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Where Edbizbuzz is Coming From (I): Teachers

Blogs offer a gestalt. To appreciate it, readers must be able to place postings in the context of their broader understanding of the writer.

What’s being presented in edbizbuzz will be new to many readers – especially outside of education policy wonkdom. But this blog and I have a documented history: a daily edbizbuzz archive going back a few months (see the top of this blog's home page), an archive of weekly podcasts and “Letters from the Editor” of School Improvement Industry Week going back a few years, and a record of reports, guides, and articles in various fora that starts when I switched from national security to education at RAND in the 1990’s (see the "About this Author" link).

Postings in edbizbuzz have been and will continue to be linked to my related postings and material, as well as sources of the item or issue under discussion. Still, my views tend to fall outside the comfortable right vs. left, Democrat vs. Republican, constructivism vs. back to basics, blob vs. anti-blob dichotomy. To help readers up the learning curve of my gestalt – and to offer readers a different way of understanding public education, over the next weeks edbizbuzz will include postings that cover my take on public education’s stakeholder groups, with links to relevant materials I’ve produced over the years.

Teachers are the right place to start.

1. The teaching force is the single most important ingredient of public education. The private sector may provide the core content on public schooling, but the core activity is classroom teaching. To use an automotive metaphor, teaching is “where the rubber meets the road.” To use two military metaphors, teachers are the “pointy end of the spear”, the “business end of the gun.” The lack of working facilities, general safety, computers, desks, books, and even paper and pencils can’t stop teaching. But without teachers, those assets count for little.

If we take this discussion a little closer to the working arrangements of most public schools, this point is still evident. Administrators may think they are in charge of public schooling, and they do have all kinds of authority to choose curriculum and instructional strategies, but it’s illusory. If teachers don’t “buy into” the content and pedagogy, it doesn’t get implemented, and if it doesn’t get implemented, whatever results the providers promised the administrators and the administrators promised the public doesn’t happen. Teachers, not managers, determine the quality of public education.

2. Teachers have a choice between professionalism and unionism. Because teaching depends on the good judgment of teachers, rather than the application of standard operating procedures, they need to be treated more like doctors and lawyers and less like workers on the assembly line. They need to be given both broad autonomy in meeting public expectations of student performance and the accountability for outcomes that comes with professional responsibility. Because students are educated by schools of teachers rather than personal tutors, it's not only important that students be able to choose schools that fit their needs, its also important that teachers be able to work with colleagues who share their views.

But the reality public schooling is one in which district's control the public education function essentially as a monopoly, and direct individual schools according to the one best system conceived at a central office. In this respect it really doesn’t matter much if the central office is run by a for-profit or nonprofit employees or civil servants. The problem isn’t central’s tax status, it’s central control. Teachers really have no choice but to unionize to protect their basic common interest in wages and working conditions. The unfortunate byproducts of this arrangement are an institution that undermines professionalism, by accepting the one size fits all as the starting point for negotiations, conceding that teachers are interchangeable parts, and protecting its least competent members as vigorously as the best. Moreover, a half-century of teacher unionization has created a power structure based on those shortcomings, and power holders who could not survive the transition to a world where teachers ran their own schools as lawyers and doctors run their own practice groups. Finally, it’s awfully hard to jump from the dock to the boat, and because there’s always a chance of falling into the water, the average person is always reluctant to make the try.

3. For teachers what’s in the school improvement industry is empowerment, not “privatization.” Business is already heavily engaged in public education. Indeed, a handful of huge publishers are really the third leg of an oligarchy. They offer districts the content of the one best system, and have had about as much incentive to move decision authority down to teachers in a school as district administrators and union heads. Moreover, they’ve had about the same level of interest in the efficacy of those programs. With their range of theories about what education is all about, and a commitment “what works” as their only conceivable basis for competition with the publishers, what upstart school improvement providers, over teachers is the choice of education products services and programs required to realize teacher choice, teacher professionalism, and teacher-run schools.

If there’s a role for unions in a system where teachers run the system, it lies literally in buying into the school improvement industry, and making the shift to an institution more like laywers’ bar and doctors' medical associations - providing professional development and support, setting entry standards and assuring professional discipline. In a world where schooling can be conducted by independent practice groups, employment issues can remain between individual teachers and their schools.

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