A Teacher’s Reflections on Reinventing America’s Schools

This post was written by Julene Oxton, a founding teacher of Impact Academy, a school in Lakeville Public Schools, and now the Innovation Coordinator for the district.

Last week David Osborne, author of the new book Reinventing America's Schools, visited Minnesota as part of his 28 city nationwide tour to celebrate its release. The reception and discussion of his book gave the audience a glimpse of a new paradigm emerging for public education that fits the realities of the 21st century.

To highlight this new system, Osborne provided examples where this is already happening—Denver, Washington D.C., and New Orleans—and explained that the new system relies on school autonomy, accountability, and choice.

As a long time educator, ambassador of teacher-powered schools, and Innovation Coordinator for the suburban district of Lakeville, MN, I find this structural shift more than intriguing. It brings me hope. I am inspired by the ideas, was honored to be on the panel at this event, and am excited to share a few further reflections in this blog post.

Accountability Without Autonomy Doesn’t Work

Since starting my teaching career in 1984, one year after the A Nation At Risk report was put out by the Reagan administration, all I have known is the continued emphasis on increased rigor, standardization, and teacher evaluations.

As I watched autonomy for teachers and school leaders decrease, and accountability on schools increase, I saw teachers slowly relinquish the power to meet the needs of their learners. Although the intent behind the national effort was to raise achievement, it didn’t happen. Failing schools and the achievement gap still remain. Why? Primarily because in the industrial, bureaucratic model of American schools, teachers are not the primary decision makers.

Accountability without autonomy doesn’t work. As Osborne states in his book, “Being relatively powerless, people become invested in being victims. To avoid any sense that they are responsible, they blame others for all the problems.” Teachers and students become the victims within an old system that wasn’t designed for every learner to succeed. It was designed to deliver knowledge in chunks, at certain times, and in the same way for all students. That made sense in the Industrial Age.

However, now as teachers are being asked to prepare an increasingly diverse student body for a changing 21st century world, this model no longer makes sense. The Information Age model described in New Orleans, Washington D.C., and Denver empowers teachers and school leaders with full autonomy to “row” or operate the school, while the district central office, superintendents, and school boards focus on “steering” by setting the direction and ensuring that schools deliver the results desired.

Autonomy Unleashes Creativity and Makes Accountability “Real”

Seven Lakeville teachers, including myself, recently experienced the creative power that can be released through autonomy, as we designed and launched a new school model within our district.

We created that school, Impact Academy, to be learner-centered. Our team reallocated resources and created new ways to utilize personnel, schedules, technology, standards, and space, so we could better meet the needs of our individual learners. Our goal was to use our autonomy to create the conditions for students to gain agency and be empowered to own their learning. Now, two years into full school implementation, the entire teaching staff are striving to fully “row” their school. Teachers are no longer working in isolation, but instead are finding solutions together. This model attracts teachers and students, which is evident in the 98 percent staff retention rate and student enrollment waitlist.

I’ve also observed high levels of accountability emerging within the teaching staff, as they become the primary decision makers in areas of operation. There is no longer a need to get ‘buy in’ from staff. Instead, high functioning collaboration and laser focus on a common purpose has created internal accountability. The powerless blaming has given way to taking responsibility for the decisions the teacher leaders are making. This has created a culture where teachers feel accountable to each other, to do well for all students.

Dividing Up “Rowing” and “Steering” Duties Enables Efficiency

Another benefit of delineating who is rowing and who is steering, from what I have observed as a teacher leader working at the district level, is efficiency. When the central office and school board try to both steer and row, it is difficult to focus on their core purpose of creating conditions for their customers (learners and families) to get an equal shot at a high quality education. I have experienced, as part of a district office, getting pulled into “rowing” activities soon to find a school is also “rowing”, thus duplicating efforts or complicating the focus for the staff.

Clear roles enable efficiency. The ideal role for districts is “steering” rather than “rowing”. As Osborne argues, “In an effective 21st century system, those steering play four key roles: authorizing, regulating, managing resources and speaking up for the needs of families and children.”

A Win-Win for Students, Families, and Unions as Well

Releasing autonomy to the teacher leaders of individual schools and freeing up the central office to steer the district also creates a win-win for students, families, and the teacher unions.

Students and families gain because teachers use autonomy to design schools for the unique student populations they serve, and families can choose schools that best meet their needs. The variety of choices offered within a district creates healthy competition, much like in the charter sector. This competition, combined with family demand for education to be adaptable in the Informational Age culture, creates an ecosystem of excellence.

My experience as an empowered teacher leader and member of the local teachers’ union in Lakeville, leads me to believe this new paradigm is also a win for the teaching profession. Teacher unions constantly strive to increase the professionalism of their members. What could meet that goal more than an autonomous, teacher-powered school where teachers make decisions as true professionals?

It’s critical that all stakeholders that have an investment in the education of the future generations take a long look at the system we are under. Unless we radically change our archaic system of public education, it will continue to produce the results it was designed to produce. Let’s trust the teachers at the school sites to do the rowing and free up the district central offices to steer the American schools toward learner-centered environments to address our issues of quality, equity, and choice for all students.

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