Detroit teachers to principals: We don’t need you

Liz Goodwin
The Upshot

What if teachers started running the schools where they taught?

That's what a group of educators at Barbara Jordan Elementary are going to find out next year, when they open their Detroit charter school without a principal in charge. The school will be the first teacher-led institution in Michigan, according to the Detroit Free Press.

These teachers are eager to overthrow the long-standing administrative structure of public schools because they say that the schools bureaucracy has mutated to the point that it gets in the way of educating. "The teachers just did not have a lot of leverage in meeting the needs of the children that were sitting in front of them," Detroit teacher Ann Crowley told the paper.

At first, the school will hire an administrator to take on some tasks, but that position will be eliminated within three years. Teachers will lead the school using small committees to make decisions. And, following the general style of apportioning chore responsibilities among students within the classroom, each of the school's teachers will take turns leading the committees.

Similar schools exist in Denver, Los Angeles, and Boston, though they appear to be too novel an innovation to have yielded many studies on their effectiveness.

The trend is novel in that teachers' unions aren't always on the cutting edge of educational innovation. They've proven antagonistic, for example, to the formation of charter schools, which are publicly funded but have greater freedom to experiment with curriculum than regular public schools. Charter schools often circumvent unions' teacher-tenure rules in a bid to institute more rigorous evaluations of teacher performance.

However, the new Detroit school, like most of the teacher-led schools around the country, has the backing of local teachers' unions. In California, the United Teachers Los Angeles union bought 29 failing schools from the school board and turned them into teacher-led institutions. The Detroit system, which went into bankruptcy last year, is likewise proving more open to experimentation under budget pressures — an example that other cash-strapped school districts may well be following in the months ahead.

Correction: This post originally stated that the teacher-led schools in Los Angeles are part of the Green Dot network of charter schools. In fact, Green Dot operates separate schools in the city. We regret the error.