Might Teachers Take On the ‘Quality’ Issues?

If motivation is important for students mustn’t it be equally important for teachers? If it is, how does that happen?

‘Improving teachers and teaching’ is replacing ‘accountability’ as the theme for improvement. But, like so much on the improvement agenda, the effort at ‘teacher quality’ takes existing arrangements as given; in this case, the boss/worker traditional in K-12. And this is tough going. Might people be more motivated to come into teaching, and to stay, were teaching to become a better job and a better career?

One of the important insights of public life is that problems are the product of circumstances; that success often comes from ‘modifying the circumstances’. [See Jean Monnet, Memoirs, 1978, page 291.] What if we were to try that approach to the issues with teachers and teaching?

About 1982 a former teacher pointed out that teachers are almost the only professionals who have to work for administrators. Why, she asked, can’t teachers have the option to work as professionals in a group they control? Get out of the labor/management framework and perhaps many of its problems would disappear. One of our associates likes to say to (complaining) superintendents: “You wouldn’t have a problem with bargaining if you didn’t insist on being an employer!

We’ve worked at that, and it turns out that teachers can work in public education as most professionals have the opportunity to do. A partnership model was one of the first innovations to appear in the charter sector after the Minnesota Legislature opened that opportunity in 1991. Later the idea was transplanted successfully into the big-city unionized environment in Milwaukee.

We’re now at the stage where the partnership concept is ‘proved’. Research has not yet picked up on this. But as best we can see, behaviors do change remarkably when the school is the teachers’ school. And this does seem important to the ‘teacher quality’ discussion.

Albert Shanker used to say: If you want to hold the teachers accountable the teachers have to be able to run the school. It’s not impossible he was counting on the system never giving teachers that authority. But it turns out that where they can design the program and make the decisions teachers do accept responsibility for school and student success. Recruitment, assignment, effort, compensation, performance and accountability seem to be handled if anything better in the partnership than in the confrontational boss/worker model.

Certainly Richard Ingersoll at Penn’s GSE has found that schools work better where teachers’ control is greater. In the partnership model ‘control’ is emphatically collective, collegial.

We’d love to know how teachers in partnerships innovate; to see how they change the approach to learning. Our impression is that they customize student work, introduce technology and enlarge students’ responsibility for the way the school runs. As students take more responsibility for their learning, student behavior changes. And the teacher’s job upgrades.

You do begin to wonder how things might change if policymakers, weary of the conflict generated by the boss/worker arrangement, were to encourage a shift to the model that internalizes the ‘quality’ issues within the partnership framework. E|E has in fact been discussing a strategy along these lines with teacher-union leadership, at both the local and national levels.

We’d appreciate your thoughts about this. It certainly seems to us that along with efforts to get good people into teaching there should be a comparable effort to make teaching a better job for its people.

—Guestbloggers Joe Graba and Ted Kolderie, Education|Evolving

Check out E|E’s video series with teachers and students working in these arrangements. And another describing the partnership concept.

9 Replies to “Might Teachers Take On the ‘Quality’ Issues?”

  1. An interesting and important question: what proportion of current (or needed) teachers could rise to that challenge? if it’s a high proportion, the model could work; if it’s a small proportion, it could not.

  2. Your statement that “‘Improving teachers and teaching’ is replacing ‘accountability’ as the theme for improvement” is the most hopeful statement i’ve heard in a long time.

    I won’t apologize for stealing those words and repeating them whenever possible.

    Lately the words “teacher autonomy” has been returning. (as a former lobbyist for Planned Parenthood I hold the principle of teacher autonomy as almost as sacred as the right of privacy, even I have been afraid to use the term enough, given the current climate)

    I just finished one of the best education studies that I’ve ever read, but even it implied that collaboration and teacher autonomy are contradictory. In sports, they address the contradiction that everyone must “play their own position” and also “help out on D,” and the coach teaches the player how to balance the contradictions.

    In fact, what would football look like if they used data the way Michelle Rhee, the TFA, and the TNTP want to impose on public schools (though not necessarily on their own school) They’d give every prospect a personality test and only draft people whose temperment fit into a narrow range. Players would all have to have the same personality types regardless of the position they play. They’d average out the heights, weights, and speed of all players and draft people for all positions who are ,say, 6’4″ and 229 lbs and run at the spped of … The phrase, “its a long season” would be banned and players would not be allowed to pace themselves and coaches would have to push them to their limits in every practice. Quarterbacks would not be allowed to audible and coaches would have to use the same game plan regardless of field considtions, injuries, or opponents. And coaches would have to pre-file the schedule of every timeout that they would call during the year.

    None of my sarcasm means that I would reject a teammate from TFA or whatever background. On the contrary, we need educators wiith all types of personalities, ideologies, teaching styles, and using the instructional methods with which they are most comfortable.

    Even in a hardcore school like mine, I saw the energy that was unleashed when collaboration was encouraged. Since NCLB and the “whatever it takes” mentality of “high expectations” and “no excuses,” however, I’ve seen the system chew up and spit out one great young teacher after another. If we could hang out a shingle that says, ” a True Collaborative Learning Community,” that exodus of talent would be reversed. Teaching in an inner city school can be the most rewarding thing in the world. Create an environment that is respectful for adults and students and we could recruit and retain an amazing amount of talent.

  3. It always seems… I don’t know, naive, I guess… to talk about teacher quality without talking about teacher training.

    I believe that our Baby Boomer teachers are on their way to rapid retirement. I also note that 33% of teachers last only two years and 52% last only 5. Lateral entry programs tend to have even worse retention rates. And some of the schools I work with are literally importing teachers from India. Not only do we not have enough good teachers, we don’t have have enough teachers period.

    At the same time, we have the largest number of kids in school than ever.

    This to me says that over the next few years, we have the optimum window for changing the way we train and recruit pre-service teachers.

    Yet I have never heard anyone — except Linda Darling-Hammond — talk about this. And she never responds in this blog.

    I agree with John that a school — especially a brand new school — based on a collaborative model of teaching would be great. But at some point — and sooner rather than later — we’re going to have to confront the fact that our states do a horrible job of training teachers both at the undergraduate and graduate levels. The coming generation of teachers appears to me to be the worst ever given that they have been bombarded with ridiculous notions of education based on testing and standards — but since they’re naive, they actually believe in this stuff. (And believe me, collaborating with these folks is no picnic!)

    So I have two questions: Why isn’t anyone in ed reform talking about reforming schools of education? And why aren’t we feverishly replicating the successful programs (like Darling-Hammond’s and Lucy Calkins’) that really do turn out good teachers?

    Teacher quality is a somewhat meaningless concept if we don’t actually begin to conceptualize it at the level of initial training. Why? Because if we don’t have a model for quality, we won’t know what we’re training people for.

    Ever the contrarian,


  4. …”teachers are almost the only professionals who have to work for administrators”


    Other than the self-employed, who doesn’t have a boss? Even college professors occasionally have to answer to an administrator.

    But your idea of improving teaching is crucial. As Steve has pointed out many times, you need administrators who encourage this and provide time and resources. Bosses can be helpful to the process — too bad more aren’t. When we talk about best uses for funds, certainly providing real, individualized continuing ed for teachers is crucial (not talking about the five days of state-mandated in-service here). Any good teacher WANTS specific feedback on what they can do to improve.

  5. You go, Andrew! I was going to mention doctors who work in hospitals, lawyers who work in law firms, architects who don’t own their firms, engineers, etc. Professionals, in fact, have some of the most rigid hierarchies to deal with in the world of work. Why? Because a “taxonomy of skill” is one thing that defines a profession.

    Technically, teaching is not a profession because it lacks a well-defined taxonomy of skill (National Boards Testing is a kind of start on this but is not used in this way). Teaching also lacks a sufficient research base on practice and at least one powerful professional organization. (The NEA is a union, not a professional organization.)

    Furthermore, teachers won’t be true “pro-fessionals” (literally, for a fee) until they change the way they pay themselves. “Fee for service” is one professional approach. So are individually negotiated contracts. And so is a “step-wise” ladder system a la the government G system, though this last option is the least professional of the other choices.

    Finally, teachers don’t control who can become a teacher. This is probably the most important aspect creating and managing a profession because without this one cannot define who is in the profession or not. And if anybody can be in the profession, then being in is not very meaningful.

    Personally, I ache for the day when teachers begin to approach their work as professionals. This is not to say that many teachers aren’t great or don’t act in a professional manner. (Nor do I consider myself a professional or someone who is working in a profession, so I apply the same standards to myself.) But I can’t wait until teachers start to act like lawyers, doctors, and other recognized professional groups. Working all year round will be a good start. Having a recognized “history of the profession” will also be good. Finally, controlling certification will be the ultimate step toward defining themselves as the true professionals they could one day be.

    Here’s to professional teaching!

  6. Hi Steve. I am drawn to the portion of your post where you say that “working all year round would be a good start.” I think that when people bring up the fact that teachers get a summer break and that makes teaching somehow not a profession-they don’t know what they are talking about. I won’t generalize by saying teachers so I will say that I have spent my summer focusing on educational issues: attending confrences, working on a masters degree, meeting with my teaching teammates. I never have a time when I am off work and NOT thinking about my job. Seating arrangements, schedules, lesson planning. I think that the teachers that I know and work with are some of the most professional people that I know! Anyone who can scoff at teaching as not be a true profession does not know what they are talking about. We may only teach for seven or eight hours a day, but that does not mean that we do not take home papers to grade, lesson plans to write or other things to do. I think about my kids all the time. I am a professional!

  7. Thank you Heather!! I agree with you. I, too am a professional teacher. My summers are spent pretty much the same.

    I feel that without teachers there would be no other professions. I do agree that the world does not regard us as such.

    I realize there is a wide range of teachers. Those who just got started and do not have much experience and those who are life long learners. But, I have known many lawyers and doctors who were not up to a reliable standard, either.

    The one thing that I can only say for myself is that I am constantly striving to become better than I am. I thrive on learning new ideas and fresh concepts. I do wish every educator had the attitude that we all need to be life long learners.

  8. Steve’s initial post made me wonder about teaching as a profession. It seems like teaching is the thing to do these days, but a good teacher is hard to come by. We do have the highest rate of students now, which is a perfect time to start improving student learning. Motivating students and having them trust a teacher is one way to help control unwanted student behavior, but who is to motivate the teacher? Is motivation supposed to be innate? Perhaps positive teaching experiences and a supportive administration would decrease the amount of teachers who do not last beyond year five. With the economy down, and the student population up, it may be a good time to start trying new things in schools, such as allowing co-workers to have more of an opinion about the curriculum. Motivation and disrespect seem to be common issues within classrooms and if something drastic is what needs to be done to improve student learning, then something drastic it is!

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