Can We Trust Teachers To Successfully Manage Whole Schools? (Kim Farris-Berg) Part 1

February 6, 2013

Can we trust teachers with authority to manage whole schools? Would teachers even want the opportunity to manage schools? And, when they are in the position to manage schools, will it make any difference in student achievement? Kim Farris-Berg explores these questions in this three-part guest blog .

Farris-Berg is a Senior Associate with Education Evolving, a policy design shop based in St. Paul, Minnesota, and an independent education policy strategist. Her Twitter handle is @farrisberg.

Everyone knows that many K-12 public schools are not producing desired results. The big question is: how will we improve them? The dominant assertion today is that if we can just get better at telling teachers what to do, and how to do it, then improvement will follow. In this climate, “getting tough” with teachers appears to be the only solution. Fortunately for those of us not fond of one-bet strategies, other assertions are entering the discussion. One of these assertions is that trusting teachers, and not controlling them, is the key to school success.

Some policymakers and education leaders in states and school districts are granting groups of teachers who request it collective autonomy to make the decisions influencing whole school success. These groups of teachers have the opportunity to choose—even invent—the learning methods and job structures they think will best improve learning for the students in their schools.

My colleagues and I recently studied what teachers in 11 of these groups do with their authority and published our findings in a book called Trusting Teachers with School Success: What Happens When Teachers Call the Shots (R&L Education 2012).

We contemplated for some time how we would determine whether teachers who call the shots make “good” governance decisions. The central question of any improvement strategy is whether it has the potential to achieve superior results. Ideally we’d want to know what strategies prepare students to lead successful lives, from an individual and societal point of view. But there are not any empirical measurements for this sort of “real life” result, so we needed a proxy for evaluating the potential of the choices autonomous teachers make.

We considered numerous research approaches and decided that a reasonable proxy for whether a school has the potential to achieve superior results ought to be associated with the characteristics of high-performing organizations. According to our review of literature, organizations are considered “high-performing” if they achieve results that are better than their peers over a period of time. By inference, their cultural characteristics are associated with success. It makes logical sense that autonomous teachers’ choices are good if they emulate these characteristics.

We gleaned nine cultural characteristics of high-performing organizations from the literature and used the detailed findings about each to develop survey and interview instruments that examined autonomous teachers’ approaches and behaviors in each area. We found that teachers who call the shots do emulate these characteristics and that their most prominent practices flow from their cultivation of the characteristics.

When teachers have collective autonomy to make the decisions influencing school success, they:

1. Accept ownership. They welcome authority and responsibility for making decisions. When they make the decisions, they are willing to accept accountability for outcomes.

2. Innovate. They take risks to try creative new things, challenge old processes, and continuously adapt. Here’s an example: Autonomous teachers often group students by skill and not by age—that is, if students work in groups at all. Many students direct their own learning in consultation with teachers, even peers, as appropriate.

3. Share purpose. They co-create their schools’ mission, vision, values, and goals. They say this is the reason why they buy in. Purpose statements aren’t just words, but the basis of their collective decision-making. In the 11 schools, teachers’ shared purpose always focused on students as individuals.

4. Collaborate. They participate in collaboration and leadership for the good of the whole school, not just a classroom. Their cultures are characterized by consultation, listening, being open to different opinions, working together, and mutual respect.

5. Lead effectively. Many teachers want to focus on learning and not administration, so they select principals and lead teachers to handle these duties. These leaders are seen as accountable to, and in service to, the group of teachers that is responsible and accountable for school success. Teacher autonomy puts in motion an entirely different structure of accountability.

6. Function as learners. Their cultures are characterized by a sense of common challenge and discovery, rather than a culture in which experts impart information.

7. Avoid insularity. They are influenced by students, parents, youth culture, and technology trends. They are less influenced by leaders in business, future educational institutions, unions, and school districts. Teachers say these leaders’ decisions are often barriers to their innovations.

8. Engage and motivate one another and their students. They put students in a position to be active, ongoing learners.

9. Assess performance. They set and measure progress toward goals and act upon results to improve performance. They use peer evaluation and encourage coaching and mentoring colleagues to ensure continuous improvement. They focus on students’ individual learning growth and expect students to achieve in areas beyond academics.

These promising results suggest it’s time to trust teachers. The next question is, would teachers be interested in the opportunity to call the shots? Part II will explore the answer.

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Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice

The views expressed by the blogger are not necessarily those of NEPC.

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Kim Farris-Berg

Kim Farris-Berg is a Senior Associate with Education Evolving, a policy design shop based in St. Paul, Minnesota, and an independent education policy strategist. 

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Larry Cuban

Larry Cuban is a former high school social studies teacher (14 years), district superintendent (7 years) and university professor (20 years). He has published op-ed pieces, scholarly articles and books on classroom teaching, history of school reform, how policy gets translated into...