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Education Lab Blog

Education Lab is a yearlong project to spark meaningful conversations about education solutions in the Pacific Northwest.

June 27, 2014 at 5:00 AM

If teachers ran the schools, what would be different?

When kids misbehave at the Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy in Denver, they don’t get sent to the principal’s office because there is no principal.

At this public school, every decision — from the length of the day to the color of chairs — rests with the teachers.

As such, the academy — along with 60 other teacher-led schools around the country — provides an interesting window on what educators would do if they had full control to design a program themselves.

To wit: Classes at the K-5 academy in Denver are capped at 25 students each; parents volunteer daily; and lesson plans can change on a dime.

“I have yet to meet a teacher who has not dreamed about what it would be like to open their own school,” writes Kim Ursetta, a kindergarten teacher there. Where teaching has become a rote practice in many places, she says, at the Academy educators choose their own textbooks, oversee student conduct and answer for the school culture.

“In exchange,” says Urbetta, “we embrace higher accountability and increased collaboration.”

While the thrust of education reform has focused on scrutinizing educators and blaming them for lackluster results, the Math and Science Leadership Academy — founded five years ago with support from the teachers union — stands at the forefront of an intriguing new wave.

Many teacher-led schools are charters, but not all. In Washington, Phoenix High in Kennewick qualifies, according to website Education Evolving.

Last month, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visited Denver and spoke with Math and Science Leadership Academy teachers, who work both in the classroom and as peer trainers. He called it “an interesting example” of the power in this hybrid approach. And he continued:

I think this is where the country needs to go, and you guys are probably a couple years ahead. I really want to learn from what’s working and what’s not here.

Ninety percent of kids at the academy are low-income — many of them non-native English speakers — and teachers say that having the freedom to adjust lessons as needed is a key to keeping students engaged.

The appeal is similar for staff. The Denver Classroom Teachers Union says the academy receives 30 applications for every vacant job.

“It’s not top-down,” said Pamela Yawn, who works there. “I can change my practice that day, for that student, for any particular learning.” As a result, she told Duncan, her teaching has improved dramatically.

Teachers: What would you do differently if you had full control over your school? Tell us in the comments.

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