Can a teacher-led approach turn around a struggling school?

Sunday, August 7, 2011 at 10:05pm
JereBaxterMain.jpg
Jude Ferrara (SouthComm) 

Bureaucracy seems as central to public schools as textbooks, chalkboards and desks. Students look to teachers for guidance; instructors and faculty fall under the domain of principals; and those school administrators operate below a higher superintendent. 

The hierarchy can be inflexible. 

But at one of Metro’s 144 schools — East Nashville’s Jere Baxter Middle School, a place with all the inherent challenges of educating an urban student population — teachers are overhauling the system and taking administrative duties into their own hands. 

For the past few months, instructors at Jere Baxter have helped bring a teacher-led system to the historically low-performing middle school, a transition that came at the behest of the local teachers’ union and followed group trips to Denver and Los Angeles, where educators watched teacher-run schools operate firsthand. 

It’s a scheme growing in popularity within some school systems, but Metro is just now dabbling in the experiment, with Jere Baxter set to become the district’s first teacher-led school. What it all means is that teachers — not a principal acting unilaterally — are to make budgetary, hiring, scheduling, disciplinary and other decisions in a democratic process. The new format isn’t supposed to officially kick in until the 2012-2013 school year, but after a summer of teacher-committee meetings designed to pilot the transformation, those involved say the teachers have already changed the chain of command. 

“In my opinion, we’re pretty much a teacher-led school now,” said Michelle Greenfield, a sixth-grade math teacher at Jere Baxter, who sits on the school’s nine-member teacher leadership team. She called the arrangement an “overthrowing of traditional hierarchy.” 

The school has an interim principal, Corey Walker, but an elected governing committee of teachers collaborates with him. Just as much weight for the implementation of a new school policy is given to that team as the principal — a sort of checks-and-balances system. Teachers have also organized various committees to deal with disciplinary issues, as well as parental and community outreach. 

Walker, formerly assistant principal at Jere Baxter, seems like the odd man out in such a structure. Nonetheless, he said he supports the approach. 

“It’s not a new philosophy by any means,” Walker said. “As opposed to a top-down model, we’re using a bottom-up model — a transverse or lateral model — to have administrators and teachers work collaboratively together to improve the organization.” 

Teacher-led schools across the country look different. Some have principals, others do not; some designate specific teachers to carry out certain functions. Shared decision-making is the common thread. Before next school year, teachers at Jere Baxter will decide whether they’re best served with a principal or without one. Walker said he doesn’t feel threatened by potentially losing his job. 

Already, Jere Baxter teachers have taken on a great deal of authority: The school’s physical education teacher, for example, recently spearheaded the interviewing process to fill several seventh-grade teaching openings. 

“Basically, we’re trying to build leadership capacity within our teachers, having teachers take ownership and responsibility for tasks that have typically been given to just a select group of people,” Greenfield said. “In a traditional school, the principal can listen to peoples’ ideas, but at the end of the day, that person has final say. The way we’ve organized things in our school, the plan at least, is to have a more democratic process. My opinion counts the same as our principal’s.” 

The teacher-led approach wouldn’t be happening at Jere Baxter if not for its student-achievement woes. The school, situated near Dickerson Road, is part of Metro’s new so-called “innovation zone,” composed of 10 schools that have continually failed to meet federal No Child Left Behind testing benchmarks. Jere Baxter — which has a decidedly transient student body, 83 percent minority, with nearly 100 percent considered economically disadvantaged — falls within “Restructuring II’ of the federal law, a category that allows for alternative governance. Schools within Metro’s new cluster were announced last week. 

Jere Baxter is one of three within Metro’s new low-performing school zone already undertaking a transformation centered on a specific niche. Cameron Middle School started last week as a revamped charter school, while Glencliff High School has tapped a new academic principal to work alongside a principal who performs traditional administrative duties. 

Metro has also hired British-based Tribal Group Inc. to a five-year, $6 million contract to help advance other reform efforts within the new cluster. If the teacher-led model succeeds at Jere Baxter, officials could duplicate it at other struggling schools. 

“It’s ownership and empowerment,” said the central office’s Alan Coverstone, recently named the new director of the innovation zone. “If you are responsible for your improvement journey, and you are on the line for that, it’s a lot easier to hold you accountable because you care so much about it, you have such a deep investment in it, and you have the flexibility that you need to respond to the challenges that you face.” 

The idea of launching a teacher-led school here came when leaders of the Metro Nashville Education Association, the local teachers’ union, approached Director of Schools Jesse Register last fall. From there, union representatives and others traveled to Denver to visit teacher-led schools. Others later ventured to Los Angeles for the same reason. 

Metro’s teacher-led approach — a collaboration between MNEA and the administration — comes on the heels of the Tennessee state legislature’s approval of a new law that seeks to curb the union’s ability to collectively bargain. For some teachers, the law has only exacerbated low morale within their profession, as politicians and others increasingly point to them as the reason schools fail. In that context, empowering teachers to lead schools seems to buck that trend. 

“This is a program, or an idea, that has been very successful,” said Stephen Henry, president of the union. “The frustration that many teachers have oftentimes is that they know what needs to be done, but there are limitations put on how that can happen.”

Henry, who took over as the union’s president in July, suggested the teacher-led approach could serve as a tool to attract more seasoned, high-performing teachers to a school that could use them. 

“What has happened in other places is that it has attracted your national board-certified teachers, and those who are at the top of the game, because they got into the game because they wanted to make a difference in the first place,” he said. “It’s creating that dynamic and that culture within the structure of
the school.” 

But while it’s one thing to give teachers more control over the daily operations of a school, it’s arguably an entirely different battle to turn around a low-performing school. 

In Boston’s school district, a partnership with a nonprofit has enabled some struggling schools to offer more leadership opportunities to teachers, as well as enhanced peer collaboration. The program, according to a recent report in Education Week, has improved teacher retention and attracted more quality teachers, adding stability in places where teachers had often left shortly after arriving. 

Still, even education experts who support teacher-led schools stop short of arguing this ground-up approach can improve student test scores. Rather, it can serve as one piece to the puzzle. Jere Baxter’s teachers believe it’s an important piece. 

“At the end of the day, a school building is just teachers in classrooms educating kids,” Greenfield said. “It really is that simple. The people who know the most about what’s going on with the children oftentimes have the least amount of say about what’s happening in their own building.” 

Assuming more ownership, she said, allows teachers to identify issues that keep students from advancing and help solve the problems. “We’re given the freedom to make choices, instead of things happening to us.”  

7 Comments on this post:

By: richgoose on 8/8/11 at 1:09

Everyone knows that the best chef in world is only as good as his or her ingriedents.

By: govskeptic on 8/9/11 at 7:56

Education attempts to re-invent the wheel every 10 yrs! One would think with 50
states and thousands of schools systems trying all these different curriculum's and
other teaching methods over many yrs there would be some universal truths in
educating all grade levels. That does not seem to be the answer at this point and
frankly with all the different influences on public education and society ills do not
see light at the end of this deep and expensive tunnel!

By: bfra on 8/9/11 at 1:52

Does that mean we could have saved 6.5 million by just letting teachers have more authority?

By: pswindle on 8/9/11 at 3:24

Teachers can teach and students can learn if you do not tie their hands. Give back their Collective Bargaining!

By: Balo on 8/9/11 at 8:10

Ms Greenfield is correct that at the end of the day it is about teachers educating the students. However, the attempt to get to the end of the day with this concept is asking too much. I feel that for the long run this program is a big hat no cattle method.

The reach for an idea by these teachers strongly reflects on the administration at the school or even at the administration at the Board. To me, it sends the message, which many of us know, that there is a serious problem in staffing schools with top flight administrators. With current questionable developments and different approaches to education, all point to the fact that the Superintendent and the Board of Education does not have total ownership of the situation and a definite plan to education the students of this community. It is obvious that there is not a stand up leader.

Unless, a strong leader with conviction emerges, Ms Greenfield will never get to the end of the day.

By: BigPapa on 8/10/11 at 7:13

You cant make chicken salad out of chicken $hit.

By: Amy Junge on 8/11/11 at 11:24

I work with Education|Evolving, an education policy research organization, studying schools with teacher autonomy. We have an online inventory, http://www.educationevolving.org/teacherpartnerships/inventory, that describes different autonomy arrangements, lists schools with teacher autonomy around the country, and explains the 10 areas of autonomy we look at when researching schools. A timeline of teacher autonomy is available on our site at: http://www.educationevolving.org/teacherpartnerships/evolution-of-teacher-autonomy. There are many schools that do this well and accept accountability for the students at their schools.