Monthly Archives: March 2014

Education secretary applauds pick for Atlanta schools leader

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on Monday praised the selection of Austin Superintendent Meria Carstarphen as the sole finalist to become superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools.

“Meria’s record as a superintendent speaks for itself — student achievement that outperformed many urban school systems across the country and graduation rates that set new highs for Austin,” Duncan said in a statement. “I admire Meria’s deep belief in serving all students and holding herself accountable for their success.”

The Atlanta Board of Education could vote to hire Carstarphen at its April 14 meeting.

By Mark Niesse
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution


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Top Stories From Around The Country for 3/31

K-12 Education in a Post-Literate Age
American schools have entered the Age of Post-Literacy. Books, long idealized as foundational shapers of intellect, no longer mold young people’s minds. While continuing to tout their merits, educators marginalize books and have not come to grips with the book’s declining role in society. Continue Reading Here >>

Fight against Common Core not over in Indiana
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The national math and education standards outlined in the Common Core are everywhere at Indianapolis’ George S. Buck Elementary School. Stapled packets of the standards meant to guide what students learn in each grade hang outside classroom doors, and individual guidelines are cut out and displayed in the hallways next to hand-drawn graphs colored in crayon. A bill signed Monday by Gov. Mike Pence made Indiana the first state to revoke those standards, leaving what will replace them when the State Board of Education approves new standards before its July 1 deadline unclear.

Schools increasingly check students for obesity
CHULA VISTA, Calif. (AP) — The Chula Vista school district not only measures the academic progress of Marina Beltran’s second-grader, it also measures her son’s body fat. Every two years, Antonio Beltran, like his classmates, steps on a scale. Trained district personnel also measure his height and then use the two figures to calculate his body mass index, an indicator of body fat.

Colorado school expulsions drop following law
DENVER (AP) — Fewer Colorado students are being expelled in the wake of a statewide reform measure, according to a new study that could amplify Colorado’s voice in a growing nationwide debate over whether discipline procedures are setting students — particularly those from minority communities — on a path to prison and failure.

Fla. House keeps pushing major voucher expansion
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Backers of a Florida program that helps low-income children attend private schools, many of them religious, are trying a second time to move ahead a bill that would authorize a major expansion of the program.

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K-12 Education in a Post-Literate Age

American schools have entered the Age of Post-Literacy. Books, long idealized as foundational shapers of intellect, no longer mold young people’s minds. While continuing to tout their merits, educators marginalize books and have not come to grips with the book’s declining role in society. Over the last few years, my high school students’ facility for print culture has atrophied markedly. They also exhibit cognitive blind spots for narratives and higher meanings. Their educations even contribute to post-literacy.

I see symptoms of post-literacy vividly when I ask students to write research papers. For years, I had confidence in my ability to coach students’ research. I developed a surefire method: Let kids pursue their own interests, ask them lots of questions, proofread their drafts, give them plenty of written feedback, and reduce their anxiety by holding back on a grade until they have a strong product. It worked.

It no longer does. It has become clear that my students lack cultural memory for navigating books and libraries. Neither lazy nor stupid, these kids exemplify an epistemological shift. The novelist Philip Roth described post-literacy concisely in a 2012 interview, explaining his retirement from writing. “The readership is dying out,” he toldThe New York Times. “I’ve been saying it for 15 years. I said the screen will kill the reader, and it has. The movie screen in the beginning, the television screen, and now the coup de grace, the computer screen.”

Pundits engage in polarized debate predicting alternately that electronic media will hasten a “dark age” of inattentiveness or usher in a renaissance of creativity. Neither position addresses my classroom dilemmas. My students’ research efforts complicate those stark assertions about technology and learning. Watching them engage online, I see kids keyboarding frantically between search engines and websites, but their choice of keywords is rudimentary.

A student interested in the privatization of the U.S. military begins searching with “mercenaries.” He skims a dozen websites but finds most irrelevant. He refines at my suggestion, adding qualifiers such as “U.S. military, private contractors,” then modifies again with “Iraq,” “Afghanistan,” and “Blackwater”—the private military contractor. Awash in data, much of it poor-quality, he spends hours sifting while resisting my suggestions to visit his town library and search there using similar keywords. This 12th grader does not lack patience, but he is library-averse.

It is difficult to convince kids that most subjects they research have been written about in books. When they show me Wikipedia entries on their topics of choice, I ask them to raid the entry’s bibliography. They resist and return to the Internet.

To take students to a library is to encounter an anachronism. School libraries reflect post-literacy even in name. Many are rebranded as “media centers” or “active learning” facilities. Space once devoted to books has given way to computers, “literacy” activities, or “distance learning.” Book downsizing has left many secondary school libraries without a critical mass necessary for basic research.

Our field trips to a town or college library reveal widespread unfamiliarity with print culture. Students no longer know how to follow the Dewey Decimal System. Because they make poor keyword choices, kids miss useful books. Recently, an 11th grader told me during a visit to the town library that “there are no books here on Frederick Douglass.” (He misspelled “Douglass” in the search engine.) Another junior claimed “there are no books on the imprisonment of Japanese-Americans during World War Two.” He searched only for the keywords: “World War Two.” A 12th grader tried to convince me that “since I’m writing about the Internet’s effects on kids, all the relevant sources are online.” Once they find the books, students usually have to apply for a library card in order to check them out.

When I hand high schools kids a book for research, they weigh its heft and ask, “You don’t expect me to read this whole thing, do you?” I must show them how to spot an argument in an introduction, how chapter titles offer clues for relevant subject matter, and how an index gives page references for topics listed. A lack of familiarity with books is also suggested by the way kids casually refer to a monograph or biography as a “novel.”

Synthesizing information into original, compelling arguments has always been challenging for young people, but students today are more likely to stumble at this task than when I started teaching 29 years ago. Teachers contribute to intellectual fragmentation by overexuberance for tools such as PowerPoint. In 2002, academic statistician Edward R. Tufte criticized PowerPoint for distorting and manipulating thinking. He claimed that bulleted phrases on a PowerPoint slide make poor substitutes for “sentences with subjects and verbs,” cobbled into narratives. PowerPoint promotes a “faux analytical” method, Tufte asserted.

Neither Tufte’s admonition nor high-profile cases of misinformation delivered via PowerPoint (consider U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s 2003 United Nations presentation “proving” Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction) have inhibited educators’ use of that technology, or other forms employed merely because they exist. I knew a teacher who had students “tweet” messages between Gatsby and Daisy: a creative use of Twitter, but also dramatically at odds with the imaginative landscape and form of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novels.

Using the same style as PowerPoint, scoring rubrics similarly contribute to constrained thinking. Quantifying intellectual endeavor, rubrics rely on adjective-heavy phrases disconnected from narratives about what makes good scholarship. Teachers use rubrics to convey an illusion of precision in grading. Doing so, we wrongly suggest that academics can be boiled down to mechanistic formulae.

In a post-literate world, the late historian Eric Hobsbawm suggested, the dominant feelings are of information overload and disconnectedness. A pervasive sense exists that too much is happening too fast to understand. Hobsbawm described this “eerie” sensation in the early 1990s during the Internet’s infancy. He concluded that “most young men and women at the century’s end grow up in a sort of permanent present lacking any organic relation to the public past of the times they live in.” I believe such disconnect and overwhelm form a byproduct of the turn away from books.

Among counterarguments hailing the information age as a revolution in personal enlightenment, the education researcher Sugata Mitra articulates perhaps the most sweeping variant. In a TED talk, Mitra discusses providing students with technology (laptops, the Internet, “the cloud”) to “teach themselves.” He sees schools as props for a “bureaucratic administrative machine,” itself a byproduct of Western imperialism. I applaud Mitra’s boldness and am certainly no fan of imperialism. Yet there exists troubling, long-term evidence showing that young people who most readily access these new technologies become less independent. Today’s young Americans are, in the words of Steven Mintz, a historian of the family and children, “isolate[d] and juvenilize[d] … more than ever.”

Post-literate schooling does isolate students from narrative structures conveying meaning. It also juvenilizes via technologies that oversimplify and denigrate analysis. Such tools contribute to overwhelm and disconnect: Kids drown in data bereft of higher logic.

I have responded by assigning more books, selected for interest. I coach students away from taking bulleted, fragmented notes and insist they articulate higher meanings from our subject matter. I invite authors to the classroom to discuss their work. I bring boxes of books from my home and town libraries to assist research. I challenge kids’ use of technology and sweat my own. Still, I remain unsure whether such tactics do anything even to delay a post-literate future beyond my control.

By Christopher L. Doyle

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Spurned teachers, state workers preparing to flex political muscle

State lawmakers stamped out efforts to give 650,000 teachers, state employees and retirees a much greater say in their health coverage in the final hours of the 2014 session.

But that failed effort — and continuing problems for members of the $3 billion State Health Benefits Plan — have motivated thousands of teachers, state retirees and their families to vent their frustration at the ballot box.

The last time teachers moved to defeat a statewide candidate came in 2002, when Gov. Roy Barnes was ousted in part because of what educators considered his attack on their profession.

This time the motivating factors have been years of school spending cuts and, most recently, changes in health coverage that required teachers, state employees and retirees to pay much higher out-of-pocket costs in an effort to save the state money.

Activists say their efforts will be bipartisan, and mostly grass roots. But members of TRAGIC — which started as a Facebook-fueled protest in January — have made it clear they will be active in the upcoming elections, which begin May 20 with primaries for state and federal offices. State retirees say they are plenty motivated as well.

“For a long time, the feeling was teachers shouldn’t speak up about politics,” said John Palmer, a Cobb County middle school band director. “But we have seen an eroding of public support for education. Now people are realizing it’s all connected. It just got to the point where it became personal.”

All of this is relatively new to many of the teachers and family members active in the move to improve the health care plan.

An earlier group of activist teachers led protests from 2000-2002 against Barnes’ school reform efforts. Teachers complained that they felt the governor showed little respect for teachers, and they vowed to oust him even though, at the time, they were getting regular pay raises and seeing state school funding climb. They were one of several groups Barnes angered, and his loss ushered in the first Republican administration in Georgia since Reconstruction.

Today’s group has gone through several rounds of education budget cuts, forcing them to take days off without pay. Many have gone without meaningful raises since the start of the Great Recession, and some earn less than they did in 2008.

State employees have also not gotten raises, and retired state employees have gone without cost-of-living adjustments. Health care premiums through the State Health Benefits Plan have continue to rise.

Still, there was little organized political opposition until the Deal administration and his Department of Community Health (DCH) decided to save $200 million a year by changing the plan last year.

The changes went into effect Jan. 1 and forced many plan members to pay much higher out-of-pocket expenses when they sought treatment. Some plan members said medicine they’d been taking for years suddenly cost them 300 percent more. Plan members said they had to travel to find drugs they could afford or doctors who were part of their new network. One retired school system employee said oxygen tank deliveries she’d long been getting were cut back.

Ashley Cline, whose husband is a high school science teacher in Cherokee County, started a Facebook page, called Teachers Rally Against Georgia Insurance Changes, or TRAGIC, and the group’s membership mushroomed to nearly 15,000.

Deal, who faces re-election this year, quickly reacted in January by adding more than $100 million to the state budget to eliminate some of the high out-of-pocket costs. The General Assembly reacted by telling DCH that it needed to offer more insurance companies on the plan next year.

TRAGIC called those fixes “band-aids,” and joined with teacher groups, retirees and state employees in asking for representation on the DCH board, which approves the plan design.

Deal appoints those members, and Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, proposed a measure mandating at least two of them had to be on the state health insurance plan. His bill also called for a committee of plan members to be formed to advise the DCH’s commissioner.

McKoon said he was told his bill wouldn’t get a vote in the House after it had passed the Senate without opposition. So activists tried to get it attached to another House bill that would create a pilot program to cover weight-reduction surgery for some members of the State Health Benefits Plan. That amendment was dropped over concerns Deal would veto the original House bill. As the session wound down on the final day, March 20, Senate Democrats tried to attach it again to the House bill, but Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle disallowed it.

While that effort failed, Brian Robinson, the governor’s spokesman, said Friday that Deal will appoint a teacher to serve on agency panels that help develop and hire the private managers of the health care plan in the future. What that teacher’s role will be is unclear.

Even before the session ended, TRAGIC members were venting at state leaders on their Facebook page, calling for Deal’s ouster and criticizing the DCH board.

Cline said, “Everybody is going to want to be involved in the primary and the general election. We are trying to stick to our bipartisan roots.”

But she added, “We have a lot of members who are very angry at the governor and are very vocal.”

In a statement issued Friday, Deal’s campaign spokeswoman, Jennifer Talaber, said the governor headed into the campaign season “with a strong, positive relationship with educators.”

Palmer, the Cobb middle school band director, said the group is trying to expand beyond Facebook and is recruiting teachers throughout the state to be point persons for getting out information on candidates and issues. Palmer said members are looking for candidates who support education and improving their health coverage, regardless of party.

“I think our big challenge is to keep everyone active without looking through the partisan lens,” he said. “I am hoping we can at least get the issues out there.”

The health care changes have also riled other groups, such as state retirees. Bill Tomlinson, a former state budget director who has long been active in the Georgia State Retirees Association, said, “It brought them back to the awareness that they have to know what’s going on. We can’t sit back and assume they are going to take care of us, they have to be politically active.”

Former longtime Republican lawmaker Chuck Clay, now a statehouse lobbyist, said there are significant differences between the teacher revolt against Barnes in 2002 and the protests over the health plan now. Teacher anger at Barnes built over a few years leading up to the election and some felt he had personally attacked the profession.

Deal, on the other hand, tried to soothe things by adding money to the State Health Benefits Plan budget. Clay expects ongoing discussions this election year about ways to improve the plan. The governor also added more than $300 million to next year’s budget to help school districts eliminate furloughs, add days to the school year and give raises.

Such moves could help mollify at least some of the governor’s critics.

While no single group like teachers will decide the election, Clay said, “It’s not a group you want on the war path.”

By James Salzer
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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State school board could approve new teacher-principal evaluation system

Flunked that end-of-course math test? Sleepwalked through the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test?

Starting next school year, that might not be a worry just for students; it could be a problem for their teachers as well.

The state Board of Education could give final approval this week to a new evaluation system for teachers and principals that formally includes the academic performance of students. And those teachers whose students do poorly might face the possible loss of their teaching certification.

The new system, developed after Georgia won a $400 million federal education improvement grant, would be a departure from the way teacher performance is measured now, which is largely through subjective observation by an administrator.

Observation would still account for 50 percent of how teachers are rated, but the academic performance of their students — how much progress they’ve made and how they perform on standardized tests like end-of-course tests and the CRCT — would make up the other half.

Academic performance also would play a role in how assistant principals and principals are rated, as would student attendance rates and the retaining of effective teachers.

Teachers would get one of four ratings: exemplary, proficient, needs development or ineffective. Those who get an ineffective or needs-development rating in two years of any five-year period would not have their teaching certification renewed unless they got additional training or counseling to address their shortcomings.

The new system doesn’t appear to have caused a revolt among educators. Indeed, many in metro Atlanta already have been operating under a pilot version of the system for the past two or three school years.

That’s because 26 school districts, including six in the metro area, agreed to pilot some of the programs Georgia promised to implement when it applied for the $400 million Race to the Top grant. Some districts that are not part of the Race to the Top program in Georgia are also piloting the evaluation system.

If the state school board gives final approval Thursday, all districts in the state would go to the new system this fall.

That would not be bad news, said Susan Thompson, a social studies teacher at Tucker High in DeKalb County, where the new system has been used on a pilot basis for three years.

“It’s easier to have a clear idea of what they expect to see,” Thompson said.

Teachers would be rated on their professional knowledge; instructional planning; instructional strategies; providing individualized content and skills development for students when necessary; choosing valid strategies to assess students; gathering and analyzing information to improve teaching methods and provide feedback to students and parents; having a positive learning environment; maintaining an academically challenging environment; professionalism; and communication.

Assistant principals and principals would be rated on instructional leadership; school climate, planning and assessment; organizational management; human resources management; teacher/staff evaluation; professionalism; and communications/community relations. In each category, the administrator would be ranked on a scale from 1 to 4, with 1 being roughly equivalent to ineffective and 4 being similar to exemplary.

Like teachers with an ineffective or needs-improvement rating, administrators with an overall rating of 1 or 2 during two years of any five-year period would lose their teaching certificate if they did not get additional training or counseling.

Observation will account for half of the overall assessment for administrators. Student growth and achievement, based on performance on end-of-course tests, the CRCT and pre- and post-class assessments, will account for the other half.

Erin Robertson, principal at Peeples Elementary in Fayette County, cautioned that it’s not easy to measure a student’s academic growth.

“It has limits,” she said. “Students do not take the same assessment every year they are in school, so there is limited consistency in the assessments that are used to show growth. I would prefer a pre-test and a post-test for every grade level and subject.”

DeKalb teacher Thompson said using test results is a necessary but imperfect way of measuring the effectiveness of educators.

Still, she said, “I still think it’s putting a lot of importance on one test. What if they didn’t get enough rest the night before? What if there is a problem in the home? I do think (test scores) should be a component. I don’t think it should be the only component.”

The new system is markedly different from the one Georgia promised to implement when it applied for the Race to the Top grant. That system would have included a merit pay component tying changes in teacher pay to the academic performance of their students. Student surveys also were to be a formal part of the evaluation process for teachers.

State Superintendent John Barge, who was not in that job when the state applied for the grant, was successful in getting the U.S. Department of Education to agree to allow the student surveys to be for informational purposes only. Barge also has argued that a merit-pay component should be considered only after the reliability and fairness of the new system has been assessed.

Many educators agree with Barge’s stand. “Before you start to impact anybody’s pay, make sure the system can stand up to any concerns people would have about it,” said Sandra Nicholson, who has overseen implementation of the pilot evaluation system in Clayton County.

Officials at the U.S. Department of Education, however, remain unhappy that Georgia is not implementing the system it promised in its grant application and have begun the process of withholding a $10 million portion of the Race to the Top grant.

“From our perspective, a key component of their reform, to think about how you support effective and highly effective educators in front of the classroom, is not being met,” Ann Whalen, director of the federal department’s implementation support unit, said in a recent conference call with reporters. “We’re holding each state accountable to what it committed to.”

By Wayne Washington
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Top Stories From Around The Country for 3/29

Khan Academy, Open Ed. Providers Evolve With Common Core
Continuing its evolution from quirky disruptor of traditional classroom learning to mainstream player aligned with the education establishment, the nonprofit Khan Academy recently unveiled new online math resources tied to the Common Core State Standards. Observers say the materials­—which feature interactive high-tech user interfaces and sophisticated back-end software that adapts to individual learners—represent a critical step for the field of free “open education resources,” or OER.

Officials unveil reading improvement program
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (AP) — Superintendents from 70 school districts in 13 Michigan counties are supporting an effort to improve student reading by third grade. The Grand Rapids Press reports ( ) the Reading Now Network was unveiled Friday at the Kent Intermediate School District.

Teachers Lead the Way in Denver
A school born through collaboration attracted accomplished teachers, exemplifies leadership by teachers, and sets an example for students. We must shift away from schools in which teachers are factory workers assembling uniform “products,” argues author Lori Nazareno. Read More Here >>

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Teachers Lead the Way in Denver

A school born through collaboration attracted accomplished teachers, exemplifies leadership by teachers, and sets an example for students

By Lori Nazareno, Phi Delta Kappan

In 2007, I reached what I thought was a dead end. I had been teaching for 20 years, achieved my second National Board Certification, and founded an organization of National Board Certified Teachers in my district. I was not interested in becoming an administrator or going to central office because I loved teaching kids to love science. At the same time, I longed to influence even more students’ lives. What else could I aspire to as an accomplished teaching professional? How could I lead without leaving the classroom?

One day I received a phone call from Kim Ursetta, then president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, about an incredible opportunity. She wanted to know if I was interested in designing and launching a school that supported some of Denver’s most vulnerable students while also creating the professional environment that accomplished teachers so craved. From this space, we began to envision what ultimately became the Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy (MSLA), a teacher-led school that is part of the Denver Public Schools.

MSLA opened in August 2009 as a K-2 school that grew out of a collaborative effort among parties who are often at odds: teachers, the district (Denver Public Schools), and the union (Denver Classroom Teachers Association/Colorado Education Association/National Education Association).

More than 500 teachers applied for the initial 12 teaching positions and others quickly applied for teaching jobs that would open the following year when the school expected to add another grade. MSLA is now a K-5 school that enrolls 310 students and employs 22 teachers.

MSLA was intended to serve students in southwest Denver. Typically, 70% of MSLA’s 310 students are English language learners, 95% qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and 95% are Latino. The school is 100% a school of choice, which means that the school has no boundary and students from all over the Denver metro area apply to attend the school. There is no entrance criteria or qualifications; students who live in the immediate area are given first priority and then seats are awarded on a first-come, first-served basis. In cases where there are more applicants than there are seats, the district conducts a lottery and assigns students to the school.

At MSLA, teachers collaborate to make authentic and substantive decisions about how the school operates, seeking to meet each student’s needs. At teacher-led schools, teachers hire their own colleagues—and when appropriate, fire them—observe and evaluate one another, decide what professional development will best meet student needs, set budget priorities, determine staffing structures, and more.

About 60 teacher-led schools operate in the United States, although many more have started and closed or returned to traditional models.

Time for Teacher-led Schools

Schools and teaching have changed very little over the last 150 years in America. Sure, there are new props in classrooms—interactive whiteboards and satellite images rather than chalkboards and globes. But the structure of school experiences and teaching policies remain static. America clings to an industrial model of education even as nearly everything else about society transforms rapidly. We can’t afford to prepare students for a world that no longer exists.

We must shift away from schools in which teachers are factory workers whose role is to efficiently assemble uniform “products.” To prepare students as knowledge workers who will succeed in tomorrow’s economy, teachers must themselves operate as knowledge workers.

MSLA is showing how we can transform schools and the teaching profession. Each day, these teachers practice and model the skills that they’re charged with instilling in students. Teachers have ample opportunities to solve problems, collaborate, think creatively, take risks, persevere through challenges, and learn and lead with one another. Even as a veteran teacher, the professional stretch I experienced at MSLA helped me better understand the competencies my students needed to master.

Ted Kolderie of Education Evolving says, “If you want better people for the job, you need a better job for the people” (Kolderie, n.d.). The truth of the matter is that we already have “better” people on the job; we just never changed the job so those people could have as much effect on how and what students learn.

Although teachers have been required to hold bachelor’s degrees for about 50 years (Angus & Mirel, 2001), the structures of schools never changed to account for this highly educated workforce. Every year, bright, capable, and well-educated professionals enter teaching only to find themselves in factory-like positions that do not honor their knowledge and expertise. The current command-and-control environment in schools likely has a lot to do with the 50% attrition rate in the first five years of teaching. “Better people” need and want a “better job.”

Teacher-led schools can offer the kind of working conditions that the knowledge workers of today and tomorrow crave. Creating those conditions is what has enabled MSLA to survive and thrive.

Professional conditions

Teacher-led schools have a relentless focus on what is best for the students they serve. This focus is reflected in the design of the schools. Research told us that experiential learning would help our largely low-income Latino population build upon and deepen their prior knowledge as well as develop their language skills, so we incorporated service learning and passion areas into the school day. We also recognized that Latinos are sorely under-represented in mathematics and science majors and careers — and acknowledged that high-quality instruction in these areas can help students develop 21st-century skills. So we decided our elementary school would have a focus on math and science.

We knew we had to attract the strongest, most accomplished teachers for this school. We wanted teachers who could prove their effectiveness, accept responsibility for student outcomes, and design learning experiences to meet students’ unique needs. We did not need teachers who would thrive in a command-and-control style setting. The collaborative leadership structure that we designed helped us attract the accomplished teachers we needed. These teachers own what happens at the school.

The district and union collaboration that started the school set the tone for MSLA. But that was just the start. At MSLA, all teachers are part of at least one decision-making team. Teams include professional development, peer assistance and review, data, instruction, technology, and climate and culture. Each team has a representative on the School Leadership Team, which ensures that all decisions and actions are aligned with the larger mission, vision, and goals of the school. A complex set of interactions — involving lots of collaboration and communication—helps ensure that all teachers are leaders and contributors to the greater good of the school.

In Leadership and the New Science, Margaret Wheatley (2006) describes ownership as “the emotional investment of employees in their work… the powerful emotions of belonging that inspire people to contribute.” She goes on to say that “people support what they create…. We cannot talk people into our version of reality because nothing is real for them if they haven’t created it.”

At MSLA, teachers are able to create the conditions under which they work, which feeds a sense of ownership and shared responsibility. There is no longer anyone else to blame if something doesn’t get done or something doesn’t work. When the collective makes a decision, the collective must share responsibility for the implementation and results. “When push comes to shove, there is a truer sense of ‘all hands on deck’… I feel more responsible for ‘our’ children,” said Zachary Rupp, founding music teacher at MSLA.

The first line in the NEA Commission on Effective Teachers and Teaching report, Transforming Teaching: Connecting Professional Responsibility with Student Learning, is, “We envision a teaching profession that embraces collective accountability for student learning balanced with collaborative autonomy that allows educators to do what is best for students” (2011). Collective accountability coupled with collaborative autonomy attracts great teachers to MSLA—and helps keep them there.

Parental Ownership

The second key to the survival of MSLA has been the parents, who appreciate that their children’s teachers clearly have bought in to their success. Ruth Ocon-Neri, one of the current lead teachers at MSLA, became familiar with the schools as a parent. “I chose this school for my son because the teachers were running it. Teachers know what’s best for students. Empowering teachers is powerful for students,” she said.

The level of ownership that parents feel toward the school also contributes to its success. Parents know they’re a valued part of the school community, that their voices are heard, and that their opinions help guide the direction of the school.

After only three years in operation, the district was considering moving MSLA to another building. At that point, the school was not yet fully built out, and there was concern whether the model could survive such a significant change. The staff approached parents to gather their thoughts and invite them to weigh in on the decision. In response to the proposed move, the parents organized themselves to voice their concerns at the district level. Ultimately, the school did not move, largely because of parent opposition.

Legal Structures

One of the concrete ways that the district and union collaborated to create MSLA was by securing waivers from the Colorado State Board of Education, thus allowing the school to operate without a principal. The district, local school board, and union also collaborated in creating a memorandum of understanding to accompany the local collective bargaining agreement, replacing the word “principal” with “lead teacher.” These legal documents, while quite technical in nature, have contributed to MSLA’s operational success as a teacher-led school.

District and Union Support

Collaboration didn’t just set up the paperwork for MSLA’s success. Because the founding teachers, district, and unions helped create the school, all have a stake in ensuring its continued success. Of particular significance is the support for lead teachers in terms of school operations and the responsibilities normally reserved for a principal.

Principals have numerous responsibilities, which, if handled well, are never seen by teachers. Although an accomplished teacher is likely well-equipped to be an instructional leader, the job of school leader comes with other managerial responsibilities. Among the ways that the district and union helped MSLA in this area was by connecting lead teachers to former principals who acted as advisers and mentors. These former principals coached the lead teachers through the various responsibilities traditionally addressed by someone in the principal role. This support structure has remained in place as part of the commitment to supporting school leaders across the district. The district and union have also been supportive of efforts to design and implement a peer assistance and review process where teachers observe, give feedback, and evaluate each other. Engaging in this process required modifications in both district policy and master agreement that were quite significant and required a considerable amount of collaboration.


If schools are to become what students need them to be, then students must see their teachers engaged in cognitive challenges that push their creativity and collaboration. Through this modeling, students can begin to develop those skills themselves. Teachers need the autonomy to incubate and execute their own bold solutions while both teaching and leading. That means schools must change from the conveyor-belt industrial model to an individualized learner knowledge worker model. Redesigning schools in these ways will more effectively prepare the citizens of tomorrow.

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