The potential of teacher run schools derives from the conditions they create

October 11, 2010 •

On Saturday Larry Cuban appealed to the temperance of those in the education policy world: “Please, don’t hype teacher run schools.”

He described an article written in 1990 titled America’s Schools: Choice Is a Panacea that he argues for half that decade divided conservatives (pro-voucher) from liberals (anti-voucher) in a pointless battle of attrition.

Cuban mentioned the article, because he senses something similar afoot with teachers that run schools:

“I am reminded…about choice-as-a-panacea because of the recent media hoopla over teacher-run schools.”
“If one lesson has been clear about the history of school reform,” he writes, “it is that hype kills promising ideas by elevating expectations of success to such unrealistic heights that any version of the program, however implemented, is a crushing disappointment that breeds corrosive cynicism.
“One doesn’t need exaggerated claims, however, to believe that groups of teachers founding charters, taking over failing schools, or simply creating different ones is a smart idea.”

Seeking to manage expectations, he admits that, “Some teacher-run schools will fly and some will crash.”

The notion of putting teachers in professional control of their schools—allowing the professionals to make decisions of management, and delegate administrative functions to employees that they hire—is a change in the character of the organization. It is a paradigm shift in management structure that some (including Education|Evolving) believe will make improvement and innovation more possible, and more likely. It is not the only way, and shouldn’t be.

It is important not to let thinking end at the point of the management structure. It is short of the point, and would be akin to asking, about a medical clinic, Which is better: That where doctors are hired as employees, or that where they run the clinic as partners? It is an interesting question, but does not indicate the quality of care. What the docs do, and how they do it, are what matter. Their style of medicine and their execution of it are what matter.

A similar un-clarity has formed around chartering. The legal platform for creating new schools with autonomy (chartering) makes change and innovation possible—but it does not itself have an effect on quality or effectiveness. What counts is what people do with that freedom.

So yes, please don’t hype teacher-run schools as an end in themselves. Instead, recognize they are a professional management paradigm new to the boss/employee environment of modern public education (though time-tested in many other industries). It opens up new opportunity to reconsider the role of teachers and students in learning, and challenges some basic assumptions of ‘school.’

Image: Brick Avon Academy, NJ; c/o New York Times