The biggest obstacles to the spread of teacher-run schools are school districts’ central rules, most of which make it impossible to use unusual personnel configurations, alter budgets and make myriad other changes the teacher-run model demands. That’s why so many teacher-run schools are charters — they need autonomy to organize as they please.
“I have a lot of friends in more traditional models,” says Tim Quealy, who teaches math, technology and language arts at Avalon. “They are just told what to do — some big binder lands on their desk, and their days are scripted. They feel very isolated.”
Avalon has committees that handle specific duties: personnel, technology, special education. Every year teachers evaluate one another on each other on four questions: What are their contributions? What are their greatest strengths and skills? What is some constructive feedback? And how confident are you in their overall performance? Parents and students also evaluate teachers, using different questions. If problems surface, the personnel committee appoints a fellow teacher to mentor his or her struggling colleague. If that fails, the group lets the teacher go, which appears to happen more often when teachers are in charge than it does in traditional public schools.
Having more control keeps teachers and students more engaged. Avalon’s high schoolers can take math, biology, physics and Spanish classes, but they spend the majority of their time on projects of their own choosing, with guidance from teachers to ensure that they master state standards. Such a heavy reliance on independent projects is typical of teacher-run schools, according to Kim Farris-Berg and Edward Dirkswager, who studied 11 of them for their 2012 book, “Trusting Teachers With School Success: What Happens When Teachers Call the Shots .”
Meanwhile, one size fits all continues to reign in Madison.