Carrie Bakken of Avalon School and Joe Graba of Education|Evolving
For improved academic
performance and cost savings, look to teacher-led schools
A Civic Caucus
Focus on Competitiveness
Interview May 2, 2014
John Adams, Carrie Bakken,
Dave Broden (vice chair), Janis Clay, Paul Gilje (coordinator), Joe
Graba, Randy Johnson, Ted Kolderie, Dan Loritz (chair), Paul Ostrow,
Dana Schroeder, Clarence Shallbetter. By phone: Amir Gharbi, Sallie
Carrie Bakken of Avalon
School, a teacher-led charter school in St. Paul, and Joe Graba of
Education|Evolving discuss the benefits of that type of school
governance, both in terms of school performance and in terms of
empowering teachers. According to Bakken, teacher-led governance at
Avalon, which has used that model since it opened in 2001-2002, is
cost-effective because the teachers there have a 95 to 100 percent
retention rate, much higher than the average rate. As a result, the
school doesn't have to spend money continuously training in new
teachers and is able to do long-range strategic planning.
Graba notes that nearly half of all
beginning teachers across the nation leave the profession within five
years. He says we need to make teaching a better job and
teacher-training programs need to prepare teachers to lead schools. He
says that teacher-led schools significantly increase the engagement of
teachers and students in the educational process.
Bakken says the intense focus on testing has
limited teachers' jobs even more than before, because they're told
what curriculum to use and even what page they should be on. She
argues that empowering teachers is essential. Graba points out that
there are more teacher-led schools around the country and that
teachers and their unions are starting to get active in negotiating
for those kinds of schools.
Issues to discuss. Prior to the meeting,
Carrie Bakken and Joe Graba were asked to be ready to discuss the
following issues: whether replicating the kind of teacher partnership
school structure that Avalon School has would make Minnesota more
competitive; the reasons for teacher partnerships; how important it is
that high school students get work experience; whether administrators
are threatened by the idea of teacher partnership schools; and whether
teacher partnerships would help Minnesota have a better-educated
Carrie Bakken is program
coordinator, advisor and half-time social studies teacher at Avalon
School, a democratic, teacher-led, project-based chartered school in
St. Paul, serving students in grades seven through 12. In 2001, Bakken
was hired with a team of teachers to open Avalon. As program
coordinator, she hosts national and international visitors and
researchers who come to investigate Avalon's unique and successful
Most notably, she accompanied
Education|Evolving to Washington, D.C., in 2010 to participate in a
dialogue with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and his top
advisors. In 2012, she started a two-year Aspen Institute/Pahara
Teacher Fellowship and won an Outstanding Educator in Ethics Education
Award, sponsored by the WEM Foundation. Prior to her work at Avalon,
Bakken taught for three years at Plymouth Youth Center, an alternative
education program in Minneapolis that serves at-risk students.
Bakken has a B.A. degree in women's studies,
with a minor in Latin American studies, from Beloit College. She has a
J.D. degree from Hamline University School of Law and a M.A. degree in
teaching from the University of St. Thomas.
Joe Graba is senior associate of
Education|Evolving, a Minnesota-based group of thought leaders in
education reform. His career in public education spans 40 years and
includes an array of leadership positions that reflect the origins and
evolution of both his and Education|Evolving's thinking on system
reform and legislative policy.
Graba began his career as a science teacher
at Wadena Public Schools and served three years as vice president of
the Minnesota Federation of Teachers. He served three terms in the
Minnesota House of Representatives, with four years as chair of the
School Aids Committee.
Following his legislative service, Graba was
appointed deputy commissioner of the Minnesota Department of
Education, director of Minnesota's Technical College System, deputy
executive director of the Minnesota Higher Education Coordinating
Board and interim executive director of the Minnesota Higher Education
Services Office. More recently, he was dean of Hamline University's
Graduate School of Education.
Graba received his undergraduate degree from
Bemidji State University and has done graduate work at Northern
Colorado University and Bemidji State University.
There are many good
public policy reasons to include more teacher leadership and more
teacher-led schools in all districts, to empower teachers, and to
reframe the teaching profession in a powerful way. Carrie Bakken
of Avalon School, a grade seven-through-12 chartered school in St.
Paul, said teacher leadership of Avalon has been cost-effective and
has led to good results for students, as well. "With empowered
teachers, we also have an empowered student body," she said.
Avalon has 190 students, with a
higher-than-average population of students in special education. There
are 24 staff members, many tied to special education. The school has
Bakken said Avalon is modeled after
Minnesota New Country School in Henderson, Minn., a small,
project-based, teacher-led school. Minnesota New Country was awarded a
$10 million grant to replicate its model at other sites and Avalon was
the first of several replication sites. "We've had hundreds of
visitors come to see our model," she said.
Avalon has used a teacher co-op governance
model since it began operations in 2001-2002. According to the
school's website, the teachers have fine-tuned the system over the
years. The model has two important components:
1) "All people on the teaching
staff have equal authority in all decision-making situations. No one
person, or group of persons, can make a decision without the
consensus of the entire staff. While this is sometimes difficult and
time-consuming, it does give all staff a feeling of empowerment,
which translates into a great amount of ownership for our program.
2) "All teaching staff members
assume administrative duties. By the beginning of 2005, we had
pulled two teachers out of 'advisories' in order to fill the roles
of Business Manager and Program Coordinator. Since 2006-07, two
teachers have job-shared the Program Coordinator position.
These teachers increased the percentage of their time spent on
administrative duties and decreased the percentage of time spent
with students, but had no increase in authority or decision-making
An interviewer asked how Avalon is different
from a typical district school. "Avalon is kind of the extreme,"
Bakken said. "It has the most autonomy on a continuum of teacher-led
schools. Because we are a chartered school, we don't have a district
that tells us what our salaries should be." Avalon has no union
contract. "We decide all aspects of running the school," she said. The
teachers decide what the salaries are and how people will be paid. The
school has a personnel committee and the teachers do peer evaluations.
Avalon's only constraints are the policies determined by the Minnesota
Department of Education, state laws and federal laws. The school uses
the state graduation standards.
Avalon teachers use a consensus model to
make decisions. Bakken said the staff holds two meetings a week.
One is a learning program meeting, which includes all teachers, and
one is a business meeting, which includes all staff members: teachers,
the office manager and six educational assistants. The entire staff
votes on budget matters and business issues. In the meetings, the
staff decides things by consensus. The school is working on its budget
now and will bring that to the whole staff, which has to approve it.
She said the group uses "
a method of achieving consensus on an issue using a hand vote. If
everyone holds up three or more fingers, the motion passes. If anyone
holds up less than three fingers, the group needs to continue the
discussion. Bakken said Fist to Five is a very efficient way to
Avalon is a project-based-learning school,
so the students get to design their own education. Bakken said
students each have to do large projects where they work with the
community. She said some Avalon students use the Postsecondary
Enrollment Options (PSEO) program, through which juniors and seniors
can take free classes for credit at any postsecondary institution in
the state. Sophomores can also participate in PSEO, but are limited to
taking career and technical training classes.
Bakken said Avalon serves both students who
have special education needs and students who are highly gifted.
"Students are out doing amazing things," she said. Avalon has no
sports teams, but students can play sports at their home school
districts. The school offers more academic- and arts-oriented
activities such as theater and robotics. It contracts with Schmitt
Music to teach instrumental music and students play in small
Avalon's contract with its authorizer
contains performance criteria for the school. An interviewer asked
how explicit the performance criteria are for the school and for its
students. Bakken said that's where charter schools are more regulated
and have more criteria than district schools. Every three years,
Avalon goes through a contract renewal with its authorizer,
Opportunities (NEO). Working with
NEO, the teachers design a series of goals for the school and the
students: testing and academic goals and school culture goals.
"There's a lot of framework that's imposed
on us by the state," Bakken said. "But then we get to decide how to do
that. We don't have the district layer."
Teachers from large districts often suffer
from "initiative fatigue," since a new initiative is announced on
almost every professional development day. At Avalon, Bakken said,
the teachers gather all the data from the past year and then decide at
the beginning of the next year what they should work on. "Nobody
outside of us who's not in the classroom is telling us what to do,"
Teacher empowerment is cost-effective.
The reason teacher empowerment at Avalon has been so cost-effective,
Bakken said, is that over the last seven years, it has helped the
school achieve a 95 to 100 percent teacher-retention rate. "Retaining
teachers is incredibly cost-effective," she said. "You don't have to
spend money on getting people up to speed and you can do long-range
strategic planning, knowing that the personnel there would be able to
achieve those goals."
Many schools, such as those in North
Minneapolis, have a high level of teacher turnover. "This is a
solvable problem, if teachers were more empowered to do the work,"
Bakken said. "It's the constant turnover that is really damaging and
"I don't know how many parents would be
super excited to always have a first-year teacher for their children,"
Bakken continued. "Yet one year of experience is the most frequent
amount of experience among teachers, i.e., the mode.
not a healthy, sustainable model where you can do long-range planning.
You can't turn around a school in a year. You can't make major changes
in a year."
More than 40 percent of all beginning
teachers leave teaching within five years. According to Joe Graba
a 2012 study by Richard
Ingersoll and Lisa Merrill
notes that over 40 percent of those who enter teaching leave the
profession within five years. And many teachers last only one year.
Following the 2007-08 school year, 13.1 percent of first-year
teachers, or 26,000 teachers, left after their first year. Since these
rates of leaving have been increasing, Ingersoll and Merrill say,
there is a growing flux and instability in teaching.
"We could save money and increase quality if
we didn't have to keep exposing our kids to brand-new teachers," Graba
said. "Our biggest problem is the turnover of personnel in district
The study observes that minority teachers
are more likely to work in difficult-to-staff schools with
less-than-desirable working conditions. It notes that important
factors in these teachers' decisions about whether to leave the
profession are school working conditions, the degree of autonomy and
discretion teachers are allowed over issues that arise in their
classrooms and the level of collective faculty influence over
school-wide decisions that affect teachers' jobs.
We need to make teaching a better job and
better prepare teachers to lead schools. "Our teacher preparation
system doesn't do much to prepare teachers to lead schools," Graba
said. "We focus on academic content." Neither Graba nor Bakken could
name any leading teacher empowerment programs around the country.
"We have in the U.S a strong movement to
improve the quality of teachers," Graba continued. "We're trying to
identify the poor ones and screen them out of the system. Ultimately,
we need to make teaching a more attractive job, to make the job better
for the people who are teaching. Teacher-led schools significantly
increase the engagement of teachers and students in the educational
"Making teaching a profession where you see
a professional arc is important," Bakken continued. "The job you start
with shouldn't be same as the job you end up with 35 years later.
Having some professional opportunities for teachers is critical, while
not losing that connection to the classroom."
Bakken described the variety she has in her
own job as program coordinator, advisor and half-time social studies
teacher at Avalon. She was hired as the school's founding teacher
and handles contact with the state and other tasks. She's been
teaching for 17 years, uses her law degree in her daily work and
continues learning about all the things that go into running a school.
"At the same time, I still get to have my time with the students and
apply to my teaching what I learn about as program coordinator, " she
Empowering teachers is essential.
An interviewer asked what the reaction
has been as the idea of teacher partnerships has been discussed more
broadly. "There's a lot of momentum now," Bakken said. "It's a great
time to talk about this, because under No Child Left Behind, the
intense pressure on testing made large districts and districts and
schools that are struggling really focus on scripting teachers and
scripting curriculum. Now, because teachers have been told what
curriculum they should use, what page they should be on, they have
been under tighter scrutiny and their job has been limited even
further. There's a backlash of, 'Wait a minute. I've been teaching for
15 years. I understand what the issues are that affect my students. I
understand that this curriculum that was designed by people who are
not in the classroom isn't the best thing for my students at this
"Whether or not you move in the direction of
teachers running schools, empowering teachers is essential," Bakken
said. "It can be on a grade. You don't have to empower a brand-new,
22-year-old teacher in the same way you empower a veteran teacher."
Graba noted that there are more examples of
teacher-led schools around the country and that teachers unions are
starting to get active in negotiating for those kinds of schools.
Traditional district schools can also be
teacher-led. "The freedom is there to do things differently,"
Bakken said. "Sometimes the barrier is the superintendent and
sometimes it's the union, because they're worried about different
conditions for different teachers and whether changing the contract
would make them vulnerable. There really shouldn't be a barrier to
having one of these schools in every district." Graba noted, though,
that unions don't like schools where teachers don't need unions.
In response to a question about the recent
teacher contract settlement in Minneapolis, Bakken said her children
attend Minneapolis public schools and she's frustrated by the
district's failure to try something new long enough to see if it
works. "They don't give enough support," she said. "They need to
follow up rhetoric with the actual support and the time. The data
won't show it in one year, especially when there's high turnover and
the schools are getting new personnel."
We have a terrible record of doing
innovation and sustaining it in public education. Graba said there
are a lot of issues with making change inside the districts. "The
tendency is to do it inside. Then over time you get turnover in the
people that created it and the old culture rubs off the creative
edges. But we're making progress on that. Sometimes it's the
superintendent. Down through the mid-level bureaucracy, people's jobs
are designed around controlling the schools in the district. If you
pull out one school and change it into a teacher-led school, it
radically alters their self-image and their jobs."
"Chartering has a basic innovation inherent
in the governance structure," Graba continued. "Public education
generally is governed through administrative processes: process design
and process enforcement." The central office controls what happens in
the school, while chartered schools are governed through performance
contracts with their authorizers. "That changes the nature of the
organization," he said.
Teacher leadership could work in larger
schools. In response to a question about how to transfer the
concept of teacher leadership to larger schools, Bakken said there are
different ways to organize this in a large, 1,000-student school. "You
could have different people making different types of decisions," she
said. "You could still have a principal, since there is a lot of
administrative work to be done. Who controls what happens in the
classroom is the central question."
Avalon is connected to parents and to the
community. An interviewer asked what role parents and the
community play in the school. Bakken responded that the high teacher
retention at Avalon builds a network with teachers, students and
parents. Teachers have students for four years, so they have a deeper
relationship with students than in some schools. Parents have three
45-minute conferences with teachers each year. "Parents are more
connected with what's going on," she said.
Bakken also said Avalon uses a network of
community resources, such as the Guthrie Theater. The school is
connected with 20 organizations and students volunteer in the
Teachers unions are not always barriers to
teacher-led schools. An interviewer asked how to transform
teachers unions, so they won't be barriers to teacher-led schools.
Graba responded that the
Teacher Union Reform
(TURN) was created in 1996 as a voluntary organization of teacher
union leaders who thought unions needed to be involved in changes to
the education system.
TURN's website describes
the organization as "a union-led effort to restructure teachers unions
to help promote the kinds of reforms that will lead to better learning
and higher achievement for all students."
Graba pointed out that all older teachers
have grown up with union management, but some union leaders are
beginning to change that culture. Some unions are negotiating
contracts with school districts that allow teachers to create
autonomous schools. He said more teacher-led schools are being created
around the country.
Students and parents are part of the hiring
process at Avalon. An interviewer asked how Avalon recruits
teachers who will fit the school's program. Bakken said the school
gets many applications for every open teaching position. "We bring
students and parents into the interview," she said. The prospective
teachers have a first interview and some of them are asked back for a
second interview. If school is in session, they are able to spend some
time at Avalon. The school looks for teachers with many different
interests beyond just curriculum. "We like people who've had another
career and have then gone into teaching," she said. Avalon's staff
does a lot of mentoring of new teachers.
Teacher training would have to change in
order to produce more teachers prepared to lead schools. An
interviewer asked what would have to change in college education
programs to produce a greater number of teachers well prepared for the
teacher-led model of school management. "Teacher training would have
to change," Bakken responded. It's important to get teachers in the
classroom as soon as possible, she said. She suggested that instead of
expecting all teachers to be prepared for this type of role at age 22,
perhaps they should have master's-level training in budgeting, data
and administrative leadership.
Change in education must be gradual and
voluntary. An interviewer commented that many people looking at
education policy and reform think in terms of change must be
comprehensive and there must always be "a fully developed plan." He
said this is a problem and that this mindset, in fact, blocks major
change. "A political consensus for radical change is a contradiction
in terms," he said. "It means that if not everybody is ready for
change, then no real change is possible. That's not so. Most systems
change as new approaches and new models are adopted by those who are
ready. You don't impose 'the different' on those not ready for it.
Usually, then, 'the different' spreads gradually. This is the
practical approach. We should arrange for education to change the way
these other systems change: gradually and voluntarily and, in the end,
Bakken responded, "Politicians don't take
the long view."
There is increasing interest in teacher-led
schools from unions and teachers. Graba said, "We think we're
gaining. But in graduate schools of education, students have no idea
what you're talking about."
Every school district should offer the
opportunity for teachers to run schools. "This means shifting the
idea of teaching to let teachers use their expertise to design
classrooms that are meaningful," Bakken said. In contrast, she noted
that Minneapolis has moved to focused instruction, so everyone across
the district is on the same page.
An interviewer referred to a recent
Education Week commentary
by Paul Reville
of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Reville's message, the
interviewer said, is that the education system is fundamentally
incapable of producing the people we need to make the country
successful. "The education system needs to have a strategy that can
make this happen," said the interviewer.
People want schools to be better, but not
different. Another interviewer commented that we need a political
consensus to allow innovation and asked what must be done
legislatively to eliminate barriers to innovation. Graba responded
that the Legislature created the chartering sector to foster
innovation, but now the state has recreated chartered schools so
they're much more regulated. "Almost everybody in this country wants
schools to be better," he said. "Almost nobody wants them to be
The Civic Caucus
is a non-partisan,
tax-exempt educational organization. The Interview Group
includes persons of varying political persuasions,
reflecting years of leadership in politics and
business. Click here
to see a short personal background of each.
S. Adams, David Broden, Audrey Clay, Janis Clay, Pat Davies, Bill
Frenzel, Paul Gilje (coordinator), Randy Johnson, Sallie Kemper, Ted
Kolderie, Dan Loritz (chair),
Tim McDonald, Bruce Mooty, John Mooty, Jim Olson, Paul Ostrow, Wayne
Popham, Dana Schroeder, Clarence Shallbetter, and Fred Zimmerman