A School Without Principals? Yes, Really

A School Without Principals? Yes, Really

By Allie Bidwell

Without the opportunity to grow, talented teachers
“wither or wander away,” one union leader says.

A group of teachers and union representatives gathered on a mid-summer morning in the small town of Forestville to discuss the details of opening a new school in Prince George’s County, Maryland.

The five educators discussed budgeting, facilities, community engagement and curriculum, tucked away at the teachers’ union headquarters. There were no representatives from the state education department or local school board to get involved in the planning of staffing, transportation and food services, and notably, no principal – because there won’t be one.

“Teachers don’t really get a lot of say in what goes on in schools. So I thought, why not then have an avenue where teachers really get to step up to the plate and decide how schools actually operate, what the academic program would look like, and just the overall kind of structure that would give kids more engagement in their own learning?” says Dorothy Ray, director of the Prince George’s County Educators’ Association’s UniServ program, which focuses on providing advocacy support to local union affiliates.

“Thank heavens some folks in here listened to me,” she adds.

 More often, teachers across the nation are looking to restructure their schools’ governance models and run them on their own. At a time when teacher evaluations and accountability have become linchpins in widespread and federally backed school improvement plans, the movement is born partly out of a frustration with the structure of America’s public school system and top-down reform. Currently, there are nearly 60 so-called teacher-powered schools nationwide in cities such as Denver, San Francisco, Boston and Cincinnati.

An April report released by Gallup showed that on two survey questions, teachers were the least likely of any profession to respond positively: whether they feel their opinions count at work, and whether their supervisor creates an “open and trusting environment.”

“Very talented people need ways to grow, and if you don’t give them that, they tend to wither or wander away,” Ray says. “We want to keep top-notch teachers in the classroom. I really see that as a major concern, and we want to stem that tide.”

This past February, the Prince George’s County teachers’ union won a competitive grant from its parent affiliate, the National Education Association, to develop a school led by teachers in the union.

The new school, scheduled to open for the 2015-2016 school year, will serve students in preschool through fifth grade as an alternative for parents who might want a less-traditional education for their children, the group explains. The goal, according to Ray, is to have the school operate as a contract school.

Similar to a charter school, contract schools receive greater levels of autonomy from the school district and have seats available for students who would normally attend other schools in the district. Unlike charter schools, contract schools are district schools managed by external organizations, whereas charter schools are independently operated public schools that are not affiliated with the school district.

“For some parents who have lost confidence in public schools for whatever reason, they’re out there seeking choices in schools,” says Lewis Robinson, executive director of the county’s union. “Why should we allow someone else to create those choices? Why aren’t we creating those choices internally that will attract parents and families back to our schools, or to stay with our schools?”

In Minnesota, Bianca Zick says that was the case for her family, when her son Max was not succeeding in a traditional public school. Finding a teacher-led school for Max to attend was “a godsend,” she says. Max, who just graduated from the teacher-led Avalon School in St. Paul, has dyslexia, a disorder that his mother says never caused much trouble, but was a contributing factor to his boredom in school.

Initially, Zick says the idea of a school without a formal administration or a principal seemed foreign, but the flexibility of the school governance allowed the teachers and school advisers to more deeply connect with her son and adapt the curriculum to his needs through project-based learning. Rather than applying the same assignment to everyone, the teachers at Avalon give their sixth through 12th grade students more choice and responsibility in the projects they choose to pursue, Zick says.

“The teachers have this vision together and work together as a cooperative,” Zick says. “What they’re doing is what they’re teaching the kids to do.” Teachers teach students indirectly, by collaborating with other teachers, as well as directly, by having kids engage in project-based learning opportunities, Zick explains.

Teachers at Avalon School in Minnesota discuss and vote on school-based decisions. Avalon is a democratically-run teacher-powered school that operates without a principal, leaving the faculty and staff collective to vote on all aspects of school operations.

“There’s much more of this cooperative energy – it’s not a top-down run school, even with the kids,” Zick adds. “They’re living their vision for their school through how they operate together.”

This fall, Max is attending a welding and metal fabrication program at the Dunwoody College of Technology in Minneapolis, which Zick says suits her son’s hands-on and creative approach to learning .

There are a number of different ways teacher-led schools can form. Some, like the Avalon School, operate as charter schools, while others, such as the Denver Green School in Colorado, are formed when they receive state waivers. Despite their differences in origination, the restructured schools all provide more flexibility for the teachers leading them, when it comes to personnel decisions, salaries, curriculum development and even school schedules.

The Denver Green School, for example, has an extended school day four days a week, and shortens the fifth day so teachers have time to meet. The Avalon School, which opened in 2001, allows all school employees, including office managers and social workers, to vote on school policies.

It’s also a way to retain effective teachers. Research has shown that nearly half of all new teachers leave within their first five years on the job. But at Avalon, the year-to-year teacher retention rate is around 95 percent, says Carrie Bakken, a teacher and program coordinator at Avalon. Some years, there is 100 percent retention, which is particularly unusual considering the latest federal data show about 8 percent of teachers quit from year to year, while another 8 percent move to a different school.

But with the flexibility and freedom also come challenges no school can avoid.

Chart showing public school teacher retention rates since 1988.

Chart showing public school teacher retention rates since 1988.
Click for larger.

“Avalon, like most schools, had to suffer through the Great Recession, and a lack of funding and things like that,” Bakken says. “Instead of being able to blame somebody, we had to make those tough choices. Sometimes people think it would be easier, but I think all of us would agree we’d rather take on the challenge and have control of it.”

A separate personnel committee handles the teachers evaluation process at Avalon, while technology, special education and facilities committees, for example, focus on other specific needs throughout the school.

You can’t just throw teachers together and expect it to run smoothly, Bakken says. “You have to pay attention to it and make procedures and have committees.”

Bob Farrace, director of communications and public relations for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, says school leadership is its own discipline. Studies have shown that school leadership is second only to teaching among factors that can affect student learning, particularly in disadvantaged schools that need it most. Having a solid leader or group of leaders at the helm of a school, therefore, can be a crucial part of the students’ experience.

“Frankly, there’s a lot of time, a lot of effort and a lot of work that goes into school leadership to execute it well – and I’m not talking just about the paper-pushing tasks and compliance tasks that you can spread across a bunch of people,” Farrace says. “Is it reasonable to expect teachers are going to be able to put the time in to both being highly effective instructors and teachers, and also highly effective leaders?”

Both Farrace and Gail Connelly, executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, say that while they’re supportive of collaboration between principals and teachers, it’s too soon to tell whether teacher-led schools will be successful on a large scale. Effective principals, they say, know how to harness the talents of teachers within the school and provide more leadership opportunities for them – but it doesn’t happen in nearly enough schools.

“From our perspective, it’s not a matter of either/or. It’s principals and teachers working in collaboration and leading today’s complex learning environment,” Connelly says. “It takes both to really create the optimum learning environment that can help each and every child succeed.”

Still, both Farrace and Connelly questioned whether schools can function effectively when run by teachers who might not have the specific administrative and managerial training that help principals with the complexities of managing staff, time, performance data, funding and resources. When something goes wrong, the educational hierarchy at the district and state levels tend to look for an individual to hold accountable.

Students at Denver Green School in Denver, Colo. learn about horticulture while tending to Andrew’s Garden – a memorial garden for a teacher  colleague of the school’s founding teachers.

The Denver Green School in Denver, Colo. partners with local Sprout City Farms to provide hands-on learning opportunities for students, while also supplying fresh produce to the school and local needy families.

At Avalon, teachers make decisions through different committees using a 1 to 5 voting scale. All decisions, whether related to personnel, calendars or curriculum, must receive a 3 or higher on average before moving forward. At the Denver Green School, a leadership team of seven founding-partner teachers and six other partner teachers makes decisions about curriculum and other matters.

In Cincinnati, the Hughes STEM High School operates with a principal. But because the purpose of teacher-led schools is to promote teacher autonomy, all decisions are made by teachers in collaboration with the principal, who cannot veto what the teachers decide. The school has a district-approved principal as part of a collective bargaining agreement between the local school board and teachers’ union to ensure collective leadership.

“In the current educational structure, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to look to phase out one level of the bureaucracy because other levels are going to persist … They’re going to need to know who to look at in the school, whose head to put on the chopping block, whose head is going to roll in the event something goes wrong,” Farrace says. “Nobody’s crazy about working in bureaucracy, but a whole lot of other things are going to have to change if the teacher-led schools are really going to take off and be the wave of the future.”

One of the necessary changes is professionalizing the teaching industry, says Marc Tucker, president and chief executive officer of the National Center on Education and the Economy, a nonprofit policy analysis organization.

“It’s pretty clear when you look at teaching in the United States, compared to the top-performing countries, you’re looking at a blue-collar occupation,” Tucker says. “You’re looking at a real profession in most of these other countries, by most measures.”

In a recently released report, Tucker argues for an overhaul of the country’s public school accountability system. Teachers, he argues, cannot be held accountable in a system that has essentially set them up to fail. In order to attract and retain more highly qualified and motivated teachers, the entire occupation should be restructured to allow for a career ladder, higher starting salaries, peer accountability systems and a shift in how teachers spend their time.

Teachers in the United States, Tucker says, usually have three to five hours each week to plan lessons, whereas teachers in top-performing countries have between 15 and 20 hours per week to work with colleagues on lessons, as well as observe other classrooms and meet with parents and students.

Tucker advocates a career ladder for teachers similar to that of lawyers, who are able to move up through firms to gain both more responsibility and higher pay. Likewise, improved working conditions would also lead to a peer accountability system, where newer and more experienced teachers evaluate one anothers’ performances.

Students engage with their teacher during a classroom project. At the teacher-powered Avalon School, project-based learning is a major aspect of the school’s curriculum.

At the teacher-powered Avalon School, project-based learning is a key aspect of the school’s curriculum.

“One of the central ideas in here is that if you’re setting up an accountability system, what you really want to do is set up a system in which everybody in the organization is constantly working to improve their game,” Tucker says. “They aren’t doing that because their boss is demanding it. They’re looking at a set of other professionals out there who are their peers, and they want to be good.”

In Prince George’s County, some of the teachers involved in planning and developing the forthcoming school say a lack of top-down instructions is appealing. Jayne Hirst, a 10-year teaching veteran in Prince George’s County, says moving away from the hierarchical structure of school reform and accountability is one of the things she’s most looking forward to.

“This trickle-down reform doesn’t work, because a teacher then is being told [what to do] by someone who has been out of the classroom forever,” says Hirst, who will be a teacher at the new school. “It’s roll the eyes and reform du jour, and we need the teachers to do the reform. We know what needs to happen … We will invest much more readily when we’re happy and satisfied and really part of it.”

But can the novel examples of teacher-led schools in places like Minnesota and Maryland be developed on a national scale? Many have been operating in smaller schools with an “extraordinary group of teachers who are willing to take this on and put a whole lot of extra time in to make this structure successful,” Farrace says.

In her book, “Trusting Teachers with School Success,” author Kim Farris-Berg, a senior associate with the school reform group Education Evolving, examined 11 teacher-led schools, where the enrollments ranged from 57 to 355 students.

“Teacher-powered schools are generally small,” Farris-Berg says. “That said, there are teachers in large high schools now considering converting their school governance to teacher-powered [in Minnesota and northern California] . There are ways of going about this that would work … Just as partners in other professional organizations do, these teams could establish a shared purpose and then delegate some of the decision-making to small groups and individuals among them, who they elect to work within that purpose.”

On average, the total school enrollment for those Farris-Berg studied was 169 students. Other teacher-led schools, such as Brick Avon Academy in New Jersey, serve as many as 650 students.

“We begin to move the needle with experimentation, with different things, so let’s let it roll, let’s see how it goes, and let’s examine it closely,” Farrace says. “We want to make sure that we’re asking the hard questions to make sure this isn’t something new for the sake of being new, or that it isn’t a movement that is simply born of frustration with a bureaucracy, but that it is a model that is actually better than what it is we had.”


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