Guest Post: Kim Farris-Berg What Happens When Teachers Call The Shots

I’ve mentioned the work of Kim Farris-Berg and teacher cooperatives here a few times (and she’s also appeared in fish porn). Today, Kim has a guest post with some of the ideas from her new book, Trusting Teachers with School Success:  What Happens When Teachers Call the Shots:

Sometimes we become so accustomed to the way things are that we cannot imagine a different way of doing things.  In 1927, for example, one of the Warner brothers made a famously wrong prediction: “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?” When it comes to systems vital for our future, like K-12 public schools, this myopia can be disastrous.

Yet many of today’s education policy makers could end up as famously wrong as Warner. Their actions communicate, “Who the hell wants to let teachers teach?”  These policy makers want “innovation,” but their approach to education policy doesn’t encourage it – at least not from teachers.  It doesn’t occur to most that trusting teachers, not controlling them, could be the key to school success.  Instead we are stuck on the idea that the best and only means to K-12 improvement is to get better at holding teachers accountable for the results of a prescriptive, one-size-fits-all formula for K-12 teaching.

Let’s look at my home state of California as an example.  The California Department of Education gives school districts a very clear directive to make sure teachers keep a common pace with all other teachers in their subject areas and grade levels. As a result, districts have created pacing guides governing teachers’ daily activities by subject.  Some guides tell teachers what pages in the textbook to cover and how many minutes to spend on which specific dates.  What’s more, the textbooks come with a script that tells teachers exactly what to say when they teach each specific page.

This approach leaves little discretion to our teachers – the professionals who are closest to the students.  Pacing guides are meant to ensure consistency and fairness, the Department of Education maintains on its website.  All students will get the same content, regardless of which school they attend.  Stay on pace, and all students should graduate on time.  In other words, schools are best organized as assembly lines.

The trouble is our students aren’t widgets.  They’re humans who vary in their readiness, aptitudes, interests, and rates of learning.

Advanced students can’t progress to their own next level of achievement under these “pacing” conditions.  We hold these students back, even though our world faces serious problems that we will need them to solve.  And while leaders loudly decry the public impact of school dropout rates, students who need more time for learning struggle with the growing gap between what they know and what the pacing guides expect them to know.  At a certain point graduation appears impossible, and many students stop trying.

Designing effective strategies for K-12 improvement will first require recognizing that each student is different.  Then, as a matter of policy and practice, we’ll need to create conditions that encourage the development of innovative approaches to school and schooling – approaches that can continuously adapt to students’ varying needs.

Some policy and education leaders already recognize this, and a good number are seeking innovation by tapping the collective wisdom of teachers.  Alongside conventional improvement strategies, they’ve granted teachers in more than 50 district and chartered schools the authority to collectively make decisions influencing whole school success.  These teacher groups are increasingly called teacher partnerships.

Early evidence shows “trusting teachers” can be a promising path forward.  Teacher partnerships create management cultures that emulate those of high-performing organizations. They also profess their willingness to accept accountability for outcomes, because they are making the decisions.

With authority and accountability, teacher partnerships design stunningly different approaches to teaching and learning.  Many forego grade levels, opting instead to place students in multi-aged groups based on skill level.  Teachers move through curriculum at the pace appropriate for each group.  Other teacher partnerships, recognizing the difficulties of individual progress in group settings, empower students to self-direct their learning using a mix of projects and seminars.  To these teachers, equity isn’t about “sameness.”  It’s about doing whatever it takes to help every student move to his or her personal next level of achievement.

Teachers could be the social entrepreneurs we need for K-12.  So why not open the opportunity for interested teachers to show us how they would run schools?  It is worth trying more than one strategy for innovation and improvement.  Better that than sticking exclusively to a top-down management system and finding we were famously wrong.

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Kim Farris-Berg is a Senior Associate with Education Evolving, a policy design shop based in St. Paul, Minnesota and an independent education policy strategist. She is lead author of Trusting Teachers with School Success: What Happens When Teachers Call the Shots (R&L Education 2012). www.trustingteachers.org. Her Twitter handle is @farrisberg.

 

14 Responses to “Guest Post: Kim Farris-Berg What Happens When Teachers Call The Shots”

  1. Linda/RetiredTeacher Says:

    Thank you, Kim Farris-Berg. I believe you have seen the future.

  2. Attorney DC Says:

    Linda, I agree. Ms. Farris-Berg makes very good points. Why not let teachers teach? Kids aren’t widgets, and you can’t make one lesson plan or pacing guide that will work for all 5th graders in the country (or even all 5th graders in the district or individual school). Well said.

  3. Curt Johnson Says:

    Well said, Kim. Possibly a ray of hope for millions of teachers professionally imprisoned by standardization, told what and how for every segment of the day. I do find though that most people who regard themselves as education policy experts have great difficulty imagining a world in which teachers had real authority. Like actors talking.

  4. Linda/RetiredTeacher Says:

    If we would just relax and let common sense sink in, we are likely to see what will be. Just as Warner should have realized that audiences would want to experience actors as real people (talking, walking etc.) so citizens should realize that any real educational reform (i.e. the kind that benefits students) can only come from the people willing and able to educate children.

    The fact that many “education policy experts” have great difficulty in imagining a world in which teachers have real authority is likely due to the low status teachers have in our country and the fact that the field is dominated by women. And that’s probably the Number One reason why our educational system is not as strong as we would like. This is a cultural problem and it runs deep. The people responsible are not our hard-working teachers, but the citizens who constantly express contempt and disrespect for the men and women who have chosen to serve the children of our country.

    Do you sincerely wish to strengthen our educational system for the benefit of children? If so, you can’t go wrong by supporting the teachers we have now, while advocating for a stronger, better prepared, more autonomous and better paid teaching profession. That’s just common sense.

  5. Jo Lewis Says:

    I’m both astounded and saddened by the comment “you have seen the future”. I really had no idea that education in the USA was in such dire straits. For me, as a teacher trained at Cambridge University and having taught 10 years in the UK and 10 years in New Zealand, the idea of identifying where a student is with their learning and then moving them on from there is just a way of life.
    In any core curriculum class I might have 4 or 5 separate groups of learners, all working at a level appropriate to their needs. I can push the students who have “got it” to the next level, and I can support those who are struggling towards their lightbulb moment.
    Sure it’s more work for me – planning is complex but quickly becomes second nature. But the important thing is that the children get the best shot possible at their learning.
    Take into account the fact that I teach in a small rural school in a classroom with 25 children whose ages range from 9 to 13 years old, and their social needs and maturity levels also play a part in my decision making and class grouping.
    I am not exceptional. I would suggest that many, many teachers in NZ teach children in the BAG way… where have they Been on their education journey? Where are they At with their learning? Where are they Going next?
    It’s not perfect, it’s not easy and it’s certainly not everyone’s cup of tea; but after 20 years I really feel it’s the best way to make sure each child can achieve their personal best – and that (to me) is what education is all about.

  6. Linda/RetiredTeacher Says:

    Jo,

    I taught in various states from 1964 to 2007. During most of that time I taught very much the way you have described. Like many other American teachers of young children, I was much influenced by teacher educators from the UK (Moira McKenzie), Australia and New Zealand (Sylvia Ashton-Warner, Marie Clay and others). For almost my entire career I was trusted as a trained professional to exercise my best judgment with my students.

    During the last decade, privateers have been allowed to take over our public schools as independent but tax supported charters. These people can and do siphon off money from these schools (mostly schools for poor children of color – surprise!) to make a profit. Needless to say, there has been a frenzied effort across the country to realize huge fortunes by dipping into the previously untouched treasure chest of public school money. In order to do this, these privatizers have sought to undermine public education, mainly by painting our teachers as lazy and incompetent. So far they’ve only been successful in very poor areas because many of these parents are desperate for better educational opportunities for their children. For the most part, American children of affluence do fairly well academically and their parents are usually pleased. I have no idea how legislation allowing privatization happened, but I suspect it occurred while citizens were distracted by the recession. I don’t remember voting for this at all.

    As I said, there is a huge effort nationally to discredit teachers. This is being done by judging them according to the test scores of the children. So the teachers of the high-scoring rich kids are declared “excellent” while the teachers of the low-scoring low-income children are judged “ineffective.” Again, the purpose is to move these teachers out, so younger, less expensive teachers can be moved in. The whole goal of “reform” in this country is actually an attempt to save money or to make money.

    What Kim Farris-Berg is suggesting is that schools be turned over to teachers to run. These teachers, as full professionals, would make most decisions about instruction, curriculum and governance. So far as I know there aren’t too many schools like this in the United States. Are there any in the UK or New Zealand? This is what I mean by the “future.” I believe true reform will come when teachers are in charge of their own schools and are free to be full professionals.

  7. Julie Says:

    Thank you Kim for advocating for education!

    The standardization of education is as outdated as mimeograph machines! Yet here we are, forcing standards onto a generation of children who will most certainly live far less standardized lives than previous generations.

    The fear that drives this is a “worker shortage”. The fear that these children, mainly poor, minority students, under performing on standardized tests, will let us down in the future as poor employees or worse, unemployable. But if we can get them to test well, then they will be good employable adults. Hogwash! They will not thrive or love learning in classrooms that are boring and scripted. Education is about establishing a relationship with your own learning that will persist beyond your school days.

    What needs to happen in US schools is as much about trusting teachers as trusting our children!

  8. Stacy Says:

    Kim, great points! I had no idea there are now pacing guides. I’m horrified. If indeed the goal is to have EVERY child learn, I guess we’ll have to turn them into Stepford children, given these teaching practices.

    It’s funny that we say we need to pay teachers more, but increasingly treat them like robots.

  9. David Says:

    There is no reason why holding teachers accountable for results should require the overly prescriptive measures described in the post. Conversely, there is no reason why the creative solutions adopted by the empowered teachers shoud not be rigorously evaluated.

    Sorry, but this post is one big non sequitur. Empowering teachers is not the opposite of holding them accountable. It’s just not.

  10. Linda/RetiredTeacher Says:

    If accountability for teachers were any higher, we might have a 60% attrition rate, instead of “only” 50%.

    Did anyone in the above post or comments say that teachers shouldn’t be accountable? Why would anyone even suggest such a thing, as it is absurd. Few people are more “accountable” than schoolteachers and that’s as it should be.

  11. Tyler Says:

    I teach in a teacher-led school and it provides much more accountability toward the success of the school. Each teacher is invested and subsequently the attitude and motivation changes. Our jobs are directly correlated with the success of student learning. It is a fantastic motivator that leaves me felling, in some ways, like a small business owner. With the right staff and culture I am confident that our decisions are the best for the students.

  12. Brenda Says:

    Balance, maybe not necessarily all teacher lead, rather balance. Input in a democratic fashion. Curriculum development by community professionals, teachers, parents and students. Each community(district) has common needs and the knowledge deemed necessary can be interwoven to complete the educational program. Keeping in mind that each student should have an opportunity to discover their personal strengths during their educational experience. Knowing your personal strengths encourages the development of those strengths and how to use them to your advantage. With the recipe for success, there are more factors than are imaginable. There are paths that are well established, but character, which develops over time, is what sets people apart when it comes to their chosen profession. Character allows people to know you. If you are part of a team and you know the character of a person, you know exactly where your character fits in the big puzzle. There are ranging abilities in every profession, not just education. Schools cannot solve all of societies problems. Going back to indoctrination, which is just about what we have reached now, will no, as Curt mentions above change the face of education. To quote him directly, “millions of teachers professionally imprisoned by standardization, told what and how for every segment of the day,” this sounds all to familiar and quite frankly, scary. Are we to produce and encourage the growth of minions in the USA. We might as well drop the “U,” possibly the “S,” and just go to the N.A. Because while common knowledge that is discovered because of a true affinity unites people, when forced to share a common knowledge it is just about as unacceptable in theory as it is in practice. Not to throw this into the mix, but it is comparable to forcing each person into the same religious beliefs. What happens there historically? That’s right, and what is beginning or already happening in the world of education? “Houston, I think we have a problem.”

  13. B Says:

    Can I change my words, to ” religious sect?”

  14. moh Says:

    Balance, maybe not necessarily all teacher lead, rather balance. Input in a democratic fashion. Curriculum development by community professionals, teachers, parents and students. Each community(district) has common needs and the knowledge deemed necessary can be interwoven to complete the educational program. Keeping in mind that each student should have an opportunity to discover their personal strengths during their educational experience. Knowing your personal strengths encourages the development of those strengths and how to use them to your advantage. With the recipe for success, there are more factors than are imaginable. There are paths that are well established, but character, which develops over time, is what sets people apart when it comes to their chosen profession. Character allows people to know you. If you are part of a team and you know the character of a person, you know exactly where your character fits in the big puzzle. There are ranging abilities in every profession, not just education. Schools cannot solve all of societies problems. Going back to indoctrination, which is just about what we have reached now, will no, as Curt mentions above change the face of education. To quote him directly, “millions of teachers professionally imprisoned by standardization, told what and how for every segment of the day,” this sounds all to familiar and quite frankly, scary. Are we to produce and encourage the growth of minions in the USA. We might as well drop the “U,” possibly the “S,” and just go to the N.A. Because while common knowledge that is discovered because of a true affinity unites people, when forced to share a common knowledge it is just about as unacceptable in theory as it is in practice. Not to throw this into the mix, but it is comparable to forcing each person into the same religious beliefs. What happens there historically? That’s right, and what is beginning or already happening in the world of education? “Houston, I think we have a problem.”
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