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The Vergara v. California ruling that every student has a Constitutional right to learn from an effective teacher has been labeled bold — but it actually mirrors the counterproductive strategy long dominating reform efforts that ignores teachers’ professional expertise and then blames them for poor student outcomes.
This decision pits unions against reformers. However, we’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn’t believe that every student deserves an effective teacher and high-quality education.
Unfortunately, the current system of ad hoc federal and state mandates often prevents teachers from achieving this goal. As a result, we inadvertently set teachers, and the students they serve, up for failure.
Scapegoating teachers achieves nothing, and more top-down mandates won’t solve this disconnect between “teacher effectiveness” and the authority teachers need to actually be effective. Instead, we should ask, “Under what conditions will teachers accept accountability?” And, in answering that question, we must think laterally, not vertically, about a new approach that harnesses the collective expertise of teachers, principals and local leaders, and engages them as partners and leaders in ensuring that all children receive a top-notch education.
This teacher-powered strategy suggests that when teachers secure the autonomy to work together to design, lead and make the decisions for student and school success, they also accept the accountability for student and school success. Where state, district, and other leaders are open to getting at accountability by increasing teachers’ authority, we see teams of teachers using their expertise and know-how to make important decisions for their students and innovate education from within.
A teacher-powered strategy is more than just an idea. We’ve seen it thrive in more than 60 schools across the country, in rural, urban, district, public charter and other school settings, and including my school – Avalon School – which serves a diverse cross-section of students in the Twin Cities area. In addition to developing and executing a strong project-based learning curriculum for our students, Avalon’s 17 teachers share responsibility in deciding everything from our own evaluations to the school budget to strategic planning. Not only do our students perform better on assessments than their peers across St. Paul Public Schools, this unique opportunity to lead without leaving the profession has resulted in a 95 percent teacher retention rate for Avalon.
Avalon School and other teacher-powered schools across the country have taken the initiative to create a better learning environment for students while also making teaching a better job for teachers. As Kim Farris-Berg and Ed Dirkswager recently found in Trusting Teachers with School Success, which studied many of these teacher-powered schools in-depth, when teachers are directly responsible for the success of their school, in addition to the students in their individual classroom, it makes them more passionate about their job and increases their ability to make the changes that are needed to truly improve student learning. Among other benefits, teachers accept ownership and accountability, embrace a shared purpose and redefine success in new and innovative ways.
Much like high-performing organizations in other fields, such as law, medicine, architecture, accounting, and technology, teachers in teacher-powered schools work as partners and are trusted as professionals to produce results — results they can be held accountable for and measured against.
At a time when teacher recruitment, retention and engagement are at record lows, thinking laterally should prompt us to reassess our ultimate reform goals as well as the pathways to reach these goals. Whether implementing a “bold” reform initiative or working with principals, district or charter leadership, teachers are our best resources. They are in the classroom every day. They have direct access to the inner workings of their classrooms and schools and are eager for opportunities to grow and lead within them.
In fact, recent research from Education|Evolving found that 78% of teachers would be interested in pursuing a professional partnership arrangement with their colleagues, and that 85% of Americans will support them when they do. This kind of teacher and public support means that a teacher-powered strategy can offer a solution to even the most divisive policy debates on how to support teachers, while still ensuring their effectiveness and balance reform within the system.
When students power their classrooms and teachers power their school, K-12 education thrives. Our education reforms should not only ensure that our students are learning from an “effective” teacher, but that they’re learning from an excellent and empowered teacher. We’ve seen that schools that are teacher-powered are capable of achieving just that. By investing in our teachers more and offering them autonomy, we’re ensuring we have the best teachers in every school.
Carrie Bakken was hired as a founding teacher at Avalon School in June 2001 and now serves as the Program Coordinator and Advisor. She was named and served as a 2012 Aspen Institute-Pahara Teacher Leader Fellow. Previous to becoming a teacher, Carrie earned her Juris Doctorate from Hamline University School of Law. Because of her legal education, she is committed to providing students with opportunities to explore civic responsibility and social justice.
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