Thoughts on Public Education (TOP-ed.org) and for EdSource, go here.