A Lesson in Education: To Save Failing Schools, Teachers Take Charge

"Where teachers lead, children succeed."

More than a feel-good sentiment, this is the actual philosophy of Barbara Jordan School in Detroit. There, educators, not traditional administrators, are in charge. The school has no principal, no traditional administrative hierarchy. Instead, teachers decide what students study--and so much more.

The same is true at a growing number of public and private schools in Denver, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Detroit and elsewhere. In these communities, teachers have taken charge of existing schools or helped create new ones from scratch. Instead of full-time administrators calling the shots at Malcolm X Shabazz High School in Newark, N.J., for example, teachers do. They oversee everything from operations to academics, community involvement to budgets.

The radically different approach to school administration is as much a test of management models as it is a study of academic philosophies. Much like governments and big businesses, school systems have run like military organizations for decades. Most rely on a command-and-control leadership model that resembles a pyramid in which power and authority flow downward from top decision-makers to lower-level lieutenants. The structure depends on clearly defined lines of authority and equally precise measures of accountability.

In many systems with school boards, superintendants and principals, this model produces a measurable level of excellence. But in other settings, particularly in disadvantaged schools, results have been disappointing. Dropout rates are higher. Scores are lower. And dreams go unrealized.

Many educators believe the traditional management model is one reason why. Though effective for measuring results and ensuring accountability, it is inflexible and unwieldy.

Rather than look for help from Washington or their state governments, progressive districts have taken matters into their own hands. By stepping up to take on greater responsibilities, they have been able to eliminate layers of bureaucracy and localize decision-making in many schools.

Proponents of this new leadership model recognize that it threatens a lot of tradition in education. "You're trying to run an upside-down pyramid in a pyramid structure," says Tim McDonald, author and policy advocate with Education Evolving, an educational think tank based in St. Paul, Minn. In early September, he told The New York Times, "There is so much momentum against being completely different in most districts."

But "different" can produce measureable gains when properly utilized, says Linda Peters. A high-school English teacher for more than a decade, she is one of the founding teachers behind Advanced Language and Academic Studies High School Cooperative (ALAS) in Milwaukee. The dual-language high school has no principal or traditional administrative hierarchy. Instead, teachers collaborate to make key decisions and then carry them out.

"We saw the waste and the very ineffective ways of doing things at a large high school, and we felt we could do it better ourselves," Peters says in a video for Education Evolving." After looking at several models, she and her peers chose a teacher-professional partnership. Initially, teachers accustomed to the status quo tested the limits of free-wheeling collaboration.

"From a process standpoint, decision-making didn't go smoothly in the beginning," says Peters. But then the teachers identified a common set of objectives and established clearer lines of accountability. Leveraging the best of a command-and-control model with the most of a collaborative model produced better outcomes than before. Coming up with a budget this year, for example, was much easier than in previous years, Peters says.

Without bureaucratic interference, teachers can tailor curricula to local needs and reallocate money where it is needed most. Take the Minnesota initiative to improve reading scores statewide.

ALAS teachers realized that complying with state recommendations would burden its language teachers. Instead of piling on extra reading in just one class, ALAS teachers wondered if a more comprehensive approach would produce higher outcomes. So they developed a literacy strategy for all of their classes, including math, science and art. When students were tasked to read more in all of their classes, reading improved.

So have the attitudes of teachers in schools where collaboration and authority mesh together. No longer told how to do their jobs, these professionals have made a greater commitment to their professions, their communities and, most importantly, their students.

This is providing hope in places where it has been lacking for a long time.

Inder Sidhu is the Senior Vice President of Strategy & Planning for Worldwide Operations at Cisco, and the author of Doing Both: How Cisco Captures Today's Profits and Drives Tomorrow's Growth. Follow Inder on Twitter at @indersidhu.