Please, Don’t Hype Teacher-run Schools

In 1990, Terry Moe and John Chubb published Politics, Markets and American Schools. The book was a hit among business and civic leaders, policy wonks, parents, school board members, superintendents, teachers. The authors argued that the 1980s reforms–teacher empowerment, school-site management, and restructuring–would disappoint advocates because political compromises with unions and foot-dragging school bureaucracies would suck the blood out of the reforms. Rather than sizzling reforms, they would slowly fizzle. What needs to be done to make schools effective, they argued, is completely change the governance and organization of the school by giving parents the right to choose schools. If parents, particularly low-income ones, could receive government vouchers that they could take to any school they thought would be best for their children, their sons’ and daughters’ test scores, graduation rates, and capabilities to attend college would climb.

At the same time that the book came out, they published an article summarizing the book’s argument and called it: “America’s Schools: Choice Is a Panacea.” For the next five years, the book and the word “panacea” were joined at the hip, dividing political conservatives who supported vouchers from liberals who opposed them.

I am reminded of the book and the article about choice-as-a-panacea because of the recent media hoopla over teacher-run schools. Mind you, no best selling book has yet appeared that argues for replacing all schools run by principals with ones run by teachers but I would not be surprised were one to turn up. After all, the pattern in reform rhetoric for the past century has been to exaggerate the problem (American schools are broken! ) and then hype the solution (Vouchers will save the schools! Charter schools are better than regular public schools! Computers will transform teaching and learning! ).

If one lesson has been clear about the history of school reform it is that hype kills promising ideas by elevating expectations of success to such unrealistic heights that any version of the program, however implemented, is a crushing disappointment that breeds corrosive cynicism. Sure, P.T. Barnum might have been right when he said: a sucker is born every minute, but like cinema audiences get jaded by those extravagant full-page ads for blockbuster films and pumped up 3-minute, fast-moving trailers in theaters, fewer and fewer recruits for the next new school reform will enlist after having been disappointed time and again by the hype. So, the less hype the better about teacher-run schools.

One doesn’t need exaggerated claims, however, to believe that groups of teachers founding charters, taking over failing schools, or simply creating different ones is a smart idea. It is worthwhile and needs much support to spread since teachers can design, implement, and administer such schools as well as if not better than policymakers hiring high-paid consultants. After all, one doesn’t have to know too much history of U.S. public schools to remember that teachers ran their own schools when rural one-room schoolhouses prevailed a century and a half ago and before principals (remember the first ones were principal-teachers). Nonetheless, there are some facts that cannot be ignored.

First, some teacher-run schools will fly and some will crash.

Second, as these teacher-run schools get established, they will be a small (but nonetheless, important )contribution to the necessary mix of schools needed to improve urban districts. Even though Los Angeles Unified and Detroit public schools have authorized teacher-run schools there are still less than 100 across the nation (of about 100,000 public schools).

Such schools will mobilize many teachers (Teach for America graduates, deeply committed early entrants into teaching and a chunk of mid-career professionals) to form democratic cooperatives and run schools but fall far short of a majority of teachers since most teachers went into teaching to teach, not to organize and govern schools.

So what? Sure, some teacher-run schools will flop. Designing new schools and running them is as complicated and risky as starting any new venture as edupreneurs say repeatedly. And, sure, most teachers didn’t enter teaching to run schools but to teach children and youth. So these ventures will always be a small fraction of public schools.

The over-riding reason for having teachers organize and govern schools, especially in urban and rural poor districts, is that having a mix of different kinds of schools (KIPP, Green Dot, Aspire, hybrids of high-tech and traditional classrooms, cyber schools, schools that offer wraparound services, etc.) offers diverse ways of organizing, governing, and teaching children. Offering a menu of choices is both sensible and democratic when you do not know for sure which ways are best to get minority and white low-income children to learn, achieve, and succeed in school. And, the fact remains that we do not know how to school, much less educate, the diversity of low-income children that enter public schools.

So, please, no hype for teacher-run schools.

4 Comments

Filed under school reform policies

4 responses to “Please, Don’t Hype Teacher-run Schools

  1. It’s maybe interesting to have a look at the hype cycle that Gartner uses for describing hypes in the fields of technology. What you describe about inflated expectations is something that’s also very present in their basic theory.

  2. Larry and friends,

    I thought you might be interested in seeing the piece I recently wrote about the teacher-run schools in the upper Midwest. While I think that I avoid hyping the schools, there is good reason to find them organizationally interesting. These schools use resources differently than traditional district schools, they have constructed a much different praxis of teaching, and they slice up authority and responsibility differently–including assigning a good bit of responsibility for learning to the students. The full study is available at http://www.mindworkers.com

  3. Tim

    Larry,

    I find it helpful to think of teachers in professional control of their schools as a paradigm shift in management structure — which makes different behavior likely, but does not preordain the effectiveness of any changes. Your caution is important…teachers managing schools professionally is not as an end in itself…what really counts is what teachers then DO with that freedom.

    We’ve written a longer response on our blog, Education Innovating, here: http://bit.ly/cjvWFr

    Tim McDonald
    Associate, Education|Evolving

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