by Joe Nathan
Should we "trust teachers" much more than we do now? A recently published, intriguing, important book urges "yes." The book Trusting Teachers with School Success is important in part because it has been endorsed by a variety of educators and education activists, many of whom strongly disagree with each other about other issues such as testing, charter public schools and virtual schools.
Why did a variety of people recommend the book? First, because the authors ask, "What if trusting teachers, and not controlling them, is the key to school success?" The authors believe that teachers should have the option to organize as doctors and attorneys sometimes do. This puts teachers truly in charge. The book offers 11 examples from seven states, from Connecticut to California along with Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Some attorneys and physicians organize themselves into partnerships. The attorneys and doctors decide how their clinics or law firms will operate (including associates' pay and how they will be evaluated). They hire (and can fire) people to help with the "business side" of things.
I've visited some schools cited in the book, including the Minnesota New Country School (MNCS) in Henderson, Minn. and Avalon in St. Paul. Both schools attract a variety of students. Both help some youngsters who had not succeeded in traditional schools graduate and go on to some form of two or four year higher education. Both use an array of methods, not just standardized tests, to measure and report student progress.
Avalon, MNCS and the nine other schools, both district and charter, described in the book allow teachers to determine the curriculum, budget allocations, assessment methods, staff evaluation, and in some cases pay and working conditions. This is real teacher "empowerment."
The authors recommend that families be allowed to choose these schools, and say that this approach won't always work. For example, the Milwaukee Federation of Teachers and Milwaukee District helped create more than a dozen schools on this model. Some thrived, others did not.
A recent MetLife Foundation survey of teachers around the country found growing percentages of teachers are dissatisfied with their jobs. While education journalist and activist Andy Rotherham pointed out that over the last 25 years, MetLife has used different questions to compare teachers' attitudes, survey officials stress that answers to identical questions show dissatisfaction is growing.
Empowering educators can be one important way to serve students and enrich teachers' lives. The book's authors include Amy Junge, formerly a public school teacher; Kim Farris-Berg, an education policy researcher who is a fellow at Center for Policy Studies – Education Evolving., and Edward Dirkswager, a retired health care administrator.
They include valuable advice gleaned from the eleven schools have how to operate with teachers in charge. They describe how these schools deal with budget, teacher and student evaluation, discipline and other issues. It's great, practical advice.
People who've endorsed the book include union leaders, including Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association; Lynn Nordgren, president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, and Adam Urbanski, president of the Rochester, N.Y. Federation of Teachers, along with Stanford professor Linda Darling-Hammond and educator Deborah Meier, all of whom are skeptical about the charter idea. Tom Vander Ark, formerly of the Gates Foundation, Mike Petrelli of the Fordham Institute and Dee Thomas, all of whom support the charter idea, also praised the book.
As America searches for solutions, it's great to find strategies supported by thoughtful people who often disagree. That makes Trusting Teachers with School Success a book with important, intriguing ideas.