Many big cities have already tried to boost student performance by standardizing procedures and teaching methods. "They've gotten what they can from that, and it's not enough," Professor Kerchner says.
In Denver, teachers jointly govern the Math and Science Leadership Academy (MSLA). By removing rigid curriculum dictates, the school has attracted a top-notch staff that serves some of the district's most disadvantaged students. District officials are pleased with how MSLA has done since opening last year.
The teachers "appreciate that their professional judgment is being respected," says Lori Nazareno, one of the founders and co-lead teachers.
MSLA, backed by the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, needed a waiver from a state law requiring principals to evaluate teachers. Instead, teachers set specific goals and give one another structured feedback on a regular basis.
Ultimately, Ms. Nazareno signs off on evaluations, but the key, she says, is the "ongoing improvement feedback loop." She contrasts that with a typical school's evaluation process, where often the principal just peeks into a classroom as a formality.
Families from all around Denver can opt in, but many live in the low-income, heavily Hispanic section of the city where the school is located.
Ruby Molinar says that putting her son Angel Marquez in MSLA for second grade last year was the best decision she's ever made. In public school and in a Roman Catholic school, he had fallen far behind in reading. "Those ladies [at MSLA] worked around the clock all year long trying to catch him up ... and he did awesome," she says. "He didn't enjoy school, and now he does."
Angel and other struggling readers were too young to take state tests, but many of them started off below grade level and are entering school this year on target, Nazareno says.