Four years ago, Francis Parkman Middle School was spiraling downward with plummeting enrollment, abysmal test scores and notoriety for unruliness. Then teachers stepped out of the classroom and took charge of the school.
Today, the rechristened Woodland Hills Academy, named for the school’s suburban location north of Los Angeles, is run by a teacher-controlled committee where the principal carries the same weight as a teacher and the district has minimal say in operations.
Test scores are up 18 percent and enrollment has spiked more than 30 percent. The model works, teachers say, because everyone from the principal to the janitor is vested in the outcome. “Everybody has a stake,” said teacher Bruce Newborn. “We all suffer and we all win.”
Fed up with being blamed for failing students, classroom teachers from Boston to Los Angeles are taking over their schools in a small but growing trend in the education reform movement.
Proponents say teachers can turn floundering schools into flourishing ones if allowed the freedom to innovate to meet the needs of their students. That means allowing teachers to hire who they want, spend funds as they see fit, and customize everything from curriculum to calendar — as long as they meet state and federal mandates.
“The current system constrains teachers quite significantly — teachers are one stop on the assembly line,” said Tim McDonald, associate at Education Evolving, an education-reform nonprofit. “It’s the system that’s causing the failure, not the teachers.”
But the jury is still out on whether teacher-leaders really turn around troubled schools.
Student achievement has been mixed, according to a recent study by Claremont Graduate University education professor Charles Kerchner. “No one has yet reached a definitive answer to how well teacher-run schools perform,” Kerchner stated.
How smoothly teachers can run a school is also a question mark. Leadership by consensus often leads to slower decision-making, especially with people inexperienced in the substantial administrative work operating a school entails.
“I’m skeptical it’s going to be a solution of scale,” said Michael Petrilli, executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education policy research institute. “With great teachers and a strong model, you can pull it off, but it’s really hard.”
Independent charter schools run by teacher groups have been around for several decades, but a new teacher-led model is emerging on a wider scale that gives teachers more power and schools more autonomy. Some, like Woodland Hills, retain principals but reduce their authority; some eschew principals altogether.
This hybrid model has found a powerful torchbearer — teachers unions, which have been eager to find a way to push back against largely non-unionized charters and reformers who point the finger at unions as protectors of the status quo.
The American Federation of Teachers, and unions in Boston, Denver, Milwaukee, Minneapolis and Los Angeles are throwing their muscle behind teacher-led models.