Are Teachers Interested in the Opportunity To Call the Shots? (Kim Farris-Berg) Part 2

Farris-Berg is lead author of Trusting Teachers with School Success: What Happens When Teachers Call the Shots. She 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.

If we made it loud and clear, in both policy and practice, that teachers can have autonomy to collectively make the decisions influencing whole school success, would any teachers take advantage?

Collective teacher autonomy isn’t for everyone. It is a working arrangement that some teachers long for, but others never imagine for themselves. Teachers who are now calling the shots in more than 50 district and chartered schools around the country describe themselves as pioneers both in the professionalization of teaching and in the modernization of schools and schooling.

Pioneering is intense and difficult work, they say, especially in an education culture that values and even manages toward “sameness.” Yet it is also enormously rewarding. The teachers report that they thrive in these environments where they work with their colleagues to make what they determine to be necessary changes and see their commitment’s positive influence on student learning.

There’s evidence that, if the opportunity was firmly on the table, many more teachers would be interested. Public Agenda tested a national sample of teachers’ attitudes toward new arrangements and reported the findings in Stand by Me: What Teachers Really Think About Unions, Merit Pay and Other Professional Matters (Farkas, Johnson and Duffet 2003). Fifty-eight percent of teachers were somewhat or very interested “in working in a [chartered] school run and managed by teachers.” Sixty-five percent of these teachers had worked less than five years, and 50 percent had worked more than 25 years.

Of course, there are also reasons why teachers currently don’t take the leap. To ask for something, you need to know about it, and many do not. Plus, among the teachers who are interested, many are afraid of what might happen to their professional reputations if they ask for authority.

Others fear getting only partial, informal authority. In these cases, teachers worry about making the time investment (in school design, school management, and lobbying school district or state leaders to adapt management practices to support teacher autonomy) only to have their authority pulled back. Teachers have seen this happen too many times before when, as the former 22-year Minneapolis Federation of Teachers President Louise Sundin puts it in Zero Change of Passage, “the bureaucracy [asked for innovation, but ultimately]…couldn’t tolerate…differences in delivery or design.”

Still more teachers have trouble imagining the arrangement’s possibilities for their own professional careers and for their students. Just ask Janesville, Wisconsin high school teacher Stephanie Davis.

A highly-qualified teacher, Stephanie got her first teaching job at the 1,780-student Craig High School. Doing everything her district and school leaders asked of her, she applied the skills and knowledge gained from her training for the good of her students. She felt proud to work at Craig, where everyone worked hard to make a great school.

So Stephanie was crushed when, like so many other teachers, she was laid off by the Janesville School District amidst state budget cuts. She hoped for another job in Janesville, and eventually district leaders assigned her to a school chartered by Janesville Public Schools called Tailoring Academics to Guide Our Students (TAGOS Leadership Academy).* But she was furious. TAGOS was known as a place full of “bad” kids. Stephanie thought, “I am a good teacher. How can I do what I was trained to do in a place like that?”

The TAGOS Leadership Academy teachers welcomed Stephanie and explained that their learning program of choice focused on individualizing learning for students, not staying on a specific track. They had requested a colleague like her so she could help realize the goal of getting each student to his or her personal next level of achievement. They had the authority to collaboratively manage the school, they said, and could make whatever changes needed.

At first Stephanie was so focused on how things usually work—and how TAGOS was breaking convention—that she failed to digest her colleagues’ request. “Then we went on winter break, and I had time to reflect on what they were asking of me,” she explained. “Suddenly I got it. I had a real opportunity at TAGOS. My voice mattered. I could lead [my colleagues]—work together with them—to create a learning program that would really change how our students learn!”

“I hadn’t really thought about how prescribed everything I was doing at Craig was,” she continued. “I had to use the prescribed book list, in the prescribed order, at the prescribed pace, using a prescribed budget. There was so little opportunity to tailor what I was doing for the individual students I was working with, whether they were far beyond or far behind. . . Here at TAGOS was a chance to do all the things I thought might work better.”

Stephanie was as nervous as she was excited. She realized that in exchange for such decision-making authority, she and her fellow teachers at TAGOS Leadership Academy would be accountable for the learning program they developed in addition to all of the other choices they made.

“It was a scary idea at first,” she said. “I hadn’t ever pictured myself in this position. But now that I’ve worked with [collective] autonomy, I realize that I was missing out on professional opportunities to [decide with my colleagues] what would work for our students. . . It’s not that I was unhappy at Craig, but this is just a much more satisfying job. I am a much better teacher for having worked in this way.”

Stephanie’s story is worth considering. How many more teachers would flourish and find more satisfaction in their jobs if we made it clear that they could have full, professional authority to make the decisions influencing school success?


*Note, some teacher groups have hiring autonomy, but TAGOS Leadership Academy teachers do not.


Filed under school leaders, school reform policies

14 responses to “Are Teachers Interested in the Opportunity To Call the Shots? (Kim Farris-Berg) Part 2

  1. Another Bob

    It is great to see the intrinsic motivation of teachers incentivized by removing the oppressive job atmosphere, but it’s just one of the pieces.
    No matter how great one teacher is, if there are three writers or scientists that did something and the one(s) she chooses to teach as exemplars (because her kids have a connection of some kind) are not chosen by the testing company, she is cooked. Upstream, accountability is attached to the system in the wrong way.

    If her students see nothing but news stories about the crushing load of debt they will have in college and no job prospects to pay it off, they will not be incentivized to succeed.

  2. We at would be interested in featuring one of your reformers – or even more, collegiately! If attracted, please contact me

    Christopher Gilmore – author of FREE SCHOOLS??? – That’s the Spirit! (Pegasus/Vanguard 2012) Cx

  3. Cal

    “Collective teacher autonomy isn’t for everyone. It is a working arrangement that some teachers long for, but others never imagine for themselves. Teachers who are now calling the shots in more than 50 district and chartered schools around the country describe themselves as pioneers both in the professionalization of teaching and in the modernization of schools and schooling.”

    I think you’ve been very open to the comments, so please take this in the spirit intended: you do realize that you are saying, here, “This isn’t for everyone. Some teachers just aren’t able to imagine themselves pioneering, professionalizing teaching, and modernizing schools and schooling.” Implied, but not said: “The poor slobs. The rest of us awesome folk who have the vision to imagine will have to drag these schlubs along until they catch up.”

    “Teacher-led schools” require enforcement of ONE vision that the group all buys in to. It doesn’t allow for autonomy, independence, or disagreement. It has nothing to do with professionalization, modernization, or even calling the shots. It’s for people who all agree with one another and are willing to be sure they only hire other yay-sayers.

  4. Cal, There is plenty of autonomy, independence, and disagreement in the schools — as you will see if you read Trusting Teachers or speak to the teachers who work in these arrangements. Teachers do work toward/with a shared vision, however, and are willing to do that **because** they have the ability to express dissent and to see their ideas put into practice if the ideas originally agreed upon by the group do not work. (Just like other professionals work.)

    There is an increasingly narrow vision in our current system. A narrowing vision for every student. A narrowing vision for the way teachers work. Trusting teachers might bring about more than one vision. Indeed, it already is.

    Regarding your “poor slobs” inference I intended to imply exactly the opposite of what you suggest. If teachers don’t want to take this on (for any number of reasons), they shouldn’t have to. Not everyone (including great teachers!) wants to call the shots and act as a pioneer. But the teachers who do should have the opportunity. Dragging people along or coercing people would be a very slow route to change.

    Two strategies can work in parallel (two bets at improvement are better than one). People are welcome to work at improvement in conventional arrangements. But, let’s not assume we **must** work within conventional arrangements as we seek to improve schools and schooling.

    • Kim and Cal:

      I agree that the implication is “not” that if you aren’t with us, you must not be good enough to be one of us. I had commented on an earlier post something to the effect: that if all teachers are forced into this scenario, it will obviously not be successful. Those who have a pioneering spirit and are willing to put all their chips into something they believe in, which is hopefully educationally sound, are a different breed to be sure. They are stuck in the system of sameness; they are downtrodden by others when trying to excel, improve, or simply try out something new; they need to explore possibilities. This is definitely not all teachers, nor possibly very many.

      Additionally, any effective school ought to have one vision. That is not fundamentally opposed to individuality and differentiation amongst teaching style, etc., especially if the shared vision is one of taking risks to do what those before you have failed to accomplish. If you have any experience with schools who have adopted prescribed curriculums (the other end of this spectrum in many ways), it is an anti-educational mess.

      The status quo is not working in many places in this country, and while every solution is not a good one, this one seems to be sound. We teachers often complain about the bureaucracy – if this eliminates some of that while acheiving positive results, then it is certainly worth further exploration in my opinion.

  5. “Sixty-five percent of these teachers had worked less than five years, and 50 percent had worked more than 25 years.”

    Is this a misprint or am I confused?

  6. In a pessemistic light, I would also like to acknowledge that just because you have a teacher-run program does not mean it will be successful. Simply trying new things does not lead to high acheivement with certainty. Charter schools are the perfect example of this type of thinking – there are many, many, many, many horrible charter schools out there. It doesn’t mean the concept is bad, but it does not work for every situation. I am all for exploring new approaches, especially when the old has failed to work. However, like NCLB, just because some schools are failing, we do not need to change all schools. That was a major mistake in thinking and has done much to ruin modern American education.

  7. Brett — Trusting Teachers is clear that autonomy is not a source of high-performing cultures. Instead, autonomy provides the opportunity for teachers to use their discretion to choose or invent ways of operating that emulate the cultural characteristics of high-performing organizations.

    Thank you for your thinking on this. And for reblogging.

    Finally, thank you for catching my error! I was trying to simplify language while sick and that was a mistake. It should read, “This included 65 percent of the teachers surveyed who had worked less than five years and 50 percent of the teachers surveyed who had worked more than 20 years.”

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

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