The Teacher Powered Schools (TPS) movement has a history of success and is now in more than 100 schools. It won’t make anyone rich but it just might bring a new area of positive growth in the teaching and learning process.
It could be argued that TPS has been around since Socrates. More recently, Debra Meier’s efforts to democratize schools in New York and Boston along with her friend Ted Sizer’s thinking has set a foundation for today’s movement. The modern TPS movement stemming from the 1990’s accelerated in 2012 with the publication of Trusting Teachers with School Success by Kim Farris-Berg and Edward Dirkswager with Amy Junge.
By 1997, Debra Meier could open one of the first TPS schools, Mission Hill k-8 in Boston. Her glowing reputation led school officials who would normally have been quite skeptical to embrace her concept. A case study describes the school’s governance:
“A governing board, consisting of a council that represents parents, faculty, students and other community members, oversees the school to ensure the teacher team continues to meet the needs of students effectively but delegates decision-making authority to the teacher team. The teachers and the principal they selected collaborate on all decisions, including curriculum, staffing, and the school’s schedule. They involve all local education stakeholders in decisions regarding principal selection, determining the school’s mission, and approving staff-developed budget and human resources plans.”
Following 20 years of experience, a local New England news outlet reports,
“According to the Boston Public School District, 32% of students in the district will attend one of four types of teacher-powered or autonomous schools, like Mission Hill next year.”
In 2014 the Teacher Powered Schools initiative was launched. Their reported vision is:
“While the initiative recognizes the many other important efforts focused on teacher leadership and professionalism—for example, offering pathways for advancement without leaving the classroom, amplifying teachers’ voices, and fostering PLCs—its explicit focus is on empowering teacher teams to secure collective autonomy to design and run schools.”
The TPS initiative also provides a list of TPS schools and the following map of school locations.
Teacher Powered Schools Have Diverse Supporters
“But let me say, as many other scholars have as well, that the research is clear: ‘There is very little evidence that charter and traditional public schools differ meaningfully in their average impact on students’ standardized test performance.’”
He then commented on TPS:
“Now these are schools worth choosing—and all students should have the choice to be a part of them. Parents and students have choice in the TPS environment, and so do their teachers. In choosing Teacher-Powered Schools, we as a society put the public good back in public education.”
My friend Larry Lawrence instigated me writing this article when he sent me a link reporting on the 2017 TPS conference that he attended in LA. I forwarded the link on to my boss, the Superintendent of the Sweetwater Union High School District, Karen Janney. She responded:
“I support the premise that TPS is learning and expanding with their work. I especially liked this paragraph:
“Teacher-Powered Schools center on eight practices that include a common purpose and vision, collaboration for the good of the whole school, ongoing learning, individualized student learning, holistic approach to discipline, multiple measures for student performance, teacher evaluation and improvement, and budget trade-offs to serve students.
“In fact, as a district, we are working towards many of those practices.”
Many people have commented on the book credited with accelerating the TPS movement by, Kim Farris-Berg and Edward Dirkswager with Amy Junge, Trusting Teachers with School Success. A few short snippet of these comments follow.
Linda Hammond-Darling, the famed Stanford researcher noted.
“While many school systems push authority upwards to administration and accountability for results downwards onto individual teachers, Trusting Teachers shows us what can happen when authority and accountability are brought together and teachers have a seat at every table.”
James A. Kelly, Founding President, National Board of Professional Teaching Standards observed,
“In this important book, the authors turn education reform upside-down. They propose that teachers be empowered to manage their own teaching and their student’s learning. Let’s put teachers in charge of teaching! The distinct contribution of this book is that it takes the reader into many highly successful schools in which “trusted” teachers already have professional responsibility for teaching and learning.
Michael Petrilli, Executive Vice President, Thomas B. Fordham Institute stated,
“We need ways to press the case for reform without alienating our great teachers, without turning them into the enemy, the problem, and the object of our disdain. This book describes one way to celebrate, engage and empower them.”
Adam Urbanski, President of the Rochester (NY) Teachers Association, Vice President of the American Federation of Teachers, and Founding Director of the Teacher Union Reform Network wrote:
“Unleashing the collective wisdom of teachers is the best hope for improving our public schools. This provocative, sensible and practical book offers concrete evidence that it can be done and, in fact, is being done. And now that we have already tried virtually everything else, let’s do the right thing and turn teacher-run schools from the exception into the norm.”
Education Publications are Noticing
A 2015 article in NEA Today by Mary Ellen Flannery describes the transition to a TPS structure by the teachers of the Reiche Community School in Portland, Maine. Flannery wrote,
“More than five years ago, when a well-liked principal moved along to another assignment, Reiche teachers and their union, the Portland Education Association, worked with district officials to put in place an alternative governance model.”
“Simply put, the teachers took over.”
“Although the governance structure may vary among the nation’s teacher-led schools, they all have teachers with a renewed sense of purpose and professional autonomy. ‘Every teacher has a voice here,’ says kindergarten teacher, Kevin Brewster, one of the original teacher-leaders at Reiche.”
Carrie Bakken is a program coordinator and teacher at the Avalon School in St. Paul, Minn., which she has worked at since it opened in 2001. Bakken published an article in edweek about the successes at her charter school opened with a TPS governance model. She asserts:
“With this kind of autonomy for teachers, Avalon School easily retains 95-100 percent of its teachers annually. This high rate of retention allows us to build ongoing relationships with one another, our students, and their families. It allows us to implement a strategic plan and continuously improve our learning program because we know the staff will be there to do the work.
“Best of all, this framework for governance seems to benefit students. Avalon has a higher percentage of students who are proficient on math and reading state tests than the average for St. Paul Public Schools, and each year 75-80 percent of our students go on to attend a post-secondary institution. Some other teacher-led schools around the country have experienced similar success.”
In a US News & World Report article, “A School Without Principals Yes Really,” Allie Bidwell also discusses the view of school principals. He conveys:
“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.’”
“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.”
I did find a very strange article about how wonderful TPS is by Tom Van Der Arc. He praises the concept but nit-pics the term autonomous. Then for no apparent reason other than his need to sell privatizing schools and technology he writes:
”One of the exciting things about the shift to personal digital learning is the explosion of career options for learning professionals — more school models, more learning services, and more ways to contribute. In every other profession, there is a choice of working for a government services, a large private practice, a professional partnership, or as a sole practitioner. Teachers should have the same options.”
Why Isn’t TPS More Widely Embraced?
Perhaps a research paper out of the United Kingdom by Daniel Muijsa and Alma Harris points to the issue. They note that the UK is behind both the US and Australia when it comes to teacher leadership but see similar positive results emerging in the UK. The research found that high levels of engagement and involvement of staff in the developmental work of the school promoted high levels of self-esteem and a willingness among teachers to engage with new ideas. However, they reported some barriers to teacher leadership:
“The study found a wide variety of barriers to the development of teacher leadership. Three main categories emerged from the data. The first of these is the external educational context.”
“The proliferation of top-down initiatives emanating from central government was similarly viewed as stifling teacher initiative and leadership capabilities.”
“The lack of time for teachers to engage in activities outside of classroom teaching and administration appears to be a key inhibitor to teacher leadership, as it is to other educational initiatives.”
“Finally, the role of senior managers in some cases can be seen as a barrier particularly where not all senior managers are willing to relinquish control, where leadership from the head is seen as weak, or where senior managers are poor communicators.”
In February, I wrote “Education Reform Musing” in which I called for democratizing school governance. The TPS movement seems to accord exactly with my idea. And the charter schools that are embracing this philosophy appear to be making a positive contribution to public education in a way congruent with Albert Shanker’s vision.