Guest Authors: Helen Janc Malone, Director of Institutional Advancement and National Director, Education Policy Fellowship Program and Reuben Jacobson, Deputy Director, Coalition for Community Schools
External accountability, high-stakes testing and a focus on international rankings are dominating much of the global education reform conversations. What will it take to flip the system and empower those closest to the children and youth -- our teachers -- redesign an equity-driven approach to education?
One strategy is to enable teachers to create learning environments responsive to student and community needs. The Los Angeles Education Partnership (LAEP) exemplifies schools where school-community partnership serve as a key vehicle for supporting students. LAEP works closely with a series of Los Angeles Unified School District Pilot Schools that offer autonomy and put teachers front and center in the educational change efforts.
In the Pilot Schools, teachers have a voice in school governance (alongside parents, administrators, and other stakeholders), professional learning and partnerships decisions.
Teachers organize community meetings, engage families and create partnerships that strengthen the school community. These schools have created environments where teachers can focus on instructional practices, common planning time and other strategies that support engaging and interdisciplinary learning. Outside partners, support student learning through a whole child approach, addressing their developmental, health, and social needs during school day or in out-of-school time hours.
Social Justice Humanitas Academy Pilot School (SJHA), for instance, supports students through teams that include the principal, teachers, and a community school coordinator. Teams examine student's academic and social emotional needs, and work together to align supports with those needs. This structure gives teachers voice and empowers them as critical actors in the daily life of their school and their students. SJHA recently won a national award from the Coalition for Community Schools as well as a new network, Teacher-Powered Schools.
As former L.A. teacher and current Humanitas principal Jose Navarro noted when applying to become a Pilot School:
We're interested in who's going to be making decisions with the students in mind. Too long teachers have been out of the policy aspect of education. We've been receiving the orders. We'd like to be part of the conversation make sure the right things are being done (LAEP, 2012).
Community-school partnerships and teacher empowerment are key drivers of Pilot Schools in L.A. and across the country. The two strategies are complementary. When schools partner with diverse community providers, not only do students receive support in diverse ways, but teachers have access to professional development and collaboration time that might not otherwise be available. Further, by engaging teachers in governance and partnership matters, teachers are able to work directly with community and families and to set the direction for the school. This builds mutual trust, a shared vision, expands professional development and strengthens social capital among adults serving students.
Research and best practices from the field tell us that teachers benefit from a shared leadership model, whereby teachers not only have a seat at a table, but are leading conversations that empower their classrooms, their students, and the school community at large.
Note: This post draws from our chapter in a recently released book, Flip the System: Changing Education from the Ground Up (Routledge, 2015). The book explores grass-roots, school-community ideas as levers for educational change. It balances expert and practitioner voices across four areas: a) accountability, privatization, and control; b) a new paradigm to flip the system (teacher agency, distributed leadership); c) a change to the system: collective autonomy (whole-systems approach); and d) supporting and activating teachers.