A Fledgling Teacher-Led School Trend

As a follow-up to Ken Bernstein’s Daily KOS diary, “Education – Moving Past Excuses: What Excellence & Equity Require”, republished on our Daily KOS “Education Alternatives” group, I wanted to explore further some perhaps more radical thoughts behind Ken’s statement which I (as a parent and not a professional educator like Ken) completely agree with…

Teachers are quite capable of serving in a number of productive capacities outside of their individual classrooms and their individual schools.

My mom, who was a very capable volunteer political activist (with a Bachelors in Sociology, but also not a professional educator), always used to say that, “Teachers should run the schools”. Where she came to that insight, I really don’t know, but as a kid I used to think, “Yeah mom, whatever”. Now as an adult, and parent to two now young-adult kids who struggled in their public schools, her insight keeps coming back to me as I watch the increasing standardization and top-down control of those public schools.

The first school I ever encountered that was run by the teachers was Highland Hall, a private Waldorf school that our son Eric’s mom and I checked out when we were exploring options for Eric beyond the conventional public schools. We did not end up enrolling him, but I was struck by the school’s governance model, which had the school’s teachers running the school as a committee, without a principal, hiring additional administrative staff as needed.

I had not previously encountered this sort of governance model for a school, and for me it recalled my mom’s words, and begged the question why more schools were not run this way. If teachers are truly highly-trained professional service providers like doctors and lawyers, shouldn’t they be running their schools like doctors run their medical groups and lawyers run their law firms?

My take on U.S. history, and why public school teachers are generally not in that governance position, is that school teachers have mostly been women. The American public school system developed in the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th leveraging a pool of talented and highly educated women as school teachers, because other professions – including doctor, lawyer and college professor – were generally not open to them. Public costs were kept down by hiring professional level talent at lower than professional compensation. And given that the talent pool was women (who could not even vote for President until the 1920s) a male-dominated society was not comfortable with granting them the autonomy and self-governance of male professionals. Instead, mostly male principals and district administrators, tasked with managing those teachers, were granted that sort of real professional salary and status.

But with the revived feminist movement in the 1960s and 1970s, and a societal realignment that followed, most other professions opened up for women. Though teaching today is still a majority female profession, it includes many men as well, and given much greater gender equality, there is no longer any (even bad) excuse for teachers not to be considered full-blown professionals like doctors and lawyers, and run the establishments where they practice their profession.

My mom’s words were evoked again earlier this year when I read a piece in Ed Week about the public school in Detroit that was in the process of being taken over by the teachers. In the intro to her piece, “Teacher-Led School Trend Takes DPS”, Marion Herbert writes…

Detroit is the next city to throw away the administrative reins and open the doors for an all-teacher-led school. Serving pre-K through eighth grade and roughly 450 students, the Palmer Park Preparatory Academy (P3A) will open in Detroit Public Schools this fall— sans principal —replacing the Barbara Jordan Elementary School, which closed in spring 2010 to become a turnaround school after being identified as low performing.

The school’s own website, still under construction (as I write this) for its fall 2011 opening, says…

We are the first teacher-led school in the state of Michigan, joining a network of teacher-led schools across the country. Our philosophy is rooted in the belief that teachers are most successful in an educational environment that is child-centered and teacher-driven… Where teachers lead, students succeed.

To be candid, I’m a big advocate for learner-driven education, but moving down the education “food chain” from administrator-driven to teacher-driven schools is a big step forward in my opinion. Its a step forward towards my vision of students participating fully in the governance of an institution where they spend much of their lives. It at least gives students direct access every day to real school decision-makers and vice-versa.

Regarding that “food chain”, Herbert quotes Ann Crowley, one of the teachers in the group that took over the school…

By weeding out the middleman, Crowley believes it will become easier to educate the learners. “Bypassing another level of hierarchy in making decisions about the learning needs of children allows for more immediate action to transpire,” says Crowley.

Toward that goal of “weeding out the middleman”, I support my friend Lynn Stoddard’s effort to push for the transformation of the U.S. Department of Education from its current “new sheriff in town” role (in line with No Child Left Behind). Writes Lynn…

Change the U.S. Department of Education from a dictator of school policy to that of a research, advisory and resource organization.

See his petition effort.

I actually would take this effort one big step further, and urge the states to transform their governance role in education as well, from “dictator” to “resource”. Keep pushing the real direction of education down the “food chain” toward the student as the ideal nexus.

Finally, Herbert indicates that the 3PA teachers were inspired by Steve Barr’s Green Dot charter school group…

Palmer Park Preparatory Academy P3A was in part inspired by the Green Dot movement, a network of unionized charter schools in Los Angeles, founded in 2000, that encourages more autonomy and accountability for its teachers.

I hope using the chartering process to facilitate this teacher takeover does not sour some progressives on this big step toward more egalitarian school governance and acknowledging teachers as true professionals. I appreciate their concerns that, particularly in “red” states where conservatives wield the political majority, that the whole “charter school movement” has been used as a cudgel to bash unionized teachers. This along with challenging the whole concept of “the people’s schools” in an effort to “corporatize” education. But I think this is a case of not throwing the “baby” (professionalizing teachers and democratizing schools) out with the “bath water” (the education-industrial complex).

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