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.
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.