Education Week - April 19, 2017 - 15
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classroom spaces without walls.
A reported 115 teacher-powered,
or teacher-led, schools are operating in 18 states, and advocates suspect that the real number is much
higher. The goal of the Teacher-Powered Schools Initiative, a program of
the nonprofits Education Evolving
and the Center for Teaching Quality, is that in 30 years, every teacher
in the country will have the option
to work in a teacher-led school.
Minnesota is one of the centers of the movement-it has 24
teacher-powered schools, more than
any other state except California.
Teacher-powered schools have been
around since the 1970s, but supporters sense they're in a moment now.
"If you look at the new type of
learning that is being asked for by
parents and communities-personalized and student-centered-and
the struggles to retain and attract
and satisfy teachers, as well as the
natural organic spreading of the
[movement's] ideas, I think that's
coming together to make this really
the time for this model to grow more
exponentially than it has for the past
10 years," said Lars Esdal, the executive director of Education Evolving.
Oxton, now Lakeville's innovation coordinator, is seeing the model
spread firsthand. Inspired by Impact
Academy, teams of teachers in two
other district schools now have planning grants from the state to consider
what it would mean to make their
own decisions about student learning.
An ambassador for the TeacherPowered Schools Initiative, Oxton
seemingly never tires of telling Impact's story.
She has learned a few messaging
tricks along the way: You can't rush
change. Never use the word "better,"
although last year's state test results for Orchard Lake showed that
students who were in the Impact
pilot pathway scored significantly
higher than the students who were
in the original pathway. And, most
importantly, keep students at the
center of all the decisions.
"We're not fighting against anything," Oxton said. "We're trying to
change the system."
A Growing Movement
Teacher-led schools vary widely
in the degree to which teachers can
control what goes on in them. The
Teacher-Powered Schools Initiative
identifies 15 areas of teacher autonomy that range from those focused
on instruction, such as determining
curriculum and learning materials, to
fiscal and administrative powers, like
allocating funds, setting the schedule
and school policies, and making staffing decisions. There is no minimum
number of areas of autonomy a school
needs to have in order to be considered teacher-powered.
Despite the name, most teacherpowered schools do have principals.
The difference, supporters say, is
that the principals are accountable
to the teachers.
Impact Academy's principal,
Marilynn Smith, sees her role as
a buffer between teachers and the
district. While the district has been
supportive, Smith said, the school
is "still a small cog in a very big
system," and she's had to fight to
increase teacher voice in some district-level decisions.
"I want to be a leader I would
have wanted to work for when I was
a teacher," she said. "I have instructional expertise, but they have way
more of it. So why would I go in and
say, 'This is how you should do this,
this is how you should do that?' "
Since Impact Academy's teacherpowered model is new, Smith said
the staff is still figuring out its decisionmaking processes: When does
everyone need to be at the table?
There is no set process now, but
Smith has been educating teachers
about district and budget policies so
they can make informed decisions.
"Sometimes, it's a slower process,
and that's OK," she said. "Sometimes,
I'm like, 'Well, I can make that decision [myself], but I'm not going to.'
You need to develop people. People
aren't going to automatically do this."
A state grant enables the school to
fund planning time. Last year, the
Minnesota legislature established a
$500,000 grant program for teacherpowered schools within districts.
Schools exploring the idea can apply
for a one-year planning grant of up
to $50,000, and schools that already
operate as a teacher-powered school
can apply for a one-year implementation grant of up to $100,000.
Impact Academy and two other
Lakeville schools have planning
grants and hope to get implementation grants next year, if the program is
funded again. A fourth district school
applied for, but didn't get, a grant.
On a visit in March, students
from kindergarten to 5th grades
were learning math in a wide-open
space in Impact Academy. Years
after Oxton's family knocked down
one wall, the district paid $400,000
to remove some others and transform the learning space. A kindergartner can now look all the way
down the room to see a 5th grader.
Impact Academy is split into three
vertical, K-5 communities. During
a community's math and English/
language arts instruction, the six
groups of students are taught by
their teachers simultaneously in an
open space. Despite the large number of students in the room, most of
the children were on task-which
teachers attribute to students being
grouped as learners, not by grade.
Before each math or ELA unit, students take an assessment screener.
The walls were knocked down to
remove any stigma for a child going
to a different room. Instead of a 4th
grader having to go down the hall to
the 2nd grade classroom during math
time, a student can just walk a few
feet to his "right-fit" group.
Tutors, English-as-a-second-language teachers, and special educa-
Photos by Ackerman + Gruber for Education Week
Minn. Elementary School
Runs on Teacher Power
FROM TOP: Teachers work
together to identify
reading levels for each of
their students during
"genius hour" at Impact
Academy at Orchard Lake
Elementary in Lakeville,
Minn. Impact Academy is a
regular public school led
by teachers-one of 24
teacher-powered school in
Students Milayna Johnson,
left, and Daisy Villarreal
work on an assignment at
the school, where
students are grouped for
some lessons based on
their skills rather than
their grade levels.
tors are there to give individualized
attention to students performing
below grade level.
"We're not just meeting kids
where they're at and being complacent in that, we're helping them get
caught up," Oxton said.
The arrangement also breaks
down silos for teachers, Oxton said,
calling it "highly embedded PD."
"Because you share kids, you have
to talk about instruction," she said.
There was a community feel to the
space-when one teacher had to step
out in the middle of the lesson, she
called to her colleague nearby, asking
him to watch her students.
"I think the collaboration piece is
huge-feeling like you are a team and
these kids are yours together," said
Leah Johnson, a 2nd grade teacher.
Collaboration was a priority for
teachers when designing Impact
Academy. In addition to their professional learning community time,
teachers in each community meet
weekly for 100 minutes to reflect on
instructional strategies and go over
student data. The teachers opted to
cut one instructional period a week
of both science and social studies, so
they can collaborate while students
take music or art or work in maker
Teachers' ability to make at least
some decisions about the schedule
is part of the five areas of autonomy
that Impact Academy has. To varying degrees, teachers also have the
power to determine student assessments (with the exception of Minnesota state tests, which the school
still must administer), the learning
program, how to measure school success, and staffing..
To acquire that autonomy, Oxton
and the other teachers have had to
work closely with all stakeholders, including the district, the school board,
the teachers' union, parents, and the
community. Lakeville is an open-enrollment district, and some students
at Impact Academy are from nearby
It hasn't been smooth sailing, the
teachers acknowledge. But the main
goals of student-centered, personalized learning have aligned with the
district's strategic plan.
Lisa Snyder, the district superintendent, said she embraced Impact Academy's model because she
wanted to create a learning environment "where there would be no
achievement gaps, no labels, and
kids could simply show up to learn."
The district is still mulling how
to give more autonomy to teachers,
Snyder said: "This isn't the norm for
a big school district."
But Snyder will leave the district
in June, leaving some worried about
the future of teacher-powered schools
here. Impact Academy's teacher autonomy is not all in writing, Smith
said, which is an issue that she and
the teachers are grappling with.
"My hope [is] that enough teachers have been empowered to be
decisionmakers, to be creators and
co-creators, that that attitude and
mindset will continue in the culture
of the district," Snyder said.
Meanwhile, teachers are still working on getting more autonomy and
strengthening what they already
have. For example, teachers want
to be able to set professional-development days, rather than follow the
"For me, the teacher-empowerment piece is very validating," said
3rd grade teacher Michelle Johnson.
"It helps you be a reflective teacher,
having and knowing your beliefs
and passions. When teachers have
a mindset of being empowered, you
naturally get that from children."
Coverage of policy efforts to improve
the teaching profession is supported by
a grant from the Joyce Foundation, at
Education Week retains sole editorial
control over the content of this coverage.
EDUCATION WEEK | April 19, 2017 | www.edweek.org | 15