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.