Schools without Principals

Just as in real estate they say the three key things are “location, location, location”, when it comes to formal institutions like schools, businesses, religious congregations, or even just teams within those institutions, in my mind the three key things are “governance, governance, governance”. Given my obsession, it is nice to see Education Week blogs highlighting both a new study focused on school governance and a very different non-hierarchical model for running a school.

First the study, “Learning from Leadership: Investigating the Links to Improved Student Learning” featured in an Education Week blog post by Christina Samuels. The research included data from 9 states, 43 school districts, 180 schools, plus interviews with legislators, educrats at the state and district levels, over 8391 teachers and 471 school administrators, as well as observations from 312 classrooms.

The study stays inside the box of the conventional hierarchical school governance model, assuming that basic policy will be set at the state level, interpreted and implemented at the district level, and carried out at the individual school level by a principal who directs the teachers in each school. It comes to what I would consider such “duh” conclusions such as…

Effective principals encourage others to join in the decision-making process in their schools.

It’s at least a baby step forward.

Rather than challenging the fundamental ineffectiveness of this top-down, command and control approach, the study looks at ways to mitigate its inherent weakness by introducing some minimal collaborative elements by encouraging state educrats to at least listen to the people at the district level implementing their policies…

States need to listen to district officials as they voice their concerns about state policies. In particular, state policy makers and education agencies need to be more responsive to legitimate concerns about unforeseen inequities arising from the implementation of well-intended government policies.

And finally, I am pleased to see an acknowledgment, at least within this hierarchical context, of many paths…

We suggest that state policy makers need to consider that one size does not fit all when considering how the state will support school and district leaders in meeting new accountability challenges.

What I see as more outside the box transformational thinking is the second Education Week blog piece, “School without Administrators”, by Antony Rebora. Rebora highlights a handful of schools around the country that are run by “Teacher Professional Partnerships” or TPPs. Similar to many law practices run by the lawyers as partners, TPPs are…

Formed and owned by teachers to provide educational services. TPPs may enter into contracts to manage entire schools, a portion of a school or to provide some other educational service. Teachers are in charge and they manage or arrange for the management of the schools and/or services provided. The school district is not managing the school; nor is a district-appointed single leader in charge (e.g. a principal).

FYI… this is not an untested governance model for a school. It has been used successfully for years by Waldorf schools around the world.

Rebora cites fellow education blogger Carl Anderson, who says that a TPP can be a more effective governance model for schools because…

It brings more decision making responsibility closer to those who are directly affected by those decisions. It places agency closer to those served by schooling and in so doing elevates the teaching profession. With agency comes responsibility and built-in accountability. If a teacher is held responsible for their own performance via a personal stake in ensuring that they offer a quality learning environment that students will want to participate in there will be no need for complex systems of teacher performance pay or other measures.

Anderson here is speaking directly to the reason that, over the past five centuries, the world has been transitioning from hierarchical monarchies to more egalitarian republics. Giving people a “stake” and a “say” works to leverage all their skills and energies towards a more effective organization.

Ironically, nation-states throughout the world have made this transition, but now we are finally getting around to considering implementing this change in our schools. I find it interesting that educational and religious institutions appear to be the last bastion of the older authoritarian model. Nations have adopted representative government “by and for the people” and families have transitioned from “father knows best” and “children should be seen and not heard”. The command and control economics of the Soviet Union have been repudiated by its failure, but our public school system uses this model to try to effectively educate our nation’s youth.

Treating teachers as true professionals (like lawyers or doctors) that can self-manage the delivery of their services is a radical concept for many people. Since teaching (at least at the K-12 level) has traditionally been a female-dominated, “pink collar ghetto” profession, it has tended to have lower pay, status and autonomy. In traditional hierarchical thinking, women (and children) cannot act autonomously and need a strong guiding adult/male hand.

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