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 principals and 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 called principal-teachers). Nonetheless, there are some facts that cannot be ignored.
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 :Os Angeles, Detroit, and other districts have authorized teacher-run schools there are still less than 100 across the nation (of about 100,000 public schools). This is where the mouse and hippo enters the picture.
New schools including charters come from policymakers who decide that such schools can alter what usually occurs in traditional schools. Politicians and policymakers create most schools. The hippo. And teacher-run schools, the mouse, will always be small in comparison but, as in the Mike Twohy story, can be both a friend and a guide to “good” schooling.
Such teacher-led schools will mobilize many teachers (Teach for America graduates, deeply committed novices and a chunk of mid-career professionals) and parents to form democratic cooperatives (mostly charters) and run schools but fall far short of a majority of teachers–there are over 3.5 million in the U.S.–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. Failure is common. And, sure, most teachers didn’t enter teaching to run schools but to teach children and youth. So these ventures, like homeschooling and charters, 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, magnets, cyber schools, community schools that offer wraparound services, etc.) offers diverse ways of organizing and governing schools with possibilities for teaching children differently and well.
Offering a menu of choices is sensible when you do not know for sure which ways are best to get minority and 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.
A menu of choices is democratic when different definitions of “good” schools compete with one another. To many parents and policymakers, a traditional school–a “real” one–is “good.” That is, students in each grade determined by age, one credentialed teacher in a classroom, students sitting in desks, same state curriculum, bells ending lessons, textbooks, homework, testing, and after school clubs and sports.
To other parents, a teacher-led school that organizes itself around multi-age groups with similar performance levels who work on student-generated projects that probe deeply into content and skills cam be “good.” And even other parents and teachers judge schools to be “good” that seek social justice by problem-solving and working closely with community groups. There are even other parents who see cyber-schools as “good” because each student can work at his or her pace and meet performance objectives.
Both sensible and democratic, the creation of alternative schools can (and has) become experimental laboratories for the vast majority of public schools to borrow and implement new ideas. Teacher-led schools add to the menu of potential “good” schools in the two-century old decentralized system of U.S. public schools.