The Center for Public School Renewal

Why We Should Have Teacher-Led Schools

Part 1 - A Personal Perspective on Teacher-Led Schools
by Barry McGhan, CPSR President
(revised 1/13/06)

Public school teaching is my family business. My father taught junior high and high school mathematics for 35 years. His mother taught in K-8 one-room country schools for 44 years. Together, the three of us have racked up 112 years of service in Michigan public school systems. Throw in all the other people who have taught, or are teaching, in both my family and my wife's, and you probably could staff a school or two.

These folks have always seemed competent to do their work, and dedicated to doing it well. If most teachers are like those in my family--and I think they are--then it's my view that the current traditional authority structure of education, where all kinds of people outside the classroom tell teachers how to do their job, is unnecessary. Furthermore, it's harmful–things don't get done that should, and do get done that shouldn't. Examples of some of these things are scattered here and there in this proposal.

Grandma Lula was 18 years old when she started teaching in 1906. She had an 8th grade education. Although the state said she was qualified to teach, she probably needed some kind of guidance early on to teach effectively. Over the years, she accumulated more training and experience–eventually gaining a life certificate–and became well-known throughout the county as a respected and seasoned teacher. She was completely in charge of her one-room rural school, dealt directly with the school's three-man school board, and interacted with parents regularly. She was, as they say, someone to be reckoned with.

Dad taught in a medium-sized urban district. He started teaching, with his bachelor's degree, in a junior high school. Twenty years later he earned a Master's degree, and eventually wound up teaching in high school, his career cut short by cancer. He too developed a reputation as a hard working, serious teacher with a sense of humor, and is fondly remembered by students and colleagues.

My own career included teaching in junior high (3 years) and high school (7 years), an alternative school for dropouts (7 years), and a vocational school (3 years), as well as several non-teaching positions--instructional computer specialist (8 years), evaluator (2 years), and mathematics supervisor (3 years). Along the way I gained a second degree in mathematics, and a third in the social foundations of education.

Over the years, it became clear to me that the command and control structure of public school systems is wrong. It's too hierarchical and paternalistic. Too much power and authority resides outside the classroom. Grandma Lula and Dad and I didn't need someone to tell us how to run our classrooms, or even the schools where those rooms were located. We needed help with those things we were trying to accomplish. Too often, what we got was management rather than support.

In general, experienced teachers need less management and more support to accomplish their basic job of instruction. Public education is not rocket science, and teachers know as much about doing things the right way as anyone. All kinds of non-teaching positions are important, but should generally be subordinate to the needs that teachers have for running their classrooms in an effective and professional manner.

I started my first year of teaching in 1961, infused with the idea that teaching was, or should be, considered a profession. That same year I remember writing a former professor for his thoughts on the idea. He was not very optimistic about the prospect of teaching becoming a profession. Then (as now) teachers had little of the control that other professionals do over their work (to say nothing of the salaries). It became an idea for the future.

In 1966, when collective bargaining became legal for Michigan teachers, my hopes rose that unionism would be the road toward a self-actualizing profession. Unionism did become the road to significantly better pay for teachers (although not professional pay). But, few inroads were made on the prerogatives of administrators and others to control the working conditions of teachers. Mostly, unions bargained for limitations on some administrative actions, but never produced much of a proactive orientation to teachers' professional needs.

As the years passed I found other ways to advance my professional life, as a union representative in my school, editor for the union newsletter, and mathematics department chair. I started studying for a doctorate, with the idea of leaving K-12 education for university life–although that never happened.

Eventually, I took a position in an alternative school. As the only math teacher, I had the opportunity to develop my own program for those challenging students. In the early ‘80's, an opportunity to become the computer specialist for the district came along. From there, I moved on to other teaching and non-teaching positions, each with substantial independence and a chance to develop my own approach.

While my career has been personally satisfying, and reasonably professional, I've never lost the dream that ordinary classroom teaching should be just as professional as all the other roles I had over the years. I believe teacher-led schools are the way to achieve that dream.

The primary experience that led me to this conclusion is the time I spent teaching in the small alternative program for high school dropouts and potential dropouts. It was, initially, a school with six or seven teachers, a counselor, and a coordinator. It came to be called the School of Choice (SOC). SOC was a new program in 1973, and we made it up as we went along.

We worked with kids the other four high schools in the district had not helped. Our clients were, so to speak, the dregs of the district. Whatever we could think of to do with these folks was generally acceptable. Consequently, we had much freedom to try things out.

For a while, we had a new administrator every year. I guess this strange little school didn't appeal to them. As we developed the school, we drew each of them into our system for working with students. Finally, a principal came along who liked what we were trying to accomplish. He was also adept at keeping the larger bureaucracy off our backs so we could do our work.

He had a gift for managing the flow of students in and out of the school, which was a critical factor in the success of the program. We always had a waiting list of students. If someone wasn't making good use of their place in the school, we'd exit them and bring in someone off the list. The ones we dropped were usually offered the opportunity to come back to the school in a couple of months--when they were ready to make use of the opportunity we offered. The system worked well–about two out of three students graduated or came back for another year.

My mathematics colleagues in the regular schools felt sorry for me because of the kind of kids I worked with, and the fact that all I ever taught was basic math and a little first-year algebra. It was a change from my previous school where I had been the department chair and had my pick of the most advanced classes. But, we could exercise almost total control of our teaching situation, a privilege denied to most teachers. The school was small, so we could get to know students a little better. New personnel trickled in from time to time, but in small numbers so we could socialize them to the system we had developed. The rest of the district largely ignored us. It was the best teaching experience of my life.

I left in the early ‘80's–the siren song of high tech ringing in my ears--for the opportunity to work with teachers who wanted to use computers in their classes. But, that's another story.

Near the end of my career charter schools came on the scene. It seemed pretty clear that they could function a lot like SOC--if their teachers had a central role in the development of the school. This would be especially true when teachers are the chartering group. Charter schools revived my interest in the idea of a teacher-led school. They make it a more real possibility than it has ever been.

Part 2 - A Professional Perspective on Teacher-Led Schools
Back to Preface


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