Teacher Self Management vs. Going to the Dark Side

The New York Times has an article about the opening of a teacher-run school in The City. It sounds like an interesting experiment:

Shortly after landing at Malcolm X Shabazz High School as a Teach for America recruit, Dominique D. Lee grew disgusted with a system that produced ninth graders who could not name the seven continents or the governor of their state. He started wondering: What if I were in charge?

Three years later, Mr. Lee, at just 25, is getting a chance to find out. Today, Mr. Lee and five other teachers -- all veterans of Teach for America, a corps of college graduates who undergo five weeks of training and make a two-year commitment to teaching -- are running a public school here with 650 children from kindergarten through eighth grade.

As the doors opened on Thursday at Brick Avon Academy, they welcomed students not as novice teachers following orders from the central office, but as "teacher-leaders."

"This is a fantasy," Mr. Lee said. "It's six passionate people who came together and said, 'Enough is enough.' We're just tired of seeing failure."

The article is lacking in a couple of key areas, though. It provides a bunch of quotes from people who are dubious about the idea, questioning whether teachers have the time or character needed to run an entire school. It fails to make clear, though, why and how this is any different than what we have now.

I mean, where do the people in this article, on either side, think academic administrators come from? In my (admittedly limited) experience, principals and other academic administrators are generally former teachers themselves. Are there really people who set out for college intending to become high school principals without first being teachers? Are there businessmen and women who think "You know, running a widget factory isn't satisfying. I need a job with more unruly teenagers."

So, it would appear that the difference between this scheme and what we have now is one of timing-- the administration of the school is being turned over to teachers who are still relatively young, rather than teachers who spent a few years in the classroom, then moved into administration.

In which case, there are a bunch of questions that the article doesn't really address. For example, if people who are good teachers aren't detail-oriented enough to deal with the "administrivia" of running a school, as one former principal suggests, what does that say about the people who run schools in the current system? What's different about these teachers than the ones who currently go into administration?

On the other side, the article could've benefitted from some exploration of the transition from the other side-- presumably, many of the people who went into administration did so with similarly idealistic ideas about making schools work better and creating nurturing atmospheres, and so on. The article could use some comments from them about what happens in the transition-- did their idealism not survive contact with the realities of "administrivia?" Do they still think of themselves as serving a noble purpose? Can they offer any advice to prospective "principal teachers?"

Instead, you get this weird dynamic that assumes that teachers are forever teachers, and administrators are forever administrators, and the notion that one could move into the other's area is somehow radical and without precedent.

For the record, I think that the system being proposed can probably work, for the simple reason that this is how a lot of higher education functions-- our Deans are largely drawn from the faculty ranks, and many of them go back to being faculty after Deaning for a while. In addition to that, we have a complicated (some might say baroque) faculty governance system that involves active teaching faculty at all different levels. Our department chairs are active faculty, who have to coordinate all the scheduling of classes and ordering of supplies and that sort of "administrivia."

There are compromises and points of awkwardness-- see the Dean Dad for plenty of examples-- but the system hasn't ground to a halt. You can argue about whether higher education really represents a model of successful operation, but I expect that experiments with teacher self-management at the pre-college level will end up about the same.

As a general matter, though, I support this kind of experiment. It can hardly be worse than what we have now in the schools they're talking about.

More like this

When my kid moves up from the infant room to the toddler room in daycare, there's one very critical difference from how this works compared to how his future school years will probably work- he moves up *when he is ready, with a few peers but also joining a larger established group*. This got me really thinking about how we do things in schools.
It makes each year a much more 'controlled' experiment- you get an entirely fresh start. Which is great if you had a difficult year and want a clean slate, but if you had a year that worked really well... you get to spend a lot of time teaching kids a routine that they'd pick up in short order with a few peer-models.
And really, it's mostly only schools that have this model. In most jobs, you are entering a new workplace where existing coworkers have already created a culture, of sorts. Learning to identify a good culture, and adopt to whatever you find yourself in, are critical skills that kids in school don't get to practice very often.
I think both types of systems are good to learn, but they definitely have different strengths and weaknesses.

It seems to me that what these teachers are doing is, in effect, moving the system from a normal-adult-job 'one new person at a time' model (where the individual adapts to the group) to a 'bring a new class in like students' model (where the new cohort can develop a highly distinctive character). It's probably a model MUCH more suitable for radical change. If they've got good ideas, this structure will allow them to enact them much more effectively, and change the whole attitude of a school in a way they couldn't going into existing structures. Of course, if they try out lousy ideas, they might fail rather spectacularly. I'm glad somebody is trying it though.

Within higher education certainly, and probably within the world at large, you don't get power until you've proven compliant within the status quo. So most systems resist change. A few people are built to manipulate existing systems and can reform from within. LOTS of people can be caught up in the excitement of creation of a new structure- but it takes a LOT of energy to do.

I wondered the same things myself when I came upon that article. To me, this experiment doesn't sound very different from the KIPP (since that's the one charter I'm very familiar with), which started when 2 Teach for America teachers thought that they could improve on the schools run by the Houston Independent School District.

Also, KIPP runs Fellowships where teachers who qualify and complete the course can then open up a new KIPP franchise, so there is that teacher -> administrator path as well. I know that in the case of KIPP Houston Middle School, the principal has had to pick up teaching load (in addition to his admin stuff), so at least that school doesn't have that artificial barrier btw admins and teachers. Not sure if that is true in other KIPP schools as well.

Yes, principals and other school middle managers were often once teachers, but they are no longer teaching, and their goals and attitudes are different from those still in the classroom. A good book on the subject is Up The Down Staircase, written back in the 1960s. It gives an interesting portrait of the principal who was once an excellent teacher, but who has since turned into something different. The man actually running the school, Admiral Ass, was also once a teacher, but he too has turned into something else.

This isn't just something you see in schools.

You'll often hear software people bitching about their managers, and how they never seem to have a clue. Those managers were also once software people, but they've moved on. Companies like Google try to keep their managers closer to the front, as is often done in startups, but this gets harder as a company grows.

In the military, the gap between the fighting officer and the staff officer is miles wide. They may have both graduated West Point and gone through the same training in the same Army, but the gap is there. Read Once An Eagle to get a sense of this. Once An Eagle is sort of a cult book among army officers and not what most civilians would expect.