Teacher power: A promising experiment at a Newark school

In a world where administrators rule, a teacher is not allowed to touch a copy machine.

As a first-year history teacher at a Newark public high school, Dominique Lee would toil over lesson plans in his classroom until 7 or 8 p.m. But if he needed copies of reading material for his students, he might have to wait several days. That’s because only one person in the building was permitted to use the photocopier, for fear someone else would press the wrong button or cause a paper jam.

It’s probably a policy that works well for third-graders. But Lee, a 25-year-old Teach for America recruit, saw it this way: “These teachers have master’s or Ph.D.s, and they’re being told ‘You can’t use a copier?’ Seriously?”

Fed up with bureaucracy like this, he and several colleagues created a brand-new public school in Newark, run by teachers. At Brick Avon Academy, which opened this year, a governing committee of teachers votes on curriculum, budget and hiring decisions. The committee has control over everything except teacher evaluations, which are handled by a principal who also teaches in the school.

Teachers choose whether the school should buy calculators, books, musical instruments or science supplies. They have plenty of incentive to save money, because they can use it elsewhere in the classroom. They plan to teach both Mandarin and Spanish, and have a more global focus. And they all share the photocopier.

It’s a promising experiment in a field that needs innovation. Research has shown that teachers with more say over their jobs are happier and better motivated. While typically almost half of new teachers leave the profession within the first five years, teacher turnover approaches zero when instructors are given more ownership over a school, according to a study by Richard Ingersoll, a professor of education and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania.

High teacher turnover is disruptive for students. And if teachers are to be held more accountable for student performance, as reformers advocate, then they also deserve to be given more control, like doctors or lawyers running their own practices.

Most teachers already invest greatly in the work that they do. The average public school teacher pays $450 a year out-of-pocket on classroom materials, Ingersoll says. But the rigid, top-down structure of traditional schools detracts many of the most innovative, highly qualified instructors.

You can’t hold employees accountable for things they have no control over. Treat teachers like professionals, allow them to run the schools, then hold them accountable.

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