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Would greater independence for teachers result in higher student performance?

August 18, 2014 at 6:27 PM EDT
In the face of a top-down hierarchy ruling many public schools these days, some teachers are taking back their classrooms by moving to schools where they create the curriculum and vote democratically on decisions. John Tulenko of Learning Matters reports from Boston on one of about 70 teacher-led schools that have cropped up around the country in recent years.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Next: addressing the high turnover rate among public school teachers.

John Tulenko of Learning Matters Television, which produces reports for the NewsHour, looks at a Boston school where the teachers have taken charge.

JOHN TULENKO: For more than 20 years, Susan Sluyter loved being a public schoolteacher. But starting around 2001 with passage of the education law known as No Child Left Behind, her feelings began to change.

SUSAN SLUYTER: I started to feel deadened. I felt like I had lost inspiration. I wasn’t able to teach in the way that I had learned how to teach.

JOHN TULENKO: Her child-centered approach fell out of favor as testing and accountability became the new buzzwords.

SUSAN SLUYTER: Almost like a tsunami of data collection frenzy. Such a shift. You have to do this because we want this number and we want this result on the test.

JOHN TULENKO: Gradually, her frustrations grew, and last march, Sluyter quit.

SUSAN SLUYTER: I felt — I got to a point where I was feeling like I was contributing to — to pain for children. And I didn’t want to do that anymore. I couldn’t keep teaching and hold on to any integrity.

TONY WAGNER, Harvard University: This is an incredibly hard time to be a teacher. I really feel very, very badly for those who are in the classroom every single day. I don’t think their work is respected or appreciated. And I think too often they feel dictated to.

JOHN TULENKO: To education professor Tony Wagner of Harvard University, the top-down climate in many public schools is contributing to an exodus of teachers. Some 8 percent, more than 200,000 quit each year. And a national survey found dissatisfaction with the job has increased from 40 percent four years ago to nearly 60 percent today.

But, rather than quit, some teachers are taking back their classrooms in what are called teacher-led schools, like Mission Hill School in Boston, Massachusetts.

Kathy D’Andrea teaches kindergarten.

KATHY D’ANDREA, Mission Hill School: We’re democratic not just in theory, but in practice. Anything that comes down the pike is a conversation, right? I can say, this is how I’m feeling. This is what is happening.

JOHN TULENKO: Mission Hill is one of about 70 teacher-led schools that have emerged around the country in recent years. Some of them choose to operate without a school principal. Here, they have one, but the job’s different.

When you have a decision to make in the school, do you get the final word?

AYLA GAVINS, Mission Hill School: I don’t get the final word.

JOHN TULENKO: Principal Ayla Gavins, who prefers to be called lead teacher, doesn’t even get the traditional private office.

AYLA GAVINS: It’s really a joint effort. I don’t have all the skills, all the background, all the talents that this group has.

JOHN TULENKO: Two, three, four heads are better than one.


JOHN TULENKO: In line with that thinking, all decisions, curriculum, budget, hiring, are voted on by the entire staff. Nothing goes forward until everyone agrees.

WOMAN: When we make decisions, we have a raise of hands. So, five, you strongly agree, four, you agree, you have some reservations, but you can live with it. But if you put a one, you disagree and we stop. We don’t go on until everyone can say they have a five or a four.

With this authority, teachers decide the look and feel of their classrooms. There’s lots of low lighting and soothing music. Arts and crafts are everywhere, all part of Mission Hill’s personality.

Teacher Jenerra Williams:

JENERRA WILLIAMS, Mission Hill School: We’re not going to use a packaged curriculum. We’re going to use students’ voices to shape our curriculum, that we’re going to shape our curriculum around their interests. I think, at most other schools, it’s a lot of, you will follow this. You must follow this, and there’s never any room to breathe.

JOHN TULENKO: But even those who favor giving teachers more say have reservations.

Tony Wagner:

TONY WAGNER: Too often, I think the teaching profession is kind of heads down, get the job done, you know, focus on the kids in front of you, do what’s required, without having the time to sort of look around and reflect, how is the world changing, how is what I’m teaching today different from what I taught 10 or 20 years ago, how does it need to be different?

JOHN TULENKO: Teachers here like this model so much, there’s very little turnover. But it has its drawbacks when it comes to making hard decisions, with everyone voting and consensus required.

What happens if you can’t agree in the end?

WOMAN: We get someone to help us. We talk and talk and talk, and it could take months to decide.

JOHN TULENKO: OK, fine. So that leads perfectly to my next question. Raise your hand if you agree with this statement. In this school, we spend too much time talking and too little time deciding. OK.

WOMAN: In this school, we don’t talk and talk and talk and things don’t happen. We talk and talk and talk so things happen.

JOHN TULENKO: Some people might find that a very frustrating way to work.

AYLA GAVINS: I think it’s an essential thing. Every time there is a situation when we’re in disagreement and we talk and talk and talk until we are in agreement, it uncovers so many things, often many misconceptions or lack of trust or whatever, things — poisonous things that can grow in a community. Doesn’t happen here.

JOHN TULENKO: Does putting teachers in charge result in students doing better? Here, 40 percent of the students are proficient in English, in math 26 percent. That’s on par with the rest of the district, but still low.

The public looks at your test scores and says, it’s not working. How do you respond?

JENERRA WILLIAMS: I think no school, no child and no teacher should be evaluated on one slice of the puzzle.

JOHN TULENKO: So what else do you look at?

JENERRA WILLIAMS: Come see it. See the work, right? Ask teachers in schools to put together portfolios of students’ work so that you can see their progress. But what we don’t do is change what we do so that we can only do better on this test.

KATHY D’ANDREA: You have to trust that the people who are closest to the child are working in a capacity of excellence. You have to trust that they know children well, and are taking children where they need to go.

JOHN TULENKO: But the conundrum is this. Must student performance improved before teachers can be trusted, or can we trust that greater independence for teachers will result in higher performance?

Tony Wagner favors the hands-off approach, but not until we follow the lead of higher-performing countries like Finland, that do far more to prepare teachers for the job.

TONY WAGNER: Finland said, we have got to better prepare our teachers starting 35 years ago. They closed down 80 percent of the teacher preparation programs. So the motto in Finland today is trust through professionalism, not blind trust, not trust no matter what. It is that we have prepared you to be extraordinary professionals. Now we trust you to be the professionals we have trained you to be.

JOHN TULENKO: Here in this country, where many students fall behind, it’s likely districts will simply hand teachers the keys to school. Wagner’s train-and-trust approach may be the best way to improve their satisfaction.