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Getting school choice right: Cultivating student-centered learning in teacher-powered schools

Over the last decade or so, debates over school choice have intensified as views have diverged on how best to improve public education in America.

I am not about to review all of the evidence about the merits of traditional public schools versus charter schools (and their many variations) or vouchers. But let me say, as many other scholars have as well, that the research is clear:

“There is very little evidence that charter and traditional public schools differ meaningfully in their average impact on students’ standardized test performance.” 

Some critics of public education claim that (mostly unregulated) competition, spurred on by options for parents to choose a private, public, or charter school for their children, will lead to better academic outcomes for students. But as economist Henry M. Levin just noted in the U.S. News & World Report, there is scant evidence to support that claim. This holds especially true for voucher programs, where parents rarely, if ever, receive enough government support to send their students to the best private academies. Recent efforts to put public schooling up for grabs in the open, unregulated marketplace have led to gross examples of fraud and mismanagement—for example, in Los Angeles, California; throughout Ohio; and in Detroit, Michigan, where "A Sea of [unregulated] Charter Schools ... Leaves Students Adrift."

Granted, there are some very good charter schools, and some are the best schools in their communities. I often turn to the example of Summit Public Schools in Redwood City, CA, where administrators and teachers work together, outside of the boundaries of typical school bureaucracies, to fuel powerful innovations in teaching and learning. That said, studies have shown that charters often “skim” the best students from the pool, and that they are more likely to suspend black students and students with disabilities. Furthermore, it’s difficult to evaluate measures of academic achievement in traditional public schools and charters when the schools being compared do not teach and test the same types of students.

But as polling data suggests, parents want choice. I sure did for my kids when they were in school. And as my colleague and friend Linda Darling-Hammond said to me recently,

All schools should be worth choosing, and all students must be able to choose good schools.

Unfortunately, the merits of school choice are clouded by a lack of clear definitions of the various approaches playing out in today's educational landscape. I see several versions of choice currently being proposed:

  1. Privatize public education, as schooling is a private commodity, not a public good.
  2. Disrupt public education from outside of traditional schools, since current administrators and teachers are not able to reform it themselves.
  3. Transform teaching and learning from inside of public education, with the many talented teachers (and administrators) working closely with the parents and students from the communities they serve.

There is no better example of the third approach than the nascent Teacher-Powered Schools (TPS) movement currently bubbling up around the country. These schools are inspired by students and their learning needs, and they are collaboratively designed by those who work with students most closely—the teachers. Some TPS have a principal, but some do not. Whether or not they have a principal, all TPS provide teachers with the autonomy to make decisions in a wide variety of areas that fuel school improvement, like building curriculum, designing student assessments, hiring and evaluating colleagues, leading professional development, and determining how to allocate resources. 

There are over 110 of these schools in the United States, which are “driven by teachers and their connection to students,” as Jeff Austin of Social Justice Humanitas Academy (SJHA) has noted. Textbooks and scripted curriculum are rarely, if ever, used in TPS. Instead students work on projects relevant to their lives; they conduct research studies and write reports like scientists; and in many schools, if funding can be secured, they engage in painting, drawing, graphic art, and animation as well as electrical engineering and web design.

Teachers make the tough budget decisions—based not on what is needed to increase a standardized test score, but on how to enhance the lives of their students. Period.

This is why 85 percent of the American public believes that schools run by teachers are a good idea.

CTQ and our partner Education Evolving just hosted our second annual national conference, highlighting the accomplishments of teachers and administrators who are leading school reform from the inside out. Take a look at Charles Kerchner's erudite observations from the conference, which he shared in Education Week, On California.

Over 275 educators from 22 states attended this year's TPS Conference—with 75 percent of them from so-called traditional district schools and the other 25 percent from the non-profit charter sector. We welcomed more than 40 teams of three, including teachers, administrators, and even a few school board members.

The conference was designed to support those who have already developed high-achieving TPS and those who are in the process of creating their own, while also inspiring and informing those who are just beginning the process of inside-out school reform.  We were able to take awesome field trips to the RFK Community Schools as well as SJHA. Both of these schools serve extreme high-poverty neighborhoods in Los Angeles and have stunning graduate rates—over 95 percent (compared to the national average of 72 percent). The UCLA Community School, one of six campuses at RFK, serves mostly ELL students, and has had a 33-percent increase in dual-language proficiency since it opened six years ago.

Located smack dab in the middle of two rival gang territories, SJHA has an astonishingly low suspension rate (0.2 percent last year), and virtually all students (more than 93 percent) and parents (95 percent) report their school is safe. Both of these schools nurture students while also pushing them to excel academically.

At the conference, I heard a roomful of SJHA graduates who are now attending UCLA tell their stories. One shared, "I have all these teachers who have not given up on me. How can I give up on myself?" And another said, "I am most grateful for our teachers and administrators—all have helped me become a leader."

Because of the role teachers play as leaders in TPS, they are able to teach their students by example and to make a powerful, long lasting impact.

My colleague Lori Nazareno, who co-created a TPS in Denver eight years ago, has taught me much about teacher leadership. In a recent reflection, Lori wrote:

Teacher-powered innovations allow students to see just that—significant adults modeling the types of skills and dispositions that students need to develop. When teachers experience conditions that allow them to problem solve, question the status quo, and develop solutions to their own challenges, they create these conditions for the students they serve.

Now these are schools worth choosing—and all students should have the choice to be a part of them. Parents and students have choice in the TPS environment, and so do their teachers. In choosing Teacher-Powered Schools, we as a society put the public good back in public education.

2 Comments

Peggy Romero commented on February 16, 2017 at 1:34pm:

Review

Today there are many online educational portals that hve started beneficial programs for the young ones as well where they engage their parents in dynamic primary socialization elements that play a vital role. Madison Hills University

Kendra Brecka commented on May 7, 2017 at 6:32pm:

Agreed

I agree with you completely when you say that all schools should be worth choosing, and I love that you give a solution to the problem at hand. We can talk all day about how unfair policies such as vouchers can be to low-income students living in rural areas, or how it is unconstiutional and defeats the first amendment, but providing the information about TPS is so helpful, I knew nothing about TPS before reading this post! Thank you!

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