What do students experience when teachers can lead and learn deeply? Peek inside Social Justice Humanitas Academy (Los Angeles Unified School District)—and find out how we can seize opportunities to take deeper learning to scale.

Social Justice Humanitas Academy (SJHA) serves a high-poverty Los Angeles neighborhood and yields powerful student outcomes. What makes a difference at this teacher-powered high school? SJHA puts into practice many of the not-so-secret secrets of top-performing nations.

SJHA and others took advantage of the dysfunctional and vitriolic debates between district and charter schools in Los Angeles to quietly carve out an alternative approach. SJHA relies on teachers’ collective autonomy to adapt instruction, not on rigid curriculum or high-stakes testing, to ensure educational excellence and equity. It also relies on teacher leadership and peer reviews of practice, not punitive (and test-based) evaluations of individual teachers to guarantee high-quality teaching.

What students see…

Social Justice Humanitas Academy

Recently, my colleague Lori Nazareno visited SJHA—trying to find out how students think their school facilitates deeper learning. Speaking in awe of the connections between their coursework, students offered Lori a number of reasons why the interdisciplinary units crafted by their teachers work well: they aid memory, focus attention, and contribute to a richer understanding of multiple perspectives. And they emphasized the relevance of the school’s college-prep, “thinking” curriculum to their lives.

A student recalled one of the first interdisciplinary units she experienced at the school: “In 9th grade, we were learning what a catalyst is in science, and in English, we were learning about activists and how they’re catalysts for change. And one thing I remember…. Our English teacher was always helping us learn about what it means to be a catalyst for change and how we can make a difference in our community…. That has stuck with me, how I can be a catalyst for change.

Her classmate agreed, explaining that thanks to the unit, he realized that he was a catalyst in his own community: “Like for me, I’ll be the first in my whole block to graduate high school. And actually to go to college as well. And there’s a bunch of little kids on that block. Hopefully, seeing me go to college gives them hope somehow that they could do it and get out of this place…. There are a bunch of catalysts and they’re not always the ones speaking.”

A third student added that teachers were really trying to “set up the culture of the school,” and that the catalyst unit, offered to entering ninth graders, strengthened their efforts: “It really makes you think about what kind of person you are, the kind of person you would be, based on the decisions you make.”

The students see a clear link between the deeper learning they experience and the time their teachers spend collaborating. They explained that their teachers are in “constant communication” but that the team meetings are when they “make their secret plans” and ensure that projects are “in sync.”

Investments that make deeper learning possible

Behind what SJHA students see as in-sync projects are:

  • Teachers who hold each other accountable for effective teaching practice;
  • Teacher teams who develop and score more authentic student assessments of deeper learning; and
  • A principal, José Navarro, who is a fierce advocate for his teaching colleagues and a firm believer in community schools because of the barriers to learning that poverty poses.

But unless our nation invests more in public education, there are limits to what this school (and others like it) can accomplish.

SJHA is dramatically underfunded, with less than $6,000 to spend per pupil. (There are dramatic differences in spending in California school districts, with studies showing that some spend more than three times than others on district instructional expenditures.) And the district’s pilot schools do not have outside investors (as many local charter chains do). The school does employ about 28 teachers and other support providers for its 510 students, and has created hybrid positions in order to leverage more teacher leadership. And because of its teacher-powered model, SJHA teachers have developed a sense of collective agency and trust that inspires them to be persistent.

Yet the funding situation presents undeniable difficulties: As Navarro told us: “We still have students who fail. I still have students who have needs I can’t meet. We can’t do it alone. [Our] students need all the resources their community can offer.”

And even SJHA, of course, is just one relatively small school. How can deeper learning be made available to more students, through their teachers’ leadership, at scale? Technology, often cited as the silver bullet to personalize learning for students, as Larry Cuban has noted for some time, only presents us with tools. (There is no better example than the Los Angeles Unified School District that technology is no panacea.)

If any single factor is central to deeper learning, it is not the integration of technology but the involvement of teachers who have both pedagogical expertise and a thorough understanding of students, families, and communities.

Not long ago, Stacey Childress of the New Schools Venture Fund, along with several coauthors, noted that most reform agendas, including education technologies, have not made the difference their proponents had promised. They argue that, in the future, policymakers need to invest more and differently in students and those who teach them: “Teachers often relish the opportunity to innovate and serve their students better, but struggle to reconcile new approaches with existing requirements—not to mention limited time and resources.”

Opportunities to seize for students’ sake

So what can we do to support and advance the powerful teacher leadership found at SJHA? First of all, our society needs to invest more in high-needs schools so that students from diverse backgrounds have opportunities to engage in deeper learning. Other schools in California can spend as much as $18,000 per student, which allows them to invest more in high-quality teaching and learning.

But that’s not all. Teaching and learning policy must capitalize on the potential of teacher leaders. The good news? I see three shifts we can seize as opportunities:

  1. New state accountability systems, framed by the recently enacted federal Every Students Succeeds Act, will position teachers to play key roles in designing and scoring authentic assessments that will place a greater value on deeper learning and their expertise;
  2. Policymakers and administrators are learning more about how top-performing nations invest in teacher leaders (and about the flattening of traditional hierarchical organizations in the private sector), which will create more currency for teacher-powered schools like SJHA; and
  3. More and more teachers are joining informal virtual learning networks (including the CTQ Collaboratory and many, many others), opening up new ways to learn from one another.

Next week, my new paper (commissioned by the Ford Foundation) will detail how teacher leadership can fuel deeper learning for all students. I draw on thirty years of research on how teachers learn and lead as well as stories from thousands of teachers with whom CTQ has worked since our founding in 1998. I conclude with several opportunities to advance the kind of teacher leadership required to ensure an excellent and equitable public school education for every student.

As my colleague Ross Hall of the Ashoka Foundation recently told me, our schools will not educate self-empowered students who are catalysts for themselves and their communities unless their teachers are also self-empowered.

The paper will be released on March 10, 2016. Join our email list to be notified of the paper’s release and visit www.teachingquality.org/deeperlearning to check out the infographic. Note: A portion of this piece draws on the cogent analysis of my colleagues Kristoffer Kohl and Kim Farris-Berg, originally published in a series of blog posts on Education Week.


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