The Center for Public School Renewal

A Fundamental Education Reform: Teacher-Led Schools

by Barry McGhan

School reform migrates from fad to fad, while real change is generally slow to take root, simply because the wrong people are in charge. That's close to what education historians David Tyack and Larry Cuban (1996) seem to think:

"Better schooling will result in the future–as it has in the past and does now–chiefly from the steady, reflective efforts of the practitioners who work in schools and from the contributions of the parents and citizens who support (while they criticize) public education. ... [In] recent years, policy elites have often bypassed teachers and discounted their knowledge of what schools are like today. ... Teachers do not have a monopoly on educational wisdom, but their first-hand perspectives on schools and their responsibility for carrying out official policies argues for their centrality in school reform efforts." (p. 135)

The view that the wrong people are running the public school enterprise is not news to teachers. Tyack and Cuban go on to identify a key barrier to the ambitions of most school reformers:

"As 'street-level bureaucrats,' teachers typically have sufficient discretion, once classroom doors close, to make decisions about pupils that add up over time to de facto policies about instruction, whatever the official regulations. In any case, then, teachers will make their imprint on educational policy as it becomes translated into practice." (p. 135)

The Tyack/Cuban barrier goes unacknowledged by most reformers, who talk instead about the importance of principals and superintendents as instructional leaders. Reformers also promote instructional programs developed by think tanks and universities. They push legislatures and governors to support measures like high standards, student and teacher testing, and a variety of other ideas.

Reformers' zeal is understandable. They see themselves as the leaders and saviors of schools and schoolchildren. Their reputations and livelihoods depend on others' acceptance of their important role in bringing about change. In addition to self-interest, reformers have great optimism for their own ideas. They believe the sensibleness of their reforms will appeal to all but the most tradition-bound educators. Others, equally mistaken, believe their leadership skills are sufficiently great as to persuade the people who must implement their proposals. Finally, and most disheartening, is the belief that teachers do not have what it takes–the education, competence, interest, and so on–to improve schools on their own.

Tyack and Cuban make a strong case for seeking improvements from the inside out–"by enlisting the support and skills of teachers as key actors in reform." (p. 10) They would put teachers at the center of educational change. A similar idea is expressed in the work of the Foxfire Fund. According to Bobby Ann Starnes (2000), Foxfire's president,

"...teachers are decision makers and central actors not only in implementing reform but also in designing, developing, and evaluating it. ... Teaching and learning are highly individualized and fluid processes that require teachers to make hundreds of decisions each day. And decision makers can and gladly do accept responsibility and accountability when they are free to provide learning experiences that make sense in their individual classrooms and that best fit learners' individual needs."(p. 108)

A critical first step to take in pursuit of teacher-centered education reform and school improvement is to shift everyone's thinking--to become:

  • more optimistic about what teachers can accomplish on their own, and

  • less optimistic about what those who put on the mantle of traditional leadership can achieve.

These are monumental changes to seek. The forces of tradition and the status quo within the education hierarchy will be arrayed against them. Even reformers who are willing to put teachers at the center of their reform will chafe at the additional time it takes to win teachers' hearts rather than simply forcing changes on them. Also, many teachers–busy with teaching, and inured to the current system--will not be especially interested in taking up the responsibilities and undergoing the changes that go along with improving schools from the inside out.

However, the only way to achieve lasting reform is to find ways for teachers to undertake their own professional improvement, for their own reasons, in their own way.

A good example of how this might work is found in the "lesson study" practiced by Japanese teachers (Stigler and Hiebert,1999). According to the authors, "Japan has given teachers themselves primary responsibility for the improvement of classroom practice."(p. 109) Groups of teachers routinely and voluntarily undertake projects to improve the way they teach various subjects. This process of continuous improvement (called kounaikenshuu) takes place in virtually every elementary and middle school in the country. In contrast to the U.S., Japanese teachers may invite administrators and university personnel to take part in the improvement process, rather than vice versa. What Japanese teachers have achieved, over the fifty years they have employed lesson study, is a degree of professionalization of their work unknown to the majority of American teachers.

While we should not expect to institute lesson study in just the way it is used in Japanese culture, there is no reason to suppose that American teachers can't also reform their own teaching when the opportunity presents itself. In fact, it will only be when teachers undertake the responsibility of fixing their own teaching, individually and collectively, that they will come to be viewed as professionals, with a viewpoint that is not to be discounted by self-styled experts who think they know best how to improve education.

A second step toward teacher-centered reform is to look for schools where groups of teachers are already engaged in fixing their own teaching. Such schools are likely to have a strong component of teacher leadership within their organization. Although relatively rare, and without a uniform character, such schools do exist here and there around the country. These schools tend to be small alternative schools, stuffed in the crevices of public school districts. In some states, notably California, a few public schools have been converted to teacher-led charter schools. Other states also have a few charter schools started from scratch by public school teachers.

An interesting example of a teacher-led charter school is the Minnesota New Country School in Henderson Minnesota, run by the EdVisions teacher cooperative. In the fall of 2000 this school received a grant for $4.5 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to replicate its model in 15 schools over the next five years.

While the explanation of why typical school reform is ineffective may be simple, teacher-led schools are by no means a simplistic solution. One has only to look at the many unsuccessful attempts to foster teacher empowerment through school-based management to be convinced of that. Researchers at the University of Southern California (Wohlstetter & Mohrman,1994) found that changing the traditional way schools are managed and governed

"... turns out to be rather meaningless unless it is part of a focused, even passionate, quest for improvement . ... The bottom line is that school-based management is not an end in itself ...[but] a potentially valuable tool for engaging the talents and enthusiasm of far more of the school's stakeholders than traditional, top-down governance systems." (p.1)

A new theory of leadership practice may also prove useful in getting beyond the traditional model of governance towards a more collegial/less hierarchical version of school leadership (Spillane, et.al., 1999). The authors' main insight is that the school should be the unit of analysis for studying leadership activity. They see school leadership as a dynamic interaction between multiple leaders and followers and their situational and social contexts. Spillane, et. al. cite a number of writers who view leadership as

"... an interactive relationship between leaders and followers rather than an unidirectional, top-down process controlled by a leader and dictated by formal structure. Instead, the emphasis is on the development of a ‘negotiated' order between leaders and followers. Previous work underscores the relational nature of leadership, suggesting that leaders not only influence followers but are also influenced by them. ... For example, teachers often have specific knowledge about classroom practice that they can draw on to influence positional leaders. Finally, followers may influence leadership strategies by finding subtle ways to resist administrative controls through strategies such as ‘creative insubordination.'" (p. 30,31)

The views of Spillane and his associates seem particularly appropriate to generate reflections on the idea of teacher leadership, especially with respect to instructional concerns. These reflections may eventually lead to a diminution of interest in the questionable concept of the principal as an instructional leader. This in turn may lead to a much-needed rejuvenation of the important managerial aspects of a principal's work, and a better balance of professional responsibilities among school-level educators.

Occasionally, small shoots of hope poke through the discontents of teachers' worklife. Sometimes, these proposals suggest dismantling the education hierarchy in some way or another. For example, the Education Commission of the States' recent recommendations for decentralization of school districts might lead–though not automatically–to teachers' gaining more control of their work. So too, charter schools might come to be seen–like the alternative schools of a generation ago–as a means of empowering not just parents and students, but teachers as well.

Other approaches can be found within the existing hierarchy. These usually involve special arrangements between superintendents and union officials. Teachers in districts like Rochester, N.Y. and Cincinnati, Ohio have entered into agreements in recent years that may alter the leadership dynamics in schools and lead to more home-grown individual-school based reform projects.

Neither type of approach to putting teachers at the center of reform will be problem-free. The first–wholesale restructuring–requires substantial commitments of time, energy, and patience to create something new. The second–incremental modification–is always at risk of being subverted by the traditional governance system. However, the prizes–better schooling for students and greater professional status for teachers–are worth the effort.


Spillane James, Halverson, Richard, and Diamond, John. "Distributed Leadership: Toward a Theory of School Leadership Practice," Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University, April, 1999. (A revised version of this unpublished manuscript is available on the Internet at http://www.letus.org/dls/)

Starnes, Bobby Ann "On Dark Times, Parallel Universes, and Déjà Vu." Phi Delta Kappan, October, 2000.

Stigler, James and James Hiebert. The Teaching Gap: Best Ideas from the World's Teachers for Improving Education in the Classroom, New York: Free Press, September, 1999.

Tyack, David and Cuban, Larry. Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform, Harvard University Press, 1995.

Wohlstetter, Patricia, Mohrman, Susan A. "School-Based Management: Promise and Process." CPRE Finance Briefs #05, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, December, 1994.


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