Can We Trust Teachers To Successfully Manage Whole Schools? (Kim Farris-Berg) Part 1

Can we trust teachers with authority to manage whole schools? Would teachers even want the opportunity to manage schools? And, when they are in the position to manage schools, will it make any difference in student achievement? Kim Farris-Berg explores these questions in this three-part guest blog .

 Farris-Berg is a Senior Associate with Education Evolving, a policy design shop based in St. Paul, Minnesota, and an independent education policy strategist. Her Twitter handle is @farrisberg.

Everyone knows that many K-12 public schools are not producing desired results. The big question is: how will we improve them? The dominant assertion today is that if we can just get better at telling teachers what to do, and how to do it, then improvement will follow. In this climate, “getting tough” with teachers appears to be the only solution. Fortunately for those of us not fond of one-bet strategies,   other assertions are entering the discussion. One of these assertions is that trusting teachers, and not controlling them, is the key to school success.

Some policymakers and education leaders in states and school districts are granting groups of teachers who request it collective autonomy to make the decisions influencing whole school success. These groups of teachers have the opportunity to choose—even invent—the learning methods and job structures they think will best improve learning for the students in their schools.

My colleagues and I recently studied what teachers in 11 of these groups do with their authority and published our findings in a book called Trusting Teachers with School Success: What Happens When Teachers Call the Shots (R&L Education 2012).

We contemplated for some time how we would determine whether teachers who call the shots make “good” governance decisions. The central question of any improvement strategy is whether it has the potential to achieve superior results. Ideally we’d want to know what strategies prepare students to lead successful lives, from an individual and societal point of view. But there are not any empirical measurements for this sort of “real life” result, so we needed a proxy for evaluating the potential of the choices autonomous teachers make.

We considered numerous research approaches and decided that a reasonable proxy for whether a school has the potential to achieve superior results ought to be associated with the characteristics of high-performing organizations. According to our review of literature, organizations are considered “high-performing” if they achieve results that are better than their peers over a period of time. By inference, their cultural characteristics are associated with success. It makes logical sense that autonomous teachers’ choices are good if they emulate these characteristics.

We gleaned nine cultural characteristics of high-performing organizations from the literature and used the detailed findings about each to develop survey and interview instruments that examined autonomous teachers’ approaches and behaviors in each area. We found that teachers who call the shots do emulate these characteristics and that their most prominent practices flow from their cultivation of the characteristics.

When teachers have collective autonomy to make the decisions influencing school success, they:

     1. Accept ownership. They welcome authority and responsibility for making decisions. When they make the decisions, they are willing to accept accountability for outcomes.

2. Innovate. They take risks to try creative new things, challenge old processes, and continuously adapt. Here’s an example: Autonomous teachers often group students by skill and not by age—that is, if students work in groups at all. Many students direct their own learning in consultation with teachers, even peers, as appropriate.

3. Share purpose. They co-create their schools’ mission, vision, values, and goals. They say this is the reason why they buy in. Purpose statements aren’t just words, but the basis of their collective decision-making. In the 11 schools, teachers’ shared purpose always focused on students as individuals.

4. Collaborate. They participate in collaboration and leadership for the good of the whole school, not just a classroom. Their cultures are characterized by consultation, listening, being open to different opinions, working together, and mutual respect.

5. Lead effectively. Many teachers want to focus on learning and not administration, so they select principals and lead teachers to handle these duties. These leaders are seen as accountable to, and in service to, the group of teachers that is responsible and accountable for school success. Teacher autonomy puts in motion an entirely different structure of accountability.

    6. Function as learners. Their cultures are characterized by a sense of common challenge and discovery, rather than a culture in which experts impart information.

7. Avoid insularity. They are influenced by students, parents, youth culture, and technology trends. They are less influenced by leaders in business, future educational institutions, unions, and school districts. Teachers say these leaders’ decisions are often barriers to their innovations.

8. Engage and motivate one another and their students. They put students in a position to be active, ongoing learners.

9. Assess performance. They set and measure progress toward goals and act upon results to improve performance. They use peer evaluation and encourage coaching and mentoring colleagues to ensure continuous improvement. They focus on students’ individual learning growth and expect students to achieve in areas beyond academics.

These promising results suggest it’s time to trust teachers. The next question is, would teachers be interested in the opportunity to call the shots? Part II will explore the answer.


Filed under school leaders, school reform policies

22 responses to “Can We Trust Teachers To Successfully Manage Whole Schools? (Kim Farris-Berg) Part 1

  1. The Free Schools initiative in the UK is rapidly expanding and recent work has required my researching many of the varied voluntary groups doing all the hard work needed to get a new school off the ground. I think it’s intriguing that when you look, one after another is clearly being driven by experienced teachers.

    • larrycuban

      Is part of the Free Schools initiative, teacher-run schools?

      • The UK government are encouraging all sorts of interested, voluntary groups to form new Free Schools, and because of union opposition to Free Schools, they have made much of ones that are clearly teacher-led. What I’ve noticed, is that even groups which would not publicly describe themselves as “teachers” often have teachers behind the scenes doing much of the conceptual, design work around vision, curriculum etc.

  2. Aren’t school principals and assistant principles all former teachers? If so, then don’t we already have teacher-run schools?

    • Far too often, from my experience, many principals and assistant principals are really managers who “did their time” in the classroom. Usually, there is a 3-year minimum, and then they go for the bigger responsibility, bigger money, and less interaction with whole classes of students and the responsibilities related to that.

  3. Terrific, Joe. I will take a look. That is important work. Our work, and the work of Charles Kerchner, calls for development of an infrastructure of information that will support teachers who take on this work. Many believe they are the only ones, and many come to the same decisions about their work (which means that sharing can and should happen!). Education Evolving and the Center for Teaching Quality have been dabbling in this, and hope to grow the work. See

  4. Hello, Tom. Our work doesn’t set out to discredit the good work of so many school principals and assistant principals. Instead it explores what would happen if we were to give teachers all the professional opportunities afforded to people in other professions (where the professionals control the activity). A current major national discussion is about how we can get quality teachers. In addition to all the ideas on the table, why not also consider how to make teaching the kind of job that will attract the best?

  5. Great post, Larry! I was so inspired that I emailed several of my Arlington Public Schools colleagues, asking them to please read this and telling them that it has always been my dream to work in a school where I could work with colleagues to make decisions that really matter about our school.

  6. Pingback: In the Margins of the School Landscape | bachwords

  7. Cal

    “Everyone knows that many k-12 public schools are not producing desired results. The big question is: how will we improve them?”

    While “everyone” may know that they aren’t producing “desired results”, but many many people think the problem is not with the schools, but with the desires. That is, the trick is to accept the schools can’t be improved until the desires are adjusted to something realistic.

    I would not be interested in working in a school where teachers run things. The schools only work when the teacher community is a clique or a cult, both of which are bad for teachers who don’t want to be part of either.

  8. Pingback: Can We Trust Teachers To Successfully Manage Whole Schools? (Kim Farris-Berg) Part 1 | Educacion, ecologia y TIC |

  9. Cal, You are welcome to pursue improvement in the way you’d prefer. And, as you say, autonomy w/ accountability won’t be for all teachers. But the teachers who would like to try their hand at running schools should have the opportunity.

  10. Cal, it’s also possible that trusting teachers is a path to realistic expectations. I certainly saw teachers define achievement differently than states do.

  11. Hey Kim,

    I’m wondering if you could define what you see as the “desired results” and “success” in schools. I think those terms and many others that we often use in these conversations (i.e. “achievement”, “performance” etc.) mean different things to different people. Unless we’re clear on what those mean, it’s hard to talk about change.

  12. This will seem obvious, but I think you can and should trust teachers who are trustworthy. That will always work. Just throwing together any group of teachers and expecting them to run a school will probably not work.

    I have personally observed a teacher-run school that was pretty successful at meeting its goals. However, time tends to ruin good things. If the teachers who were all-in in the beginning of the process stick together, things can have a good run, but when there are new hires, outside influences, etc. that wheedle their way into the mix, there may be break downs.

    Many of the best schools have very strong teacher influence anyway.

    I would also suggest that school size most likely would play a huge role in the possibility of success. The more cooks there are… A strong team of 2-4 per department can probably be successful, but beyond that I envision too many opportunities for dissention. Of course, with PLCs and strong school relationships, that may be overcome as well.

  13. Will,

    I agree. In fact, in Trusting Teachers we state that there is not an agreed-upon definition of what students should know and be able to do when they graduate. We don’t print mean proficiency scores in the book — and this is one of the reasons (I will get into that in Part III of my guest posts).

    I am not qualified to define desired results and success. The suggestion in this book is that teachers have the capacity to lead the defining within their schools, and (if others follow the same pattern of the teachers in the book) for the individual students within their schools. From there we can watch for patterns… Teachers will replicate others’ good choices…

    States, and perhaps the federal government, could require a particular (in my opinion, it should be basic) level of education for graduation. But from there the people who are doing the work (that is, the teachers and students) should have much more involvement.

    You and Cal have me thinking… Perhaps I chose the wrong (distracting) words for the opening sentence here. Thank you for the opportunity to improve on getting the point across.

    One more thing, re: success, My colleagues and I suggest that teachers’ choices in managing their schools can be associated with the cultural characteristics of high performing organizations. Later I learned William Ouchi of UCLA did the same when he studied school autonomy outcomes.

    We need to take care with the measuring stick, here. If we’re looking to see if teachers can/do manage things the same way education managers do now then what’s the point? There are surely more ways to look at what teachers do and whether they are successful. My colleagues and I suggest one way. The teachers themselves are doing some of this work (again, Part III). Innovation will require us to think on this.

  14. Brett, Thank you for your keen insights.

    School boards and charter school authorizers could ensure that any group of teachers approved to have this authority would be qualified to handle the work. In the position of real responsibility and accountability for school success, teachers would also have the incentive, reason, and opportunity to regulate quality within their profession.

    And, in Trusting Teachers we suggest that teachers should opt in/ask for it. We do not advocate mandated switches.

    Whether or not this could work in larger settings is tough to say. That question seems equally applicable to any group managing schools.

  15. Reblogged this on RootingForMathEducation and commented:
    Interesting: opportunities for teachers to run the schools!

  16. Pingback: Can We Trust Teachers To Successfully Manage Whole Schools? (Kim Farris-Berg) Part 1 | Personal [e-]Learning Environments |

  17. Pingback: Thing 2b: More Further Reading on Teacher Led Schools - The Rockpile

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