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Cross-Boundary Leader: Lars Johnson (MN EPFP 14-15)

Posted By Shaina Cook, Wednesday, February 17, 2016


Cross-Boundary Leader

Lars Johnson (MN EPFP 14-15)

Lars Johnson is a strategy fellow at Education Evolving and program director at the Labrador Foundation. At Education Evolving, his research is currently focused on identifying policy barriers to school innovation. At the Labrador Foundation, Lars leads a grantmaking program targeted at advancing innovative school designs and teacher leadership. Johnson attended the Minnesota New Country School, a teacher-powered charter school in rural Minnesota, and the experience inspired him to pursue a career in education policy. Prior to his education policy pursuits, Lars founded and led a software development consultancy, where he built apps and websites for think tanks, foundations, and government agencies.

Inspired by Teacher-Powered Schools

My own experiences in school had a huge influence on my life and my career. I attended a very traditional middle school, but the environment wasn’t good for me academically or socially. For high school, I attended a project-based, teacher-powered school, the Minnesota New Country School, where I was allowed and encouraged to direct my energy into the interests I had, which at the time were largely around music and computer programming. In retrospect, I see that the school model that worked so well for me had emerged because a group of teachers came together to figure out how to best serve their students. There was a direct link between the teacher-powered decision making at the school and the pedagogical experience that kept me so engaged.

A teacher-powered school is one where a collective group of teachers has real decision-making authority in at least one area of autonomy. At Education Evolving, we’ve identified 15 areas of autonomy, such as budget, curriculum, pedagogy, and recruitment, that educators at teacher-powered schools have a say in. This doesn’t mean these schools are big, unruly “autonomous collectives” where teachers reject leadership and principals altogether; it’s more of a shift in where the ultimate decision-making authority lies. In practice, many teacher-powered schools choose to have a principal or co-school leaders, similar to the way a law firm is led by a group of partners who choose a managing partner. Teacher-powered schools can be either charter or district schools—we see about a fifty-fifty split between the two—and teachers can gain and hold their collective autonomy in a number of ways, such as through a collective bargaining agreement or through a contract with their charter authorizer or district central office. We believe that groups of teachers should be the ultimate decision-making authority in schools because they’re in classrooms with students every day and understand students’ unique needs.

Improving the Quality of the Teaching Profession

I believe the most important issue in education policy today is the quality of the job of teaching, and whether talented young people perceive it as a potential career. Many leaders and policymakers are preoccupied with the “quality of teachers” but not the quality of teaching as a career, which has been a huge detriment to the profession. If teaching is seen as a scripted, assembly-line job (as it often is, especially in large urban districts), it will be difficult to recruit and retain the top-notch educators that students deserve. We need to raise the status of the profession as a whole and give educators more freedom to engage their students in the classroom.

We recently presented an award for advancements in research on teacher-powered schools to Richard Ingersoll at the University of Pennsylvania, who’s a leading expert on teacher retention and recruitment. His research identified the number one reason why teachers leave the classroom as the lack of professional autonomy over their roles and schools. We see this lack of power in data and our interactions with teachers quite often. Teacher-powered schools address this by giving teachers real authority; in turn, the teachers facilitate better learning for students. I think this is a big reason why we’ve seen this movement grow: teachers are fed up with accountability models where they are responsible for what they can’t control.

Federal Education Policy in Rural America

In 2015, I co-wrote a report on federal education policy in rural America. Implementing policy effectively in rural districts can be a challenge in a number of ways. For example, rural districts are often held to the same program application and reporting requirements as large urban districts, but they may have only one or two administrators in the office to handle all of the paperwork burdens of state and federal programs. In the report, we make the recommendation that rural districts be given consolidated reporting processes in which they can submit reports on multiple programs and grants through a central template. Another way to ease the administrative burden on rural districts would be to allow several to apply for competitive grants together as a team and share the reporting responsibilities among them.

Technology also has a special and important role to play in rural America. It can be difficult to recruit teachers and administrators or offer a diverse array of course options in more remote areas. One solution would be to offer more project-based learning or online learning opportunities when remote geographies make it difficult to bring in specialists in certain subject area. However, this is made difficult by the lack of broadband internet access in rural areas. This has improved over the last few years, but the lack of technology infrastructure still poses a challenge to providing diverse educational opportunities to rural students.

Cross-Boundary Leadership and Challenges

I think an important part of cross-boundary leadership is staying focused on the objectives at hand and setting aside labels and preconceived notions. For example, at Education Evolving, we work with teacher leaders from both the charter and district sectors of public education. Sometimes they carry negative narratives about each other, but we try to get everyone to focus on the end goal: giving teachers decision-making authority in schools so they can meet the unique needs of the students they serve. When teachers see that the sector in which a school lies doesn’t imply anything about teacher roles, or the school’s learning program, or the extent of positive student-teacher relationships, those borders and stereotypes seem to dissolve.

This example demonstrates some of the challenges presented in cross-boundary leadership. Working with a wide spectrum of stakeholders in the education sector has shown me how deeply ideological convictions are held by some individuals. Even in a field like public education, where positions don’t divide as neatly along party lines, convictions run deep, from the need for innovation versus the need to replicate what works to the importance of math and science versus the importance of the arts. Managing these different beliefs and finding a common ground can be challenging.

Leadership Lessons Learned

I think leadership is largely about associating with talented people who are pulling in the same direction as you are—and then knowing when to stay quiet and let work continue on its present course and when to speak up and nudge the wheel in a new direction. Leadership is less about being consistently active and more about knowing when to speak up. Ideally, every member of a team would possess leadership qualities, not just a single person.

EPFP Experience

My time as an EPFP Fellow was a wonderful opportunity to look into the work lives of people from all corners of the K-12 policy world. I think EPFP provides Fellows and alumni with exposure to new ideas, as well as networking opportunities with new people. In a world where so many of us get deep into particular tasks or issue areas in our jobs, it’s nice to step back and discuss K-12 at a more macro level with other invested, intelligent folks.



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