Minneapolis school leaders are considering moving decisionmaking closer to the classroom. Serious discussions are underway to allow teachers to run several schools.
But why should that make a difference in the quality of city schools? Don't teachers have control of their own classrooms now?
Only up to a point. Self-governance gives educators more flexibility to tailor teaching to meet student needs. For example, teachers could set a different school calendar or staff working hours. And they wouldn't have to adhere to a curriculum set by the central office.
Ultimately, proponents say, they have more control over their work and are more invested in producing high-performing students.
State legislation approved this year allows Minnesota districts to create such schools. The new law says groups of teachers and community members can propose ideas to district school boards. The groups would contract with their home districts to educate students, but they would be released from district rules on curriculum, staffing, budgeting and scheduling.
They would operate similarly to charter schools with two key exceptions: Funds for the students would stay with the sponsoring districts, and teachers could be part of a union. Each school would have a governing council including teachers, administrators, parents, community members and, when appropriate, students. Teachers can comprise a majority of the council.
Minneapolis should be applauded for considering the concept, given its continuing problem with underachieving students and the persistent learning gap between lower-income students of color and more affluent white students. The core city district is further along in planning than other state districts because its teachers' union has long pushed for such schools. Proposals already being considered include shifting North High School to self-governance and creating a French-immersion elementary school.
Studies of similar programs show that self-governance can work. During the past decade, programs in Boston, New York and Chicago have improved student performance.
Locally, several self-governing charter schools have become nationally known models. New Country School in Henderson, Minn., for example, is run by a teacher co-op. Educators there are responsible for every aspect of the learning program, including hiring, determining curriculum and setting salaries.
They belong to a state co-op called EdVisions, which provides human resources and administrative services as needed. Nearly a decade ago, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation put $9 million into replicating programs such as New Country. Since then, EdVisions has helped set up more than 40 teacher-governed schools -- about half of them in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
While it's encouraging to hear that Minneapolis and other districts are interested in the concept, they must be sure to do it well. It's a tough balance for a school board to strike -- relinquishing control while seeking more accountability.
As Joe Nathan, of the University of Minnesota's Center for School Change, points out, a good educational idea isn't enough. Teacher co-ops must bring something new to the table and include committed, talented people who can carry out the vision.
Autonomous, teacher-led schools are not the magic bullet solution for Minneapolis or any other school district. But the idea has been successful elsewhere, and holds promise for improving student learning.