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School teachers in charge? Why some schools are forgoing principals.

Amid the push for accountability, one rising trend puts school teachers, rather than principals, at the helm of schools.

By Staff writer / September 1, 2010

Teacher and school cofounder Lori Nazareno worked with students Aug. 24 at the Math and Science Leadership Academy (MSLA) in Denver, Colo., a school run by its teachers.

Barbara Colombo/Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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A school without a principal? It's becoming more common as innovative teacher-led public schools crop up in the United States.

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Detroit's Palmer Park Preparatory Academy opens for students in pre-K to fourth-grade this fall. Boston and Denver each started a school last year run by union teachers. And in Minneapolis, the school board recently gave a group of teachers permission to launch their own French-immersion school in 2011.

The idea has gained currency as debates rage over the best ways to ensure that teachers can bring up student achievement. The drumbeat of "teacher accountability" is getting louder – with everyone from President Obama to district leaders calling for teachers to meet high standards or risk being removed.

In response, more teachers are standing up to say, "Fine. Hold us accountable. But let us do it our way."

While each teacher-led school is unique, the shared decisionmaking is what defines them. The teachers' participation tends to create a culture quite different from that in a traditional principal-led school: Teachers can't hide behind the classroom door or complain about policies, because they have to come up with solutions.

More districts are willing to experiment with a teacher-led school because "we're entering a period where people are trying to introduce variation into the system," says Charles Kerchner, an education professor at Claremont Graduate University in California.

Many big cities have already tried to boost student performance by standardizing procedures and teaching methods. "They've gotten what they can from that, and it's not enough," Professor Kerchner says.

In Denver, teachers jointly govern the Math and Science Leadership Academy (MSLA). By removing rigid curriculum dictates, the school has attracted a top-notch staff that serves some of the district's most disadvantaged students. District officials are pleased with how MSLA has done since opening last year.

The teachers "appreciate that their professional judgment is being respected," says Lori Nazareno, one of the founders and co-lead teachers.

MSLA, backed by the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, needed a waiver from a state law requiring principals to evaluate teachers. Instead, teachers set specific goals and give one another structured feedback on a regular basis.

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