Charles Taylor Kerchner

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.


Filed under: Commentary, Featured, Jerry Brown, K-12 Reform, Systemic Change, Teachers and Admin · Tags: , ,

Comment Policy

EdSource encourages a robust debate on education issues and welcomes comments from our readers. The level of thoughtfulness of our community of readers is rare among online news sites. To preserve a civil dialogue, writers should avoid personal, gratuitous attacks and invective. Comments should be relevant to the subject of the article responded to. EdSource retains the right not to publish inappropriate and non-germaine comments.


EdSource encourages commenters to use their real names. Commenters who do decide to use a pseudonym should use it consistently.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

 characters available

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

  1. Great discussion. I’ve been teaching in a teacher-led school for over a decade and although it’s not easy, I love the level of professionalism and trust and respect. I did not find this when I worked in a large district with a top-down structure. 5 years into that experience I figured out that I was an assembly line worker and that teaching there was not a profession. If we want to attract good people into the field of teaching, we need to make sure we are offering up a rewarding career.
    We have over a decade of success here, but can we scale it up? Only if we have some changes on the policy level. We can keep doing what we do, and we can keep sharing what we do with people all over the world, as we have been doing, but things are only going to really start changing after we change things on a policy level and return teaching to a profession.

  2. Terrific discussion! el, we dedicate a chapter in Trusting Teachers with School Success describing how leadership works in schools run by teachers. It is just as you say.

    Paul, you might be interested in a guest blog I recently wrote at Eduwonk. http://www.eduwonk.com/2013/01/guest-post-kim-farris-berg-what-happens-when-teachers-call-the-shots.html

    It starts out by describing a famously wrong predication from one of the Warner brothers in 1927. He said, “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?” (Imagine: actors weren’t trained to talk; no one had ever heard them talk; infrastructure would have to be built; etc.)

    We sometimes become so accustomed to the way things are that we can’t imagine doing things differently. For systems vital to our future, like K-12 public schools, this myopia can be disastrous.

    The first plane that the Wright Bros got in the air at Kittyhawk is nothing like the ones we fly today. But they kicked off a giant period of innovation in flight. If we want change and scale we’ve got to identify where the potential is, tolerate some turbulence, and blast off!

    1. Paul Muench says:

      Thank you, an additional perspective. The next dangerous idea, “Trust our students”.

  3. Virginia S.M. says:

    As a career teacher (24yrs) and former legislator I can certainly relate to the issue of trust. In the early 90′s through the mid 90′s, my colleagues and I introduced in our classsrooms a number of teacher-led reforms that dramatically changed the way we were teaching. Our principal and school board “trusted” us and supported our efforts. The result was increased student engagement (we were in a Title I elementary school) and stepped up involvement by our parents, not to mention many site visits by interested school districts. Our students responded positively to their changed curriculum, designed by their teachers and their enthusiasm for school soared. Over the next 4 yrs. our upper grade staff enjoyed the autonomy and freedom to create curriculum and activities that were rich and engaging experiences for our students. We collaborated as a “team” to discuss student progress as we shared those students during they day. We received the Jack London Excellence in Education Award in 1994 from Sonoma State University.

    I was elected to the state legislature in 1996. That’s when the beginnings of Testing and Accountability took hold with the focus on test scores and school rankings. My first battle was fighting against a standardized test that had no connection to what was being taught in the classroom but that is now ancient history. My point is this: let teachers teach; unfettered with the kind of accountability that is neither student-centered or accurate when judging teachers and schools. Standardized test scores are important but not as important as the continual evaluation and ongoing testing that teachers use in their classrooms on a weekly basis. Those were most helpful and informative to me as a career teacher and enabled me to adjust my teaching for my students.

  4. Paul,

    I have thought a lot about questions of scale, and they trouble me, too. I’ve visited many interesting schools and left wondering how their good practices could be expanded. Sometimes I conclude that they can’t be: that the circumstances are too unusual, or that the whole venture depends on a single charismatic leader. But teacher-run schools can grow in number if given a chance.

    The general notion of development and diffusion as practiced in product marketing and to an extent in social ventures is a pathway from idea generators to early adopters to mass use. Public policy in education enforces the latter with rules, mandates, and incentives.

    So, what do we do when a few people have a useful idea that runs counter to conventional practice? The traditional response is to treat it as heresy and extinguish it. This practice assures that new ideas will not flourish or survive. Instead, I’ve suggested some public policy interventions that would increase the possibility of autonomous self-governing and operating schools.

    These policies would not require that all or even most or even many schools be run this way. The question of scale under the policies I have suggested becomes a matter of the natural growth of a new process rather than the more traditional mandate and enforcement.

    I

    1. el says:

      I work in technology, and it’s pretty typical to have a structure with a project manager and then a group of technologists. The manager sets priorities and requirements and assignments; the technologists do the work. In every place I’ve worked, though, the project manager really serves the team rather than the other way around. That is, whatever needs doing that doesn’t fit into the available technologist buckets gets done by the project manager. That might be consulting with the client; it might be a bit of research; it might be running an errand to pick up some needed items; it might be ordering in dinner or lunch in order to make a tight deadline. The project manager is certainly in charge of the final result and the quality of that product and is usually versed in the technology in question, but it is very much a two-way street and a service position.

  5. Doug Thomas says:

    As one of the founders of such a teacher run school 19 years ago, I can attest that the tradeoff of flexibility for accountability is workable and I believe it is scalable. We’ve encouraged this notion in all of the 40+ schools we’ve helped create during the past 10 years.

    Teachers take seriously the accountability expectation at all levels when given the autonomy to make decisions about results, budgeting, administration, the learning program, public relations and the professional status that is long overdue.

  6. Paul Muench says:

    Why should I believe this idea can scale? Does scaling depend on attracting different people to the teaching profession?

  7. What Ted Kolderie says is true. Trusting Teachers with School Success introduces an entirely different accountability structure. Perhaps teachers’ current seeking of job protections is a result of having very limited control over their work. They do not “call the shots,” but even so they are expected to accept accountability for outcomes. This is not a working arrangement most people would agree to.

    When teacher collectively make decisions influencing their schools’ success, and have accountability for their decision-making, they reassess their need for job protection. They want to maintain budget flexibility and have the ability to protect their success by being able to remove colleagues who aren’t a good match. Teachers who have full authority (in 10 areas defined in the book) have opted to have one-year, at will contracts. No tenure. They have even imposed salary freezes on themselves. Like other professionals, they are interested in who enters their school and profession and want a good pool to choose from.

    People have asked me, “Why would teachers go against their own best interest?” Trusted teachers will tell you that they are not. Everything they do is in their best interest. Their success depends on their own decision-making. It’s just a different way of thinking about the job. Once you let go of how you understand the profession today, you can imagine teachers controlling quality themselves.

    1. el says:

      I think this is an excellent comment.

      I would add that it’s not necessary that the school not have a principal or administrative structure – what’s necessary is that the teachers feel it is a cooperative venture, where the principal serves them (and IMHO that IS the principal’s job) rather than vice versa. The principal’s job, as I see it, is to pave the way so that teachers can teach – to deal with administrative minutia, to find money for activities, to make sure the bathrooms are clean and to deal with anything that comes up that would detract from a teacher’s focus on teaching kids or student learning.

      Teachers want to be successful. They want great coworkers. They want their kids to be successful. They are willing to look to the long term. Good teachers know it’s a team sport, that no matter how great you are at teaching 5th grade, that if grades K-4 are under-resourced and/or have poor staff, that 5th grade cannot be successful.

  8. Ted Kolderie says:

    For years the ‘deal’ with teachers was essentially: We don’t give you professional authority, and in return you don’t-give-us accountability. The ‘Trusting’ idea is to turn this around; to combine authority and accountability. And in Minnesota where we’ve had some schools organized on the partnership model for 10+ years, this proves out: Where teachers control what matters for school/student success teachers accept responsibility for school/student success.

    There’s quite a bit about this idea on http://www.educationevolving.org.

    While you’re there, do look at the little video on the home page. This is a teacher who on his own undertook to personalize learning, with outstanding results. You can see it also by going to http://www.educationevolving.org/pai.

  9. CapitolReader says:

    “Most of what passes for education reform has been crafted with the assumption that teachers are incompetent or malfeasant.”

    Nope. Just that SOME are incompetent and it’s not fair to students to protect them by giving them tenure or giving them priority during layoffs. No one ever talks about all teachers with a broad brush — except unions when they are trying to paint their opposition as teacher bashers. Teachers are human like the rest of us. Like any profession you are going to have great, average, and bad ones.

    “Education systems, therefore, are layered with micromanagement rather than characterized by useful feedback mechanisms that make teachers smart about their work.”

    Right. Which is why schools need more control over who is in the classroom. Get rid of seniority that pushes good teachers out and don’t be so quick to offer tenure. As far as feedback, make evaluations comprehensive including what effect teachers have on student outcomes.

    1. el says:

      Layoffs are completely separate from performance. Teachers who underperform can and should be removed regardless of whether layoffs are happening.

      Layoffs are themselves horribly destructive, particularly when they are happening in an environment where there is no decrease in needed services. We’ve confused ourselves by being in this period of declining budgets. Layoffs are abnormal and should be uncommon. Layoffs by seniority are done that way explicitly because they’re an ugly and last-ditch situation, and because there’s no fair nor cost-effective way to rank all the teachers by “goodness.”

      The answer is to remove teachers when they need to be removed, and to not get to the point where seniority-based layoffs are necessary. They shouldn’t be.

  10. Chris Reed says:

    It takes extraordinary naivete to assume that ceding power to teachers will work out well in California. Mark Berndt fed semen to his students and L.A. Unified had to pay him $40,000 to quit. Why? Because of the extreme job protections won by United Teachers Los Angeles. Once you understand this, Professor Kerchner’s essay falls apart as a prescription for legitimate change.

    1. Gary Ravani says:

      Sir:

      There are a number of areas where you demonstrate no understanding of the issues.

      There are significant differences between “job protections” and due process rights defined by statute and under collective bargaining.

      The instance you describe above relates to statute and not “extreme job protections” provided by the teachers’ union.

      Then there is the difference between the allegations against the teacher and what has been proved in a court of law. There has been no trial as yet.

      You seem to rant against the concept of due process itself. This nation has numerous instances in its history when due process has been ignored. if you search deep in your memory you may recall at least two instances: 1) the Salem Witch trials; and, 2) the McCarthy “Red Scare” of the ’50s. (And then there was the Red Scare of the ’20s and so on.) If you didn’t learn history the first time, try again.

      1. Chris,

        I’ve been hanging around schools for four decades and don’t consider myself particularly naive about how they work.

        What surprised me about the teacher run schools I visited–these are real schools–is that none of the abuses you cite took place. These teachers were extremely self-disciplined and enforced standards of conduct on one another.

        It is a severe misreading of my post to suggest that I advocated turning LAUSD into teacher-run schools willy nilly.

        I thought Gov. Brown was right to raise the “trust teachers” issue in his state-of-the-state speech, and sought to suggest policy mechanisms through which that instinct might operate.

        You are, of course, free to disagree with the notion that teachers should be trusted at all, but it would be helpful if you would understand the factual situation from which I have written.