What happens when we trust teachers to make school decisions?

October 22, 2012 • Kim Farris-Berg

On October 16, a groundbreaking book authored by two Education Evolving associates was launched. Trusting Teachers with School Success confronts the existing role of teachers in public K-12 settings and asks what would teachers do if they had the autonomy not just to make classroom decisions, but to collectively—with their colleagues—make the decisions influencing whole school success?

Examining the designs and cultures of schools where teachers already call the shots, Education Evolving Senior Associates Kim Farris-Berg and Edward Dirkswager found that students demonstrate achievement in academics and beyond.

As we did before, here is an excerpt from the book:

Autonomous teachers seek to prepare students for life, work, and civic participation. They believe that students’ “beyond-academic” achievements, as well as students’ attitudes toward learning and working, are at least as important to students’ success as academic achievements. So they design learning programs and other school structures to support beyond-academic achievement. In some cases, teachers require students to achieve in beyond-academic areas in order to earn credits toward graduation.

Areas for beyond-academic achievement include, but are not limited to, the following: character development; students’ belief in their own abilities; students’ ability to take responsibility for their own ongoing learning and failure; students’ learning of twenty-first century skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, communication, and collaboration; and students’ acceptance of increased, serious responsibilities such that they’ll be able to navigate life as an adult.

Chapters 4–8 described in detail a number of ways in which teachers put students in a position to achieve in nonacademic areas, including:

Giving Students the Opportunity to Direct Some or All of Their Learning
Students and teachers in about half of the eleven schools said that they frequently quote the superhero Spiderman when discussing students’ higher-than-average levels of autonomy. That is, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Students in a position to direct their own learning come to understand that their level of voice and choice both inside and outside of school has to do with their willingness to be responsible and accountable for their successes and failures, their attitude, and their ability to work collaboratively with peers and authority figures. Many students practice these skills regularly and are evaluated for their progress.

Giving Students the Opportunity to Develop Habits of Mind
At the elementary level, some teachers focus on encouraging students’ Habits of Mind or other similar behaviors. The goal is for students to learn an approach for responding to problems they face, and to develop a sense of confidence in their ability to respond appropriately. The “habits” are a collection of sixteen thinking dispositions identified by Professor Art Costa. They include dispositions such as “persisting,” “thinking flexibly,” and “taking responsible risks.”

Granting Students Freedom of Movement and Encouraging Use of Teachers’ First Names
When teachers establish learning cultures that remove hierarchical boundaries, students learn new skills simply by being a part of the environment. With freedom of movement, for example, teachers report that students learn how to self-correct when off task. And teachers report that giving students the ability to call teachers by their first names provides students the opportunity to learn how to communicate, negotiate, and work effectively with people who are in positions of authority but who are also a part of their team.

Giving Students a Real Opportunity to Fail and Start Again
High School in the Community (HSC) teachers report that students’ complacency about poor performance is a real problem when they first arrive at the school. For years, many students who now attend HSC passed classes in their previous schools without mastering material, despite teachers’ threats that they would fail. Students who experienced this have come to believe that little is required, and they are astonished to learn that their academic achievement is far behind.

Erik Good reported of HSC ninth graders, “Twenty-seven percent of our students are at or below third-grade level in reading. Seventy percent are at or below sixth-grade level. Few of them believe us, and understand the potential consequences, when we tell them this truth. ‘It can’t be,’ they think. ‘We’ve made it to ninth grade!’ So we have to start by getting them to recognize the truth while still seeing their potential to succeed.”

Autonomous teachers allow time for students to realize they are responsible for their own graduation. A student at TAGOS Leadership Academy reported, for example, that during his first semester he earned a very small amount of credit compared to what he was supposed to earn. The teachers explained the potential consequences of his actions, and suggested pathways to completion, but he didn’t listen.

The teachers refused to give him credits he didn’t earn. But, to his surprise, they also didn’t kick him out. He’s grateful for both. The student now realizes that he is responsible for his learning. He’ll graduate later than a typical student, but for the first time he was put into a position to figure out how and, more importantly, why he wanted to graduate.

Expecting Students to Self-Govern Their Behavior; Providing Students with Real Roles in School Governance, Hiring, and Discipline
Teachers reported that when students have real responsibilities—instead of empty opportunities to practice responsibility—they learn how their behavior affects the functioning of their communities. Students experience that they have an important role in defining and solving community problems. They also learn how to participate in collaborative decision making, gaining the capacity to identify common ground and negotiate compromises.

To learn more about Trusting Teachers with School Success or to purchase the book and get a 20% discount, click here.