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CCE staff and partner reflections on our collaborative work to create schools where learning is engaging and rewarding, and every student is set up for success.

Reclaiming Public Education Through Equitable, Teacher-Powered Schools

CCE executive director Dan French was recognized with a Teacher Powered Schools Supporter Award at this year's Teacher Powered Schools Conference. Dan was honored for his work in developing teacher autonomy and initiating the Pilot schools movement in Boston and Los Angeles. Upon receiving his award, Dan shared the following remarks. 

Teacher Powered Schools Conference 2018

Educators gather for the 2018 Teacher Powered Schools Conference. Photo by Jill Harrison Berg via Twitter: @Teachers_Lead

We are here celebrating in fraught times. We have a U.S. Secretary of Education who is hell-bent on privatizing education. Education funding across the country continues to be far below its constitutional responsibility. Standardized testing has sapped the creativity and joy of learning out of the curriculum in many urban districts. And teachers, especially young teachers, are leaving the field in ever-increasing numbers, largely due to the lack of autonomy in their jobs; in a recent Penn State University study, teachers ranked the lowest of any profession in feeling that their opinions counted. In Newton, a suburb of Boston, teachers are under fire from right-wing groups as being anti-Israel and pro-Muslim because they deign to teach students to study all points of view, to weigh the evidence, and to debate and defend their positions. These sentiments, of course, are emblematic of the chilling rhetoric we hear virtually every day from our president.

This is why the movement toward teacher-powered schools is so critically important today. We need to reclaim public schools as places in which learning is joyous and creative and education’s purpose is to create a socially just world.

There is one simple reason why Pilot schools in Boston and Los Angeles represent almost one quarter of all teacher-powered schools.  Pilot schools operate by the principle that all of a school’s resources and decision-making—budget, staffing, curriculum, assessment, professional development, and time—should be granted to those closest to students. Teacher unions and teachers at the decision making table are vital and essential to creating more innovative learning spaces.

Pilot schools are first and foremost a model of teacher empowerment. Teachers are guaranteed representation on governing boards, which set the school’s vision, determine working conditions, approve the annual budget, and evaluate the principal or teacher leaders. Teachers with Boston’s Pilot schools have pioneered teacher advisory programs, Humanities, Student Support Coordinators with social work backgrounds, and robust performance assessment systems as the primary means of determining student proficiency.

In these times, you need community mobilization to create teacher-powered schools. In 2004, CCE was approached by a coalition of Los Angeles community organizations and education activists, predominantly Latinx, to bring the Pilot model to Los Angeles Unified. The coalition was organizing in a neighborhood in which the primary high school was built for 1,800 students, but enrolled 5,000 students. The school’s four-year graduation rate was 30%. Two and one-half years of community organizing to demand Pilot schools resulted in a preliminary agreement of both the district and teachers union to enter negotiations, until the United Teachers Los Angeles’s president, who was firmly behind bringing Pilots to Los Angeles, hesitated, as he had recently made a unilateral decision that upset some of his members. 

I invited him out to dinner with the head of an influential community organization and a key education activist. As he was explaining why he was hesitant to go forward at that time, the head of Families in Schools leaned into him and said, “How about tomorrow, there are 400 parents picketing outside UTLA offices, and not just tomorrow, but every day after that?” He looked at her. He knew she could do it. He took a sip of wine and said, “I think we can make something happen.” Sometimes even colleagues need nudges. Three weeks later, we were at the negotiating table and a month later there was a signed Pilot schools agreement. Today, there are 49 Pilot schools in LA, schools like Social Justice Humanitas Academy, where they assess every student’s love languages so they know how to better connect with them, and in which every upper class student tutors students in lower grades while students are learning through a social justice, activist lens.

Let me end with some thoughts on where I think the teacher-powered schools movement needs to focus to change the current landscape and reclaim the mantle of what public education should be. We need to create new accountability systems with teacher-generated, curriculum-embedded performance assessments, replacing standardized tests created by for-profit companies, tests which have their roots in the eugenics movement. We need to rid our systems of sorting, ranking, and leveling students, teachers, and schools, and instead create multiple measures of school quality that help teachers figure out how to improve their own schools. We need to make our teacher-powered schools movement more inclusive of educators from groups historically marginalized from decision-making. We need to put equity at the forefront, ensuring that we are always teaching, acting, and serving with a culturally responsive lens. We need to create teacher-powered schools that close opportunity gaps for students of color and low-income students around measures that matter. And we need to collect and provide policy-makers with evidence that teacher-powered schools meet the demands of communities. 

So, simply put, you folks are at the forefront of a struggle to reclaim public education. You are the leaders. In these times, we need to band together and support one another in this struggle for a just education system and a just society. Thanks for all your work.

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