Evolution of Schools with Teacher Autonomy

Web Resource • June 2011

As schools with teacher autonomy hit the national media in fall 2010, we thought it would be helpful to provide what we know about the evolution of the idea and its practice.

Asking “Where did schools with teacher autonomy start?” is like asking where a river starts. You have to go upstream, where you will find no single source, but several little streams flowing together. Earlier efforts to create “professional communities of practice” and to advance “site-based management” suggested that teachers ought to have larger roles, but never fully contemplated the professional practice of teachers. Ruth Anne Olson’s 1980s concept of teacher ownership of professional practices made a real impact on the notion of what would be possible if teachers had autonomy to control what matters for school success.

This timeline documents the critical roles school districts, unions, and chartering laws have had since then, in developing teacher autonomy and greater professional roles for teachers.

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1970, 1972

Two district schools with teacher autonomy open on opposite coasts

San Francisco Community School
San Francisco Community School

Two district schools, San Francisco Community School (K-8) and High School in the Community (9-12) in New Haven open on opposite coasts. Both offer students new, different learning models, with SFCS offering project-based learning to at-risk students and HSC offering service-learning. The teaching groups were not aware of one another. Throughout the 1970s a number of schools with teacher autonomy appear in the independent school sector, but not much happens in public school settings.


Ruth Anne Olson begins to develop “teacher ownership” ideas

Ruth Anne Olson
Ruth Anne Olson

Ruth Anne Olson develops the idea of teacher ownership of professional practices as a consultant to a Minnesota project entitled Public School Incentives. Her work is supported by several foundations including Northwest Area Foundation, First Bank System Foundation (now US Bancorp), F.R. Bigelow Foundation, Medtronic Foundation and Fingerhut Corporation Foundation.

1983, 1986

Two reports, A Nation at Risk and A Nation Prepared, stimulate cultural shift

A Nation at Risk

Two reports, A Nation at Risk (National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983) and A Nation Prepared: Teachers for the 21st Century (Carnegie Forum on Education and The Economy, 1986), stimulate a cultural shift. ‘Restructuring’ seems more possible. The Carnegie Forum foresees schools with teacher autonomy being in operation by the 21st Century and becoming increasingly common over time.


Foundations support the development of two reports on teacher autonomy

Medtronic Foundation, Fingerhut Corporation Foundation and Public School Incentives support the development and production of two 1986 reports: Private Practice in Public School Teaching. Book I: The Concept, Need and Design, by Ted Kolderie, who would become founding partner of Education|Evolving, and Private Practice in Public School Teaching. Book II: The Experiences of Teachers and School Administrators by Ruth Anne Olson. Olson works as a consultant, locating teachers willing to work with a new model and showing them how to do it. She finds there is no market for teachers in K-12 education wanting to work on contract.

Late 1980s

Wisconsin educators explore contracting their services to school districts

Senn Brown, Chris Yelich and a small group of enterprising educators in Wisconsin get interested in Olson’s ideas and begin to form a network for like-minded teachers who want to contract with Wisconsin school districts.


Wisconsin educators formalize their network, influencing 1993 charter law

Wisconsin State Capitol

The network formed by Brown and Yelich formalizes as the American Association of Educators in Private Practice (AAEPP), with a key goal of changing the way teachers think about their careers. AAEPP advances the idea that teachers can go into business for themselves. The Wisconsin Association of School Boards (Brown being its director of legislative services) is also involved, and their interest in contracting to receive instructional services in schools influences the design of the Wisconsin chartering law first passed in 1993. For several years, AAEPP draws increasingly large groups to meetings. At first the interest is in teachers forming professional practices but eventually the group’s focus changes to business firms and entrepreneurs getting contracts with districts.


Minnesota Le Sueur-Henderson school district concludes it “needs options”

Minnesota’s Le Sueur-Henderson District Superintendent Harold Larson and School Board Chair Virginia Miller lead a strategic planning process, which concludes that the district needs more innovation and freedom of choice.

1992 – 1993

Teachers from Le Sueur-Henderson develop Minnesota New Country School

Minnesota New Country School
Minnesota New Country School

Encouraged by the outcomes of the 1992 strategic planning process of the Le Sueuer-Henderson school district, and Minnesota’s 1991 Chartering Law (the first in the nation), a group of entrepreneurial individuals from LeSueur-Henderson develop and propose Minnesota New Country School, a chartered school with a self-directed, project-based learning model for students in grades 6-12. The group includes a school board member, three teachers and parents. This group also determines they want more satisfying, professional roles for teachers. At the suggestion of Ted Kolderie and an attorney Dan Mott, they decide to form a workers’ cooperative called EdVisions. Members of the cooperative—teachers—would be accountable for running the school. In winter 1993, Le Sueur-Henderson School District voted to authorize MNCS knowing it would be run by teachers.


EdVisions, a cooperative of teachers, contracts with MNCS Board

EdVisions Cooperative contracts with the Minnesota New Country School (MNCS) school board, accepting accountability for school success in exchange for authority to make decisions about the school. The school and cooperative open to the public. The MNCS school board transfers a lump-sum to EdVisions to carry out its contract. With their authority the teachers determine curriculum, set the budget, choose the level of technology available to students, determine their own salaries, select their colleagues, and monitor performance.


Boston district forms “pilot schools” to retain teachers after chartering law passed

Center for Collaborative Education - facilitator of the Boston Pilot Schools network
CCE, facilitator of the Boston
Pilot Schools network

Also in 1994, Boston Public Schools designs “pilot schools” in an effort to retain teachers and students after the Massachusetts Legislature passed a state chartering law in 1993. Under the pilot agreement, the BPS Superintendent delegates authority to pilot schools’ governing boards to try new and different means of improving teaching and learning in order to better serve at-risk urban students. The potential now exists for the boards to put more decision-making in teachers’ hands. Some do, some don’t.

Pilot Schools are overseen by the district’s Chief Academic Officer. All take part in a city-wide network facilitated by Dan French at the non-profit Center for Collaborative Education. CCE provides schools with coordination support and assistance, including coaching services, professional development, advocacy, and research and evaluation. As part of this work, CCE later develops Five Conditions of Autonomy for schools.


Boston Pilot School governing boards augment teachers’ authority

A handful of Boston Pilot School governing boards use the authority vested in them to augment teachers’ authority and accountability to varying degrees (at Boston Day and Evening Academy and Fenway in 1996; later Mission Hill, Boston Arts Academy, Another Course to College, BTU School). Note: Other Boston Pilot Schools try different arrangements. These are the ones specifically providing some autonomy to teachers.


Gates Foundation invests $4.3 million in EdVisions, to replicate the model

Gates Foundation

Tom Vander Ark, then head of the education program for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, visits EdVisions Cooperative and Minnesota New Country School (MNCS). In June, the foundation invests $4.3 million in EdVisions Cooperative to replicate the model it created at MNCS in 15 Midwest schools.

As expansion rolls out, under Doug Thomas’ leadership, some of these schools use the MNCS-brand of teacher autonomy while others adopt arrangements where teachers have less authority. With support from what came to be known as the Gates-EdVisions Project, run by EdVisions Schools, Avalon School (St. Paul) opens in 2001. Avalon teachers use the authority to do everything teachers at MNCS do, and they decide to hire administrators who work for/are accountable, to them. Teachers also pass along their autonomy to students, giving them a voting branch of governance and the ability to direct their own learning.

Also that summer John Parr, a 20+ year officer of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and his daughter Cris Parr, a 13-year building representative for the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association (MTEA), visit MNCS. Driving back to Milwaukee, they come up with the idea for a union-compatible model.


Teachers create first Milwaukee union-compatible school with teacher autonomy

Individualized Developmental Educational Approaches to Learning (I.D.E.A.L.)
I.D.E.A.L. School

John and Cris Parr approach the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association (MTEA) with their concept. MTEA was supportive of them moving forward to develop and open Individualized Developmental Educational Approaches to Learning (I.D.E.A.L.), a K-8 school instrumentality-chartered by Milwaukee Public Schools. The Parrs had a number of subsequent meetings with MTEA on the details. In the Milwaukee arrangement, teachers keep their economic life with district employment via a memorandum of understanding with the district and union that provides waivers from the master contract. Much of the autonomy for teachers is arranged via the charter contract between the school board and the school. I.D.E.A.L. opens in September 2001. Its success paves the way for 12 additional schools run by teacher-cooperatives to be instrumentality-chartered by Milwaukee Public Schools between 2002 and 2009, with assistance from John Parr. Two of these schools have since closed.

Sept 2001

Education|Evolving hosts national meeting on teacher ownership

Education Evolving

Education|Evolving holds a national meeting on teacher-ownership to bring the idea into the national discussion about the future of public education. Hamline University and Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund cosponsor the event held in St. Paul. E|E coins the term Teacher Professional Partnerships (TPPs), advancing the idea of teachers being in charge of their schools the way other professionals are in charge of their law firms, medical groups and architectural or engineering practices. A teacher autonomy arrangement is a TPP if there is: (1) a group of teachers working in partnership (collectively as a group) at the school, and (2) real delegation of authority to the partnership to manage or arrange for the management of the school.


Gates Foundation invests another $4.5 million in EdVisions

Seeing that EdVisions Schools was able to successfully scale its model using the grant made in 2000, the Gates Foundation makes an additional $4.5 million investment for EdVisions to replicate its Design Principles in 20 new high schools nationwide. EdVisions Schools eventually include in-district schools with unionized teachers such as Phoenix High School in Kennewick, Washington and TAGOS (Tailoring Academics to Guide Our Students) in Janesville, Wisconsin. Separately, EdVisions Cooperative evolves to serve varying models of schools with teacher autonomy. By 2004, EdVisions Cooperative has 144 members serving nine schools and it continues to expand.

Joe Graba, Founding Partner of Education|Evolving, first introduces the idea to the Teacher Union Reform Network (TURN). Graba remains active with the network today.

June 2002

Edward J. Dirkswager publishes Teachers as Owners

Teachers as Owners

Edward J. Dirkswager, editor, publishes Teachers as Owners (Scarecrow Press) with a team of experts from education, health care, and law. The book, an introduction to the concept and TPP start-up guide, asks, “What if teachers were owners, not employees?” and “demonstrates how being an owner rather than an employee can give teachers control of their professional activity, including full responsibility and accountability for creating and sustaining high performing learning communities.”


Public Agenda survey: 58% of teachers interested in schools run by teachers

Public Agenda

Public Agenda tests a national sample of teachers’ attitudes for new arrangements as reported in Stand By Me: What Teachers Really Think About Unions, Merit Pay and Other Professional Matters.

Findings are that 58 percent of teachers were somewhat or very interested “in working in a (chartered) school run and managed by teachers”; this includes 65 percent of under-five year teachers and 50 percent of veteran (20 years and over) teachers.

Aware of the growing number of schools with teacher autonomy appearing nationally, Education|Evolving prepares an inventory to describe the emerging arrangements’ organizational structures. Joe Graba introduces the idea to the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards and Teach for America, which take interest but don’t advance the idea.


Minneapolis Federation of Teachers advocates legislation allowing for a school to become self-governed

The Minneapolis Federation of Teachers forms the Site-Governed School (SGS) Committee and includes union-friendly district administrators, Education|Evolving and the Minnesota Business Partnership to develop legislation that would allow teacher autonomy in district schools. The Minnesota Legislature passes a bill saying if 60 percent of the teaching staff wants to transition to become a SGS, they can go forward and apply to the state. A $50,000 planning grant is made available to the first five Minneapolis Public Schools that applied. Only one school takes advantage. According to MFT President Lynn Nordgren, “The problem was that people were hesitant to invest their time in the effort. Even if teachers applied, there was no guarantee that the district would allow it to happen.”


Schools with teacher autonomy emerge in California and Baltimore

Chrysalis School in Palo Cedro, CA
Chrysalis School in Palo Cedro, CA

Unaware of the other schools with teacher autonomy, Paul and Alysia Krafel and other teachers at the ten-year-old Chrysalis Charter School in Palo Cedro, California form a teacher cooperative to manage the school. Teachers’ authority at Chrysalis is made formal in the school’s charter, which is authorized by the Shasta County Office of Education. Once a museum school, Chrysalis now offers hands-on science and nature learning.

Also unaware of other models, the Baltimore Teachers Network moves to start schools with teacher autonomy chartered by Baltimore City Public Schools, in which teachers retain their union membership. The ability for teachers to manage the schools is written into the chartering agreements. They start ConneXions Community Leadership Academy (6-12) and Independence School, Local 1 (9-12, formerly a district pilot program) in 2006 and 2007, respectively. The schools serve students who might have otherwise dropped out of school.

Expansion and development of Minnesota and Milwaukee schools with teacher autonomy, as well as growing national interest, inspires Education|Evolving to produce a second edition of its national inventory describing the emerging organizational structures and learning programs teachers put in place when they are in charge.

Dec 2006

Teacher autonomy appears in Tough Choices or Tough Times report

Tough Choices or Tough Times

The 1986 Carnegie Forum vision of schools with teacher autonomy reappears in a December report of The New Commission on The Skills of the American Workforce, Tough Choices or Tough Times, by Marc Tucker.


Los Angeles teachers union launches “Belmont Zone of Choice”

United Teachers of Los Angeles and the surrounding community launch the Belmont Zone of Choice, modeled after Boston Pilot Schools. After initial success, UTLA “overwhelmingly” votes to expand the number of schools in 2009. By 2010 there are 11 schools, and a new Kennedy Zone of Choice emerges.


Minnesota Legislature passes the 2009 Site-governed Schools law

Minnesota State Capitol
Minnesota State Capitol

To improve Minneapolis teachers’ willingness to start Site-governed Schools, the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers and Education|Evolving join forces again to expand the 2005 legislation (see above). The Minnesota Legislature passes the 2009 Site-governed Schools law, allowing for the creation of schools inside districts that enjoy the same autonomy and exemption from state regulation as schools in the chartering sector. School and teacher autonomy is spelled out explicitly in the law, leaving little to doubt and dispute. The teachers in schools created under the law may have significant control over who works there, what learning model is used, how the budget is allocated, and the schedule of the school days and year. These details are arranged through districts’ agreements with applicants who wish to start and run a site-governed school, and the schools are judged on results.

School districts and teachers’ unions in Minneapolis, St. Paul, Staples-Motley, and Rochester begin investigating the SGS opportunity (Note: SGS have the opportunity to give teachers autonomy, but do not have to). St. Paul teachers include a commitment to design a site-governed schools development process in their contract. After some delay/hesitation, the Minneapolis Public Schools Board of Education approves the first Minneapolis SGS with teacher autonomy. The French Immersion School, Pierre Bottineau, is set to open in fall 2011.


More teachers’ unions move to professionalize teaching

More teachers’ unions move to professionalize their members’ roles. Denver Classroom Teachers Association proposes the start-up of the district school with teacher autonomy, the Math and Science Leadership Academy. Boston Teachers Union starts the BTU School, a pilot school with teacher autonomy.

Also in 2009, Education|Evolving advances the teacher autonomy concept further, releasing videos of teachers and students who work in teacher professional partnerships and also videos that introduce the concept. E|E embarks on a research project called “Teacher Autonomy: What Happens When Teachers Control What Matters for School Success?” beginning with identifying schools with teacher autonomy nationwide and assessing their areas of authority. In fall 2010 E|E visits 11 schools nationally to answer the research question.

Fall 2009

John Wilson, NEA Executive Director, visits Milwaukee union-compatible schools

John Wilson, NEA Executive Director
John Wilson, NEA Executive Director

Having become interested in the Milwaukee arrangement, John Wilson, Executive Director of the National Education Association and John Wright, President of the Arizona Education Association make a fall trip to see the schools with teacher autonomy and visit with the MTEA. Marc Tucker, author of the 2006 report Tough Choices or Tough Times joins them.


Teachers meet with Arne Duncan to explain “teacher professional partnerships”

U.S. Secretary of Ed, Arne Duncan
U.S. Secretary of Ed, Arne Duncan

On April 27, Carrie Bakken, teacher at Avalon School in St. Paul and Brenda Martinez, teacher at Academia de Lenguaje y Bellas Artes (ALBA) in Milwaukee meet with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and many of his senior staff to explain teacher professional partnerships. In the meeting, as described by Beth Hawkins in MinnPost.com, Bakken and Martinez describe how the TPP arrangement fundamentally changes and improves school conditions for teachers and students. They explain that when teachers have autonomy very different types of schools emerge, and today’s issues around tenure, compensation, and teacher evaluation are resolved.

July 2010

Minnesota Federation of Teachers receives grant to develop independent charter authorizer

Minneapolis Federation of Teachers Logo

The American Federation of Teachers announces it is making an innovation fund grant to the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers to develop a new independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization which, if approved by the Minnesota Department of Education, will serve as an authorizer of chartered schools throughout the state. This new organization will have a separate board of directors and be completely independent from MFT. MFT considers the chartering route to seek greater professional roles for its teacher-members after receiving little support from the Minneapolis Public Schools Board of Education to advance teacher autonomy using the Site-governed Schools model (see 2005 and 2009, above).

Fall 2010

Front page NYT story on teacher autonomy; national news coverage begins

In August and September, the national media begins to report on schools with teacher autonomy appearing in Denver (Math and Science Leadership Academy, in-district and union-supported) and other areas around the nation. Coverage is further fueled by a front page story in the New York Times on September 6th, 2010. Education|Evolving tracks the national coverage here: http://www.delicious.com/edevolving/tpp

Ted Kolderie, Founding Partner of Education|Evolving describes the idea as central to the national discussion about teachers and teacher unions spurred by the film Waiting for Superman.


Education|Evolving releases a new inventory of schools with teacher autonomy

Education|Evolving releases a new National Inventory of Schools with Teacher Autonomy.

Last updated 6/16/2011