How teachers who call the shots can broaden the definition of achievement

December 6, 2012 • Kim Farris-Berg

Teacher partnerships create innovative learning programs, often rooted in research, for the students they serve. But what is considered “achievement” under the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) remains the same. If students don’t achieve by NCLB’s definition, then schools are at risk of closing and teachers are at risk of losing their autonomy, even if the students are achieving by other measures. Teachers explained, “This can hinder our ability—and destroy our incentive to innovate!”

Paul Krafel, naturalist and teacher/founder of Chrysalis Charter School, which emphasizes the study of nature, recently explained to the Teachers in Partnership Web Community what happened when natural resource management agencies narrowed their measures of achievement. Teachers who call the shots, he said, have a very important role in broadening the definition of achievement and warning the K-12 community about the dangers associated with the status quo.

Krafel wrote:

In the book, Barriers and Bridges to the Renewal of Ecosystems and Institutions, a group of natural resource managers did case studies on situations where resource management agencies messed up the ecosystem they were managing. The pattern these researchers found was that the agencies created a narrow measure by which they evaluated their management (such as board feet of lumber grown each year).

This had two main effects. The first effect is that focusing on just a few variables led to management practices that made the ecosystem, in their word, “brittle”. Resilience was lost. The ecosystem grew unstable and eventually crashed. The second effect is that the narrow focus of the agency blinded them to these changes. They didn’t see them developing because they were just watching a few pieces of the whole. When there were warning signals, they came from, again in their words, “maverick scientists” such as college professors who were studying the entire ecosystem with their classes.

I like to think of teachers who call the shots as maverick scientists, doing research that looks wider than test scores. I know that many of the families that enroll with the schools we create come because, in some way, they are feeling a brittleness growing within their local school.

The new book, Trusting Teachers with School Success further explores this topic and shows how teachers who call the shots are frustrated with what they see as a very narrow definition of student achievement.