How Do Teacher-Powered Schools Work?
Leadership Insights

Teacher Autonomy and Accountability: A Primer on Teacher-Powered Schools

By Caitrin Blake September 16, 2015
How Do Teacher-Powered Schools Work?

All too often in business, managers make decisions that impact employees — and their customers — in a negative way. Although these changes are meant to improve performance, decision-makers don’t have a clear concept of how new policies will play out in real-world settings. Even worse, managers often haven’t held the roles impacted by their initiatives.

Education policymakers don’t know the day-to-day of teaching

A similar situation often occurs in schools. Policymakers aren’t teaching classes; many never actually served as teachers before going into administration. Teachers exist on the front lines of education and know what works and what doesn’t by interacting with students on a daily basis. Instead of top-down improvement initiatives and mandates, many communities are testing a model of teacher-powered schools.

What is a teacher-powered school?

A teacher-powered school, also sometimes called a teacher-led school, is just what it sounds like: teachers have the autonomy to make decisions usually reserved for principals or district administrators. These areas include:

  • Hiring and evaluating colleagues
  • Teaching methods and learning materials
  • Student discipline
  • Transferring or terminating teaching colleagues
  • Budgets and salaries
  • Curriculum and class schedules

Teacher-led schools may have a principal, but the principal’s job is to facilitate initiatives and goals set by teachers instead of their own or the district’s. Alternatively, school leadership might consist of a teacher-leader, co-leads, or a decision-making committee. To ensure a manageable workload, teachers in this model might outsource building maintenance, bookkeeping and other specialized administrative work to their district office.

Increased autonomy, increased accountability

Because of the way they’re structured, teacher-powered schools are able to avoid many common issues within the traditional K-12 paradigm. But along with increased opportunities, teachers in these schools have a great deal more responsibility. In addition to their classroom duties, teachers are expected to contribute to school governance in roles including:

  • Serving on leadership committees
  • Conducting peer evaluations
  • Leading professional development sessions
  • Administering student discipline
  • Mediating conflict between colleagues

Teacher-led schools are accountable for both student successes and failures. Teachers must still meet federal and state mandates, and although they can set goals for student outcomes, there are consequences for failing to meet them. A Connecticut school superintendent recently removed the teacher-elected leadership team at High School in the Community after several years of low graduation rates and poor student performance.

Fitting the teacher-powered model into districts

The concept of teacher-powered schools is popular with both educators and parents. According to the Teacher-Powered Schools Initiative, around 70 public schools in 15 states are currently using this framework; education levels range from preschool through college. It’s also common to see this structure on a smaller level, such as a teacher-powered science department or music program.

Teacher-led schools exist as part of a school district and are staffed with both union and non-union teachers. In order to provide the freedom necessary for teachers to truly lead, these schools are structured as pilot programs or charter schools. In some cases, they exist within the district under a waiver or through a “goodwill” agreement with superintendents.

How teacher-led schools support students

Teacher-led schools have many benefits for students. Two teacher-led schools — Avalon in Minnesota and Reiche Community School in Maine — serve student populations that include children living in poverty, special needs students, English language learners, and students who struggle with substance abuse and homelessness. Because these schools exist outside the traditional structure, educators are able to teach to their students’ needs rather than standardized test score-based goals. As a result, classrooms are more flexible, able to change curriculum or structures to meet students where they are.

Students in teacher-led programs often get more say in what they are learning as well. Avalon emphasizes project-based, self-directed learning and encourages students to contribute to school culture and policies. While students still meet established standards and benchmarks, the level of engagement they experience improves learning and increases retention rates.

Professional benefits of teacher-powered schools

Teacher-powered schools enable teachers to determine the learning methods and materials that work best for them, their classrooms and their students. Educators in this model report higher levels of professional satisfaction and better communication with colleagues. Unsurprisingly, teacher retention is high as well; Avalon’s is around 95 percent. One Avalon teacher and program coordinator said, “For many, this is what they always thought teaching was like or should be.”

Founding a teacher-led school or program

To develop a teacher-led school or program, teachers must first create an exploratory team. This team is responsible for:

  • Defining their teaching vision and methods
  • Exploring leadership and governance models
  • Identifying possible problems and solutions
  • Researching funding sources, such as NEA grants
  • Determining how the school would fit into their district’s educational structure

A founding teacher at Reiche Community School reported that their exploratory phase took a year to complete. If teachers get enough buy-in from colleagues and are able to find research that supports their vision, they can follow the five-step Teacher-Powered Schools Initiative framework for moving forward.

The U.S. public education system benefits from new and effective approaches to schools

It’s clear that public schools in the United States can benefit from new ideas about learning. For teachers who are willing and able to increase their responsibilities, teacher-led schools can result in a radical shift in education. Rather than leaving it up to bureaucrats and officials who are unable to understand the challenges of modern classrooms, empowered educators can help students excel.

Caitrin Blake has a BA in English and Sociology from the University of Vermont and a master’s degree in English literature from the University of Colorado Denver. She teaches composition at Arapahoe Community College.

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