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Teachers rule at this school

No head, no classrooms, no timetable, no national curriculum. Karen Thornton visits a radical US model where teaching staff hire, fire and balance the budget

"FREEING teachers to teach" and "individualised learning tailored to children's needs" are familiar mantras of our Education Secretary. One of Estelle Morris's paths to both goals is to increase the number of classroom assistants. Across the pond, however, they are trying something more radical to boost teachers' dented professionalism: ownership.

There is no headteacher at Minnesota New Country School, a 120-pupil high school (secondary) in Henderson (population 910), an hour's drive out of MinneapolisSt Paul. There are no lessons, no classrooms (apart from a science laboratory and a workshop), no timetable, no national curriculum, no school uniform.

The students have to take certain tests and meet standards, as set down in the contract between the school and the district (education authority). But how they meet those standards is down to them and their "advisers" (teachers). Guided by advisers, pupils pursue their personal interests in individualised cross-curricular projects which make extensive use of computers. More formal lessons are occasionally laid on in response to student demand.

The advisers set the example of self-direction. They hire, fire, evaluate and remunerate themselves. They have full control over the school budget, and have invested heavily in information technology. They also exercise their own judgment when it comes to determining teaching programmes and assessment methods. And between them, they share out the more tiresome tasks of finance, paperwork, and property management.

The teachers are all members of EdVisions, a co-operative which has contracted with MNCS, a "charter" school, to provide teaching and learning services. In 1991, Minnesota was the first US state to introduce charter laws - allowing publicly-funded schools to be run independently under contract from the district board. Most of the 2,500-plus charter schools are run by companies like EdVisions: contracts set out minimum performance targets, but sponsors are free to decide how best to reach them.

It is a freedom MNCS's staff value. Teachers in the US have many things in common with their colleagues in the UK: a third leave after five years in the profession, and those in the inner cities quit sooner.

They feel unloved by the public and undermined by political demands for better standards and the resulting bureaucracy of tests, targets and plans, put in place to hold them to account.

Dean Lind has been at the school for seven of its eight years: "If you are going to effect change in a school, you have to give people the responsibility to make those changes, if they are going to be held accountable for them. If I'm going to be graded and evaluated on my ability to make students more successful, then it's completely illogical not to give me the power to change those things I think necessary."

Dee Thomas, the school's lead teacher, is also president of the Minnesota association of charter schools, and on the state board of teaching. Frustrated at her inability to change things, she quit a better-paid principal's job to join MNCS. "This was everything I thought I would be able to do as a principal, and couldn't because of the bureaucracy. I could be pro-active, work with kids, and have some ownership of what was going on."

MNCS is not claiming fantastic student results. Dr Ron Newell, EdVisions learning programme director, says the "success rate is comparable" to state averages on college entrance exam scores and the proportion of students going into higher education - although MNCS has more special needs pupils (30 per cent compared to 11).

EdVisions is now trying to replicate the co-operative ownership model at seven other schools and expects to have 15 in due course - thanks in large part to a US$4.4 million (around pound;3.15m) grant over five years from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

They include El Colegio, in Minneapolis, where most of the 75 students are Spanish-speaking. The school is on the edge of gangland-and-drugs territory. Its founders, frustrated by the mainstream system, were already working on something different from the traditional high school, and took on EdVisions' co-operative governance model as well.

George Sand, managing director, said: "The kids were great, the teachers were great, the administrators were great, but it's the system. Kids fall through the cracks. If we wanted a different kind of school, we needed a different management model. It appealed to us to have more people take responsibility."

However, no one says the ownership model is an easy one.

"We really believe the democratic governance is good for teachers. But I can't prove that this can work other than in these small localities for these number of years," said Dr Newell.

"And it's not for everyone. Not every teacher will want to operate this way, because there is something to be said for the comfort zone."

That zone includes job security. Advisers are on one-year renewable contracts, and can be (and have been) laid off if their colleagues think they are not pulling their weight. The unions generally are suspicious of the charter school movement, particularly of its attitude to teachers' pay and conditions.

Louise Sundin, president of the Minneapolis federation of teachers, which represents around 5,000 teachers, said: "They have a very outmoded view of unions and in some ways they are trying to get out of or around union contracts. The goals (of EdVisions) are admirable, but I'm not convinced as to the extent to which it's a shared leadership model. We would like shared leadership to be the model for all teachers."

Such a model is set out in the union's current contract with the district, which covers Minneapolis's mainstream publicly-funded schools.

Site-leadership teams - made up of elected and appointed teacher, parent, student, business and community representatives - are expected to make key policy decisions covering the budget, staffing and the curriculum, much like governing bodies in England and Wales.

There is another co-operative model. In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, staff at the I.D.E.A.L charter school are in a co-operative but remain employees of the district board. Joseph Graba, one of the contributors to a new book on teachers as owners, says the arrangement is "less threatening": teachers retain their seniority, pensions and other benefits, and if things do not work out in a co-operative school they can return to a traditional one. But they do have control over the staffing pattern in the school, the budget as a whole, and all the key decisions on curriculum, pupil management and assessment.

Co-author Ted Kolderie, one of the proponents of the original charter laws, believes the unions have failed to think through teacher-ownership models.

"The unions have heard about contracting out, and it always means people losing their jobs. And on that basis they are against it. If you say we are talking about the maths department of your school forming a professional association and contracting with the authority for the work they are currently doing, they've never been asked to do that," he said.

The question in the UK is whether ministers - and teachers and unions - are ready to make a similar leap. Ministers talk of freeing up teachers, but what they generally mean is freeing up heads of some already successful schools to try out some innovations. Allowing schools to drop the whole national curriculum and testing regime, or agreeing to fund small fee-paying schools which have already opted for something different, such as the 15 in association with Human Scale Education, may seem a step too far.

Neil McIntosh, chief executive of the Centre for British Teachers, a not-for-profit education services provider, which is hosting a presentation by Dr Newell in London next week, said it was interested in opening up the debate about teacher ownership. He said: "How can employment models allow teachers to develop their own sense of professionalism? However, the most negative part of the education system is teachers' morale, and this is a way of addressing those concerns."

See www.edvisions.com, www.hse.org.uk, www.essentialschools.org. "Teachers as Owners: A Key To Revitalizing Public Education," edited by Edward Dirkswager, is published in June, see www.scarecroweducation.com or www.amazon.com. Telephone Lucy Winherah on 0118 902 1000 to attend Dr Newell's June 11 presentation in London

LET THE STAFF DECIDE

SMALL schools - where you can physically gather all the staff together around one table to make decisions - are the key to making a teacher co-operative work, according to EdVisions.

At Avalon high school, in St Paul, Minnesota, nine people are having a staff meeting around a big oval table. Andrea Martin is the lead teacher, but Nora Whalen is the one steering her colleagues through an agenda ranging from the pre-summer holiday clear-up to how they are going to evaluate pupil progress. Everyone chips in according to their own interests and concerns.

Debate centres on problems delivering maths in the individualised learning style favoured by EdVisions schools (see box, opposite page). There are also concerns about how students' work should be marked. Students earn credits for the number of study hours they put in, but also for how many "objectives" they meet. However, for some students, achieving a few objectives may have required far greater effort than others who have covered most.

Dean Walczak suggests a marking formula that combines credits for time and grades for effort as well as achievement, and his colleagues eventually agree to see how it works.

Afterwards, Andrea Martin says: "The best thing about it is we are all making the decisions together. It's harder because it's extra work on top of what you are doing. But for the most part it's better because you get new ideas."

TAILORED FOR STUDENTS

INDIVIDUALISED study programmes mean that students in EdVisions schools are as responsible for their own learning as their teachers are for their professionalism.

Work is project-based and cross-curricular, following students' own interests rather than formal programmes. Minnesota New Country school looks more like an open-plan office than a school, with two computers to every three students and no more than 17 students to an adviser (teacher). Students' work areas are scattered informally around their adviser's.

The students are articulate about both the pros and cons. Connor Riley, 15, is the first to admit that it is easy to "slack off". He is in his first year at MNCS and enjoying the freedom it gives him to pursue his interest in photography.

"Everything's really independent, there's no one to push you about things: you do them or you don't. I slacked off a lot this year, so now I'm feeling like I've got to do my stuff," he said.

Moriah Seabaugh, 14, is designing a model of a house. Her artistic bent also finds expression in designing embroidered T-shirts on computer and printing them, often to order by local companies. "I wanted to come here because I didn't like my last school. As long as you make the grade standards, you can do projects on your interest rather than something forced on to you that you are not going to use later on," she said.

"In the house I'm covering space, shape and measurement; design; financial business management; career exploration; and occupation experience."

Dee Thomas, the school's lead teacher, said: "These kids learn what most don't learn until they become college students - critical thinking, task-setting, time management."

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