What happens when teachers run a school?

In theory, that’s the kind of question that charter schools should be really good at answering. But in practice, few charter schools have used their flexibility to experiment with alternative leadership models.

Teaching Firms of America Professional Preparatory Charter School (TFOA), located in the Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, is one of those exceptions. (Richard Kahlenberg and I profile several other charter schools that have successfully experimented with giving teachers more flexibility and autonomy in our new book, A Smarter Charter.)

TFOA employes a partner model like that often found in law firms. School leaders are also classroom teachers, and decision making processes are transparent, with staff members invited to sit in on meetings and weigh in on decisions. Teachers are charged with finding the best methods for reaching the same students over multiple years.

Starting a “Teaching Firm”

As an undergraduate at the University of Virginia (UVA), Rafiq Kalam Id-Din—co-founder of TFOA—took a job teaching at a university-run pre-K program as a way to pay the bills, but he soon realized that it was more than just a job that fit his schedule as a student.

“I stumbled into teaching and loved it,” Kalam Id-Din explained.

After completing his masters degree in education, Kalam Id-Din taught at an alternative public high school in Central Virginia, where teachers pioneered new methods of reaching struggling students. This experience with teacher-led innovation stuck with Kalam Id-Din as something worth pursuing.

Kalam Id-Din left the classroom to pursue a career in law and run an education foundation, but his fascination with teaching remained. In 2007, he returned to that world once more, this time armed with an Echoing Green fellowship to support him in the launch of a new public school.

“Schools have been organized based in the same way for over 300 years,” Kalam Id-Din reflected.

He envisioned a different organization model, inspired in part by the structure of a law firm. Just as lawyers work their way up from associates to partners, teachers would work their way up to being managing partners who run the school, while remaining classroom teachers, in a “teaching firm.”

One of Kalam Id-Din’s first acts was to recruit a second founding partner.

Damien Dunkley, an experienced educator who had worked in district and charter schools, had left the classroom to take an administrative position, but felt “there was something always missing.” As the dean at a charter school, he was frustrated by high teacher turnover, which left him feeling like he had to constantly repeat the same coaching process with new teachers rather than helping teachers progress farther in their practice.

And he wanted to be back in the classroom.

“So [the teaching firm] model was perfect for me,” Dunkley explained. “I had that administrative background, but teaching was what I loved.”

Kalam Id-Din and Dunkleyopened TFOA Charter School together in 2011.

Transparent Leadership

As TFOA “partners,” Kalam Id-Din and Dunkley lead the school in a range of decisions from hiring teachers and support staff to making sure that the school is complying with the law.Unless privacy is required for legal or personal reasons, their discussions about school decisions are open to the full staff.

“We’re a super transparent place,” Kalam Id-Din explained.

When they’re hiring new staff members, for example, Kalam Id-Din and Dunkley invite current teachers and support staff to attend the interviews.

“We want them to see how we make decisions, and we need the maximum amount of information in order to be able to make the best decisions,” said Kalam Id-Din.

The Schoolhouse Model

As partners, Kalam Id-Din and Dunkley are also classroom teachers, both teaching fourth grade this year.

“We really focus mostly on teaching. That’s how we see ourselves,” Dunkley said. “We’re able to continue honing [the craft of teaching].”

Managing leadership duties and a full teaching schedule requires hard work and excellent time management skills, but it is also made possible by the fact that TFOA uses a distributed leadership model. Each classroom has a lead teacher (an “associate”) and an apprentice teacher. All lead teachers are entrusted with the responsibility to make most decisions about how they run their classrooms.

The classroom structure reflects a focus on empowering teachers to meet students’ individual needs. TFOA uses a “grade looping” model where students stay with the same teacher from kindergarten through fifth grade. Classrooms are known as “schoolhouses”—recalling the days of one-room schoolhouses where teachers had considerable latitude in teaching methods and got to know students and their families over the course of multiple years.

Teachers support each other, sharing ideas and advice, but lead teachers are responsible for making decisions about what works best with their own classes. This model makes more sense than a school structure focused on standardizing classroom practice, Kalam Id-Din argues, “because all the research tells us every kid is different; they learn at different trajectories…How can this manifestation not look different in every room?”

The Future of the Teaching Firm

TFOA is off to a promising start.

The school is adding one grade each year, and plans to expand through the eighth grade. About 83 percent of the students at TFOA are black, and 15 percent are Hispanic. More than 90 percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

Last year was the first in which TFOA had students in third grade, the youngest grade for New York State’s standardized testing. TFOA’s passing rates for English language arts scores were 2 percentage points lower than the Community School District average in English language arts (20 percent versus 22 percent), but 8 percentage points higher than the district in math (29 percent versus 21 percent).

The school’s partners stress that standardized tests are not their main measure of student success. Kalam Id-Din notes that college completion rates have been disappointing for graduates of some high-scoring charter school networks serving primarily low-income students of color, and he argues that preparing students for long-term success requires going beyond test prep.

The school uses its own internal academic assessments quarterly. Teachers also evaluate students on six leadership attributes that they have identified as essential to cultivating strong learning behaviors, each of which is tied to a symbol from traditions of the African diaspora: reflection (sankofa), self-confidence (tama drum), inquiry (heremakhet), empathy (banyan tree), focus (djed), and integrity (ma’at).

Kalam Id-Din summed up the school’s educational philosophy: “We’re not trying to produce consumers. We’re trying to produce great citizens who are producers.”

The goal of being a producer is also reflected in the active role that teachers play at the school. The number of partners at TFOA will increase as other teachers are promoted—from apprentice to junior associate, to senior associate, to partner.

Eventually, Kalam Id-Din and Dunkley hope, some of those partner teachers will leave TFOA to start teaching firms of their own.

About the Smarter Charter Series

This series highlights ideas for promoting effective charter schools that empower teachers, integrate students, and share lessons with other schools. For more on these ideas, check out A Smarter Charter: Finding What Works for Charter Schools and Public Education, by Richard D. Kahlenberg and Halley Potter.