Resetting the Stage

Kim Farris-Berg


Just imagine what schools would be like if teachers were in charge.

Parents may assume that teachers are already, in fact, calling all the shots, but Kim Farris-Berg ’98 (BA), an independent education policy advocate, would disagree.

She recently published the book, Trusting Teachers with School Success: What Happens When Teachers Call the Shots. It’s about what some call a “teacher-led” approach to running a school. For Farris-Berg, it reveals the benefits of giving teachers control — something that, for her, has become a rallying cry.

“There’s a national trend to get tough with teachers, and governor after governor is tying test scores to teacher evaluations,” she explains. “Teachers feel they have very little control over what and how they teach.”

Farris-Berg is trying to buck that trend. She studied Mission Hill, a K-8 pilot school in Boston, and more than 50 other schools across the nation where teachers are in charge. There, in addition to teaching academic skills, the goal is to help children develop lifelong habits — such as solving problems creatively, thinking critically and acting with empathy.

The documentary film, “A Year at Mission Hill,” chronicles the school’s new approach. One year, for example, teachers decided to teach everything — from reading and writing to math and science — through a school-wide theme about bees.

“We’re going to be studying honey bees a lot,” a teacher tells her class in the documentary. “We’re going to watch them fly, we’re going to watch them dance, we’re going to watch them eat, we’re going to watch them clean.”

“There’s not a single desk in any of these classes,” Farris-Berg says. “That’s just not the way the school operates.”

Farris-Berg works with clients around the country that are exploring whether to adopt similar approaches. She’s a frequent guest blogger and popular speaker on the topic. John Merrow, an education correspondent for “PBS NewsHour,” called her book a “must-read.”

In his most recent State of the State address, California Gov. Jerry Brown’s call to action mirrored what she’s been saying for years.

“The laws that are in fashion now demand tightly constrained curricula and reams of accountability data,” Brown said.

“I’d prefer to trust our teachers who are in the classrooms each day,” he said, “doing the real work — lighting fires in young minds.”

That day in January, Farris-Berg was taking care of her own kids, who had the flu. She didn’t watch the governor’s address, and ignored the first few calls on her cell phone. But when they kept coming, she checked her voicemail and heard message after message about his speech.

“This was the real deal,” Farris-Berg says. “I started calling back folks who were curious how the governor’s vision could be made into reality.”

It was a huge turning point in a quest that first began in 1991, when a group in Minnesota established what became the concept for charter schools. A decade later — just a few short years after graduating from USD — Farris-Berg worked with that same groundbreaking group of educators as an editor on what became a how-to book for others who wanted to launch their own charter schools.

Today, Farris-Berg says there are about 60 “teacher-led” schools throughout the nation. At these schools, teachers define student achievement, decide how to illustrate that achievement and determine how to evaluate student performance. Rather than relying solely on standardized tests, teachers might have students create a portfolio, or complete a project, like a thesis, that they defend at the end of the term.

“A test score is a single measurement of quality,” she says. “When we buy a car, pick a restaurant or choose our spouse we would never look at just a single measure of quality. Why would we do that with education?” — Krystn Shrieve

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *