Everyone knows that education reform in America hinges on paying teachers higher salaries, right?
Maybe not. At the Avalon School in St. Paul, Minn., educators earn less than their peers at other schools. Lacking a union, they also go without the job security that others take for granted. Despite this, the teachers there are highly motivated and deeply committed. The reason is simple: they run the Avalon School. Unlike other institutions, the public charter school has no principal, no full-time administrators and no director. Instead of superintendents and district supervisors, educators make decisions regarding budgeting, hiring, curricula and more.
When I first wrote about the teacher-led cooperatives in September, there was relatively little hard evidence to suggest that progressive, teacher-led schools produce more capable students or better-run institutions. Anecdotal evidence indicated they produce more satisfied teachers. But better students? Improved resource utilization? These answers have been difficult to ascertain.
That's why a new study from Claremont Graduate University research professor Charles Taylor Kerchner is so interesting. The study takes a serious look at the achievements of the nine-year-old Avalon School and others like it. To the surprise of many, teacher-led schools are not only producing highly capable students, but also multidisciplined educators.
Consider recent test results from the Avalon School, which has students in grades seven through 12. In 2009, Avalon met federal Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) requirements -- a milestone that other schools in its district did not attain. Though Avalon students struggled in math compared to state norms, they did better than most in reading proficiency.
They also outperform students at other schools when it comes to graduation rates. Last year, Avalon's was 87 percent. Upon graduation, many Avalon students go on to top schools nationwide, including Northwestern University, University of Michigan and Vanderbilt University.
Before they graduate, this year's seniors are required to complete a yearlong project demanding 300 hours of the students' time. The students' topics for 2010 span the gamut -- from an oral history of Ukrainian immigration to a report on building trails across the United States.
As for teachers, Avalon's educators have been able to expand their skills in ways not possible at other schools where duties are more clearly defined and actions more prescriptively limited. Avalon teacher and program coordinator Carrie Bakken says her peers have become proficient in budgeting, hiring, marketing and recruiting, not to mention softer skills including conflict resolution, project management and collaboration.
"I really feel like I don't have the right to be unhappy here," says Bakken. "If something is not going well, you have the power to change it."
Harnessing that power has not always been easy. Without a central authority figure, for example, decisions can take longer than at other schools. To speed things along and eliminate discord, Avalon teachers rely on a simple system for reaching conclusions. Rather than point fingers at one another, they use them to vote on key issues. A single finger (not that one) indicates strong opposition to an idea; five fingers or an "open hand" conveys enthusiastic support.
Avalon does things differently in other ways, too. Take discipline. When students get into trouble at Avalon, there is no principal for them to report to. Instead, rule breakers are sent to meet with fellow students who have been trained in peer mediation. In addition to handling many of the discipline issues, students also set most of the rules for the school.
In his assessment, Kerchner did not find the Avalon School to be a utopian alternative that will replace more traditional schools anytime soon. But he did find the institution to be a compelling alternative to the status quo. To him, Avalon and schools like it are islands set apart from the mainland of academia. "It may be enough that they are refuges from the storms that have engulfed American public education," he wrote in his study. "But there are larger lessons to be learned from them."
Not the least among them: The idea that job security and higher pay are what teachers covet most. At the Avalon School, where teachers voted to forego cost of living increases so other things would not be eliminated, self determination and academic freedom are highly prized values as well.
Maybe this is a lesson that Corporate America could learn from.
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