Ted Kolderie, the Minnesotan who had a large hand in drafting the nation’s first charter school law, is selling ideas again. This time he’s promoting teacher-run schools, or at least greatly enhanced teacher capacity to design their own jobs. As he has said, “in a real sense all the effort to create better people for the job is working uphill if you aren’t, at the same time, creating a better job for the people.
Kolderie and his invaluable colleague, Joe Graba, former teacher, union leader, Minnesota legislator and education dean at Hamline University, hosted a little meeting recently to scope out the prospects for making the teacher-run-school idea more popular. Kim Farris-Berg, the lead author of Trusting Teachers with School Success, counts about 70 schools where teachers control the curriculum and operations.
Farris-Berg found six schools in California where they say teachers call the shots, and there may be many more. Existing teacher-run schools operate under varying governance arrangements. The Chrysalis School in Palo Cerdo, east of Redding, is a charter. The San Francisco Community School operates under special arrangement with San Francisco Unified School District. The High Tech High schools, where teachers have substantial instructional autonomy but lack governance authority, work under a statewide charter issued by the California Board of Education. The Civitas School of Leadership is part of Los Angeles Unified School District and operates under the school autonomy rules accorded the Belmont Zone of Choice.
The larger teacher autonomy story in Los Angeles concerns the 48 Pilot Schools, which are essentially in-district charters. Each of these schools has substantial operating autonomy, but the amount of teacher operational control varies, and the story of how these schools work has not been told yet.
There is apparent interest in expanding the idea. Farris-Berg says she gets two or three calls a week from teachers wanting to start schools. When polled, a majority of public school teachers say they would be interested in working in a school run and managed by teachers.
The talk at the meeting was how to make this number grow. But the question is: Why would you want to?
The argument for teacher-run schools is threefold:
- First, teachers will like their jobs better and do a better job. Richard Ingersoll’s research suggests that this is the case, and my case study of teacher-run schools including the Avalon School in St. Paul, Minnesota, suggests that given authority, teachers will also hold themselves accountable and take greater risks to achieve success.
- Teacher-run schools provide an antidote to some of the undesirable side effects of bureaucracy. Barnett Berry at the Center for Teaching Quality tells the story of growing teacher leadership in his new book, Teacherpreneurs: “For example, more than most schools, teacher-run institutions I have studied put a greater proportion of their operating budgets into adults who have direct instructional contact with students.”
- Kolderie also sees teacher-run schools as good laboratories. Most of them have jettisoned conventional classes for projects and other forms of experience-based learning. Their work lives and teaching styles are substantially different from a conventional teacher marching a group of students through a pre-packaged curriculum.
He wants more and better laboratories. In a letter to The Economist, he replied to that newspaper’s concern that teachers would oppose the use of education technologies, with reference to an earlier article that showed that new technology is adopted rapidly when labor and capital are combined. He notes that beginning in the 1880s, American farmers rapidly bought newly invented machinery and adopted new plowing and planting practices. It was in their interest to do so.
History and public policy are stacked against creating educational laboratories. The last half-century is littered with failed attempts to change what David Tyack and Larry Cuban call “the grammar of schooling.”
The charter school movement has created some, but far fewer than hoped. Most charters are conventional, even old-fashioned, in their approaches to teaching and learning. Charter management organizations are becoming private school districts, as they tend to standardize instruction and pedagogy across the schools they run, just as conventional public school districts do. More charters does not equate to more laboratories.
Would more, better understood teacher-run schools get the U.S. robust trials of new educational ideas and variation in the type and style of schooling?
Kolderie thinks so, and he thinks that the timing is right. Those 19th Century farmers he writes about were ready experimenters. They were enabled by easy credit to buy equipment, and a slew of new ideas began flowing from agricultural experiment stations at the newly created land grant public universities. They bought into change because it made their work less backbreaking and because it made their families more prosperous.
The growing corps of industrial workers in the same era were also introduced to technology, but not on their terms. Labor strife punctuated industrialization as workers fought for control of their working conditions and a larger share of the returns for increased productivity.
Is the information age more like family farming or industrial production, Kolderie asks? Most people respond: more like farming. To which he replies: “Now tell me why we have education organized on the industrial model?”
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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.