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October 1, 2013
Vol. 71
No. 2

Portrait of a Teacher-Led School

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At Denver's Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy and other teacher-led schools, teachers take ownership of student learning.

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Teacher job satisfaction is at its lowest point in the last 25 years (MetLife, 2013). Only 39 percent of teachers identify themselves as "very satisfied," a decline of 23 percentage points in just the last five years. One of the reasons for this decline is that teachers feel they are being held accountable for things over which they have little or no control.
Nevertheless, across the United States, accomplished teachers are taking hold of what they can do. And in some cases, they are turning their ideas into reality by taking on the challenging task of designing and running their own schools. I am one of those teachers.

A Different Model of School Leadership

In 2009, my colleagues and I opened the Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy (MSLA) in Denver, Colorado—one of about 50 teacher-led schools in the country. (For a list, see www.educationevolving.org/teachers/inventory/table.) MSLA operates as a public school, not a charter school. We currently serve about 300 students in grades K–5; 95 percent of our students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and 70 percent are English language learners. Our academic program focuses on mathematics and science in a variety of ways, including implementing daily science instruction, integrating mathematics and science into service learning projects, and making connections during students' weekly participation in "passion areas."
Why would we design a teacher-led school? Was it because we think principal-led schools are ineffective? Absolutely not. The choice to be teacher-led was a decision forkids, not againstanything or anyone. To attract the most highly skilled teachers to serve high-needs students, we had to make it clear that teachers would have the authority and autonomy to make authentic decisions on behalf of students.
Our school has a tag line: "Where everyone is a learner, teacher, and leader." Sounds great, but how does that play out in real life? People often assume that, in fact, MSLA has a de facto principal who is also a teacher. Nope. We have consciously created an environment that requires all teachers to lead in a climate in which everyone owns student learning.

Teacher Teams

All teachers in our school serve on at least one decision-making team. The school's current teams are Professional Development, Technology, Peer Observation and Evaluation, Curriculum and Instruction, Climate and Culture, and School Leadership. These teams meet regularly to conduct their work. In addition, a representative from each team is a member of the School Leadership Team, which ensures that all decisions are aligned with the school's mission and vision.

Peer Observation and Evaluation

In addition to their roles on these teams, every teacher is part of a three-person Peer Observation and Feedback team. Every 6–8 weeks, these small teams meet to discuss their progress toward personal and school goals. After identifying areas of interest or growth, the teachers observe one another and exchange feedback. This information then feeds into the larger evaluation process conducted by the two lead teachers, who are selected by the school's personnel committee and who serve as the official evaluators for all teachers.
This process enables us to spot difficulties early on and to design a plan to support struggling teachers. Any teacher who is in urgent need of improvement is placed on a remediation plan and given the opportunity to work with mentors. Because we have peer observation in place, teachers in this situation have at least two mentors. A lead teacher then observes and meets with the teacher weekly to provide feedback. After 30–60 days, if the teacher does not improve, the remediation plan can be extended or that teacher can be recommended for dismissal. As professionals, we feel that it's our responsibility to support one another's continuous improvement, but it is also our responsibility to ensure that our students are taught by effective teachers.
The use of peer observation, ongoing feedback, and evaluation gives teachers opportunities to learn from and support one another. And it allows teachers to hold one another accountable for improving practice, which is a key characteristic of other respected professions like law and medicine.

Service Learning and Passion Areas

Each student in our school engages in service learning projects and passion areas; the two rotate every 6–8 weeks. Service learning projects might include learning academic concepts and vocabulary by growing a garden, making blankets for hospitalized children, or collecting food for animals in a shelter. In passion areas, students join multiage groups interested in a particular project or subject: for example, digital photography, engineering, cooking, flying machines, technology, or fishing.
Creating multiage groups gives all teachers the opportunity to know and work with nearly all of the students in the school over time. In addition, it enables students to investigate new concepts and skills alongside teachers and students from across the school, which contributes to a cohesive culture.

What Makes Teacher-Led Schools Effective?

In schools where teachers have autonomy, management practices tend to resemble those in high-performing organizations in other fields (Farris-Berg & Dirkswager, 2012). Here are some of these practices.

Working Toward a Shared Purpose

Holocaust survivor and neurologist Viktor Frankl (1959) said, "Our greatest motivation in life is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain but rather to see a meaning" (p. 115). Teachers at the Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy definitely see meaning in their work.
Many are attracted to the school's commitment to match the most effective teachers with the students who need them the most. Many are also drawn to the opportunity to elevate the teaching profession, to demonstrate that teachers can make organizational decisions that help students succeed—particularly those students affected by poverty.

Accepting Ownership

Meg Wheatley (2006) asserts,
We know that the best way to create ownership is to have those responsible for implementation develop the plan for themselves. … It simply doesn't work to ask people to sign on when they haven't been involved in the planning process. (p. 68)
In a teacher-led school, guess who's responsible for developing the plans for student success? The teachers. If a current plan is not working, then teachers have the ability, motivation, and obligation to collaborate to change the plan.


In their decision-making teams and beyond, MSLA teachers can innovate, developing new approaches or creating solutions for challenges that affect student learning. Although any given innovation may involve feedback from multiple teams, there is no elaborate hierarchy or long chain of command. Teachers can respond to student and teacher needs quickly, efficiently, and creatively.
For example, when the school opened, we realized that incoming students had a wide range of skills in reading and mathematics. Instead of expecting individual teachers to plan and facilitate instruction at as many as five different grade levels, our teachers collaborated to develop a plan that would regroup students and assign them to different teachers in these content areas so that they could work at an appropriate level. This enabled teachers to focus on a smaller range of abilities and implement higher-quality lessons, allowing students to advance more quickly.

Collaborating as Learners

Wheatley (2006) makes a compelling point about the value of collaboration: "We need leaders to understand that we are best controlled by concepts that invite our participation, not policies and procedures that curtail our contribution" (p. 31). To return to the school's tag line, "everyone is a learner" at MSLA—including seasoned, highly skilled teachers. All teachers open their classroom doors for peer observation and evaluation. This gives teachers opportunities to learn from and with one another in authentic, classroom-based ways. Expertise is shared among staff, and it flows in many directions.

Challenges for Teacher-Led Schools

When we began planning the Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy in 2008, we made an intentional decision to create a district-run school rather than a charter school. We wanted to innovate from within the system rather than trying to circumvent it. Although there is a growing charter school movement, most U.S. students will continue to attend district-run schools. We are interested in pushing district systems to operate in dramatically different ways that better serve all students.
Here are some examples of challenges we've faced along the way and how we suggest that other schools avoid them.

Gravitational Pull of the System

School districts are set up to operate hierarchically. This structure influences who makes decisions, what decisions are made, and how they are implemented. The challenge for MSLA is that we aren't set up that way. And being faithful to our model of distributed leadership requires us to be vigilant about how (and how much) we bend to accommodate district structures.
Let me share just one example. Our district hosts regular principal meetings in which school leaders receive information and training to ensure that we are all aligned to district initiatives and priorities. The trouble is, if one individual usually represents MSLA at those meetings, that person looks like or is treated as a traditional principal. On the other hand, if we rotate the person who attends meetings, we may not be able to grasp the bigger picture or may have difficulty building relationships with others in the district.
District central office administrators are set up to communicate with one person—the principal. It's one of many ways that the current system pulls innovators back into traditional ways of operating.
Solution. When designing a teacher-led school, work with the district to anticipate where challenges may arise. Collaborate to develop a plan to address those issues (whether by securing specific autonomies or adapting the school–district relationship in other ways).
For example, at the Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy, we recognized that our process for evaluating teachers and, when necessary, dismissing underperforming staff members would conflict with some district policies, union contracts, and state statutes that clearly defined the process as being led by a principal. Before our school opened, the district and the teachers' union worked together to develop a structure by which all teachers could be involved in teacher evaluation but the lead teachers could meet statutory requirements by approving termination decisions as the designated "principal."

Administrative Responsibilities

Running a school requires attention to many operational functions: emergency management, transportation, food services, facilities, scheduling, budget, oversight and administration of standardized assessments, district reporting, and more. It's a struggle to create structures that do not pull expert teachers away from students to handle important but routine matters.
Solution: Considering hiring someone to carry out operational tasks, such as a business manager. This would enable all teachers to concentrate most on what they do best—working with students and teaching. (So far, MSLA has not chosen to shift to this approach. Instead, one lead teacher attends to operational issues and the other attends to instructional issues. The school works to make those functions run smoothly.)

Leadership in a "Flat" Organization

Flattening the hierarchy to accommodate a distributed leadership model can make it challenging for everyone to know who makes what decision. It can also lead to the misconception that being part of a flat organization means that you can do whatever you want, whenever you want. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Solution: Clearly outline the roles and responsibilities of all members of the school, and make sure everyone understands the vision for the school and the parameters in which they are to work. Also important: share this information with everyone associated with the school.
When MSLA was started, we assembled an ad hoc committee to create a decision-making flow chart that provides guidance to staff members about who makes what decisions. In cases where parents had concerns, we also developed and disseminated a clear process for how parents could advocate for their children directly with teachers.

Difficult Conversations

Most teachers are accustomed to working in an environment where the principal is responsible for making most, if not all, major decisions and for holding teachers accountable. Being part of a teacher-led school requires a different way of thinking and operating.
Teachers at our school must be willing and able not only to make easy decisions, but also to engage in difficult conversations with one another about school-level policies and instructional practices. Without a designated "boss," teachers must step up and engage in dialogue about how best to serve students without taking things personally. Because there will always be different opinions about the best ways to serve students, teachers must learn to negotiate, compromise, and move forward even when decisions do not go their way.
Solution: Prepare teachers for professional experiences that may be new to them, such as collaborative decision making and peer evaluation. Provide opportunities to model and practice these skills. Identify frameworks for engaging in difficult conversations. (There are many out there to choose from—for example, Compelling Conversations, Cognitive Coaching, and the work of Adaptive Schools.)

Interested in Teacher-Led Schools?

Maybe you'd like to start a teacher-led school or initiate the transition of an existing school. You might start by joining the Center for Teaching Quality's Collaboratory, a virtual community that is open to all who support teachers as leaders. Within the Collaboratory, teachers can join labs focused on school redesign or innovative leadership.
Or maybe you are interested in how a regular school can adopt some of the model's elements. You might begin hosting discussions at your school about distributing leadership. Although the Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy is a teacher-led school, many of its features can be adopted by any school in which teachers want to take ownership.
All it takes is a desire to share leadership and the creation and implementation of a thoughtful plan. The power of the group far exceeds the sum of its parts. Let's work together to create the schools our students deserve.

Farris-Berg, K., & Dirkswager, E. (2012). Trusting teachers with school success: What happens when teachers call the shots. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Education.

Frankl, V. (1959). Man's search for meaning. Boston: Beacon.

MetLife. (2013). MetLife survey of the American teacher: Challenges for school leadership. New York: Author. Retrieved from www.metlife.com/assets/cao/foundation/MetLife-Teacher-Survey-2012.pdf

Wheatley, M. (2006). Leadership and the new science: Discovering order in a chaotic world. San Francisco: Barrett-Kohle.

Lori Nazareno is the Design Lead at Mira Education. She is a former science teacher with 25 years of experience at the high school and elementary school levels. During this time, Nazareno led a team of educators that designed and launched a collectively led school in Denver that served some of the district's most historically underserved students and families. She has National Board Certification in Science for both Adolescents and Young Adults and Early Adolescents.

She served six years as a member of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards board of directors, was a member of the National Education Association's Commission on Effective Teachers and Teaching, and served on the Teacher Advisory Council for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

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