Can Teachers Run Schools?

Doug Thomas, Edvisions

Imagine a school with no bells or classes, no principal or school board.  It’s not an idea, it’s a large-scale experiment in the upper Midwest.
A column by my friend Joe Nathan reminded me of the pioneering work of the Minnesota-based Edvisions network. Joe reviews a report by Charles Kerchner, a Claremont  (California) University professor, “Can Teachers Run their Own Schools?”

The teacher run school idea was born in Henderson, Minnesota in 1994, with the creation of the Minnesota New Country School (MNCS).  Doug and Dee Thomas, and a number of other public school veterans/visionaries created MNCS., with assistance from, Ted Kolderie, a creative Minnesota policy thinker.   MNCS, and a larger cooperative called Edvisions remain in Henderson, providing assistance and inspiration to educators and families throughout the United States (as well as visitors from a number of other countries.)  There are 12 “Edvisions” schools in Minnesota and 35 others around the country.

“Can teachers run their own schools?” is an interesting question, but it’s actually just one of eight innovations explored in Kerchner’s paper and exhibited by the Edvisions network:
1. Governance: a producers cooperative is not unusual in the upper Midwest, but uncommon in education.  Joe points out that doctors, lawyers, journalists and other professionals have options to form professional partnerships.  Kerchner notes: “The use of cooperatives is much more widespread than commonly realized, involving as many as 100 million Americans.”
Edvisions schools operate under a charter or contract that provides academic and financial autonomy.
2. Staffing: There are more generalists than specialists at Edvisions schools with a much higher percentage of staff focused on core academic subjects than administrative duties.
3. Coherence: The most under appreciated feature of good schools is coherence—everything works together for teachers and kids.  Most networks and districts attempt coherence by dictate.  Edvisions schools create coherence though collaboration.
4. Evaluation: Execution is at least as important as coherence to school performance and teacher evaluations are key to execution.  Edvisions schools feature peer review. Occasionally teachers are non-renewed.  There is almost always a high degree of ownership for outcomes.
The state context is likely to become more important in regards to incentives for execution–for teachers, schools, and networks–but we have more to learn about how to create productive systems of accountability.
5. Pedagogy: Edvisions schools feature a project-based approach that “moves the responsibility for creating projects and keeping on pace to their completion to the student.”
Project-based learning is common but hard to do rigorously.  Edvisions encourages standards-based projects with detailed project plans and assessment rubrics.
6. Deeper learning: Kerchner suggests that “Teacher-run schools develop introspective routines that cause both students and adults to inquire deeply into whether and how learning is taking place.”
It’s fair to say that some Edvisions schools don’t produce high test scores; it reflects “a clear belief that the goal of their schools is not to produce higher test scores. Theirs is a broader curriculum in which measured cognitive achievement is subordinated by important student skills in solving problems, in personal discipline, and self-control.”
7. Competency-based: nearly lost in this report is what may be the most innovative thing about Edvisions schools—they are student-centered, “one kid at a time,” schools where students move at their own pace and get more time and help where and when they need it.
8. Democratic schools: Edvisions schools “Rely on strong cultures, a common mission, and relational trust. The idea of unitary democracy, as opposed to interest group democracy or political parties, makes the goals of the cooperative enterprise more important than those of individual positions.”
Kerchner is clear that “The range of test score results among the teacher-run schools is very large, and so is the student population served… The schools appear to have better than average college test results and college-going rates.”
As the digital learning tools improve, networks like Edvisions will be able to add engaging and targeted skill-building playlists to their project-based approach.
America needs more educational experiments like Edvisions—experiments in governance, structure, and learning.
For more on competency-based learning see iNACOL report: When Failure is Not an Option
For more on innovative alternative schools see Association for High School Innovation
For more on passion-driven learning, see Innovative Educator

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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