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.

Barbara Colombo/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
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
Ruby Molinar and her son Angel Marquez pose outside the MSLA in Boulder, Colo. on Aug. 24. Molinar says that the teachers were instrumental in helping her son's reading skills.
Barbara Colombo/Special to the Christian Science Monitor
Co-lead teacher Lori Nazareno in the office on Aug. 24 at the MSLA. With all the attention on teacher evaluations and holding teachers accountable for student test gains, teachers are taking the reins in various experiments popping up around the country.
Barbara Colombo/Special to the Christian Science Monitor
Ashley Trainer, teacher, greets her students on Aug. 24 at the MSLA.

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

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.

Ultimately, Ms. Nazareno signs off on evaluations, but the key, she says, is the "ongoing improvement feedback loop." She contrasts that with a typical school's evaluation process, where often the principal just peeks into a classroom as a formality.

Families from all around Denver can opt in, but many live in the low-income, heavily Hispanic section of the city where the school is located.

Ruby Molinar says that putting her son Angel Marquez in MSLA for second grade last year was the best decision she's ever made. In public school and in a Roman Catholic school, he had fallen far behind in reading. "Those ladies [at MSLA] worked around the clock all year long trying to catch him up ... and he did awesome," she says. "He didn't enjoy school, and now he does."

Angel and other struggling readers were too young to take state tests, but many of them started off below grade level and are entering school this year on target, Nazareno says.

The idea of teachers operating schools isn't new. As early as the 1970s, schools in New York City pioneered many reforms that are now popular, including longer school days, team teaching, and peer review, says Linda Darling-Hammond, an expert on teacher-quality issues at Stanford University in California. "There is much more personalization for kids, rather than the factory model," she says.

But the teacher-led arrangement can have its challenges. Teachers often are on teams to manage administrative tasks, so they might have to learn to manage a budget or implement district safety policies. Also, teachers need to be especially mindful of parents' needs and cultivate relationships with them, since parents usually have a choice about sending their child to these schools.

As for student achievement, the results are still coming in. But there is a track record in some places. In Milwaukee, where teacher cooperatives contract with the district to run about a dozen schools, standardized test scores are higher than the district average at some of the schools, but lower at others.

In Minnesota, a teacher co-op called EdVisions has coordinated a network of charter schools since the 1990s. EdVisions points to college-entrance exam scores at its network that are higher than the national average. And on the Hope Index, a measure of the motives and ability to achieve goals, graduates of the EdVisions schools have a score of 56 on a 64-point scale, compared with an average person's score of 49.

Meanwhile, Boston Teachers Union School, now in its second year, has a waiting list after word about the school spread. Such schools can be a counterpoint in a national discourse that includes a lot of "teacher bashing [and the idea that] there has to be a lot of money incentive for teachers to teach well," says co-lead teacher Berta Rosa Berriz.

"We're a union school," she says, "and it does not get in the way of having an excellent school."

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