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The Coming Age Of Teacher Choice

By Michael Goldstein

Charter schools get this deal: accountability in exchange for flexibility. Shouldn't teachers get the same basic deal? Teacher accountability is coming. I predict that the flexibility will begin to follow right behind.

Right now we are seeing a flurry of activity around merit pay. I am open to the experiments but skeptical of big gains here. Instead, a future I expect to see is where individual teachers who are proven to be successful have five types of choice they don't currently have.

1. 100% control of his/her share of the professional development budget.

In some districts, we're talking about $4,000 per teacher per year. Why not let each teacher control it? He can hire a coach. He can attend a conference, take an online course, visit other schools. He can pay another teacher in the same school for help. He can pool his $4,000 with other teachers -- 15 teachers could combine to hire one $60,000 per year full-timer. He could "bank" the $4,000 for another year -- i.e., spend nothing for two years, then $12,000 on a PD experience in the third year.

Lots of interesting teacher coaching and PD opportunities would spring up if individual teachers controlled the money. The principal still gets to hold the teacher accountable (hire/fire/promote). And it's not like we can do any WORSE with our current PD system: teachers often bemoan it, and data shows very little correlation with student achievement.

2. Super-easy to move from state to state.

We'll end up with the same system as prep schools (which works fine for them): just a college degree and background check -- no state license (or a federal one instead). Malcolm Gladwell imagined such a system: "Teaching should be open to anyone with a pulse and a college degree--and teachers should be judged after they have started their jobs, not before."

3. Easy to choose a workplace based on its "true" working conditions.

Just like there are guides to colleges, imagine guides which describe every public school's "teaching conditions" -- based entirely on surveys of teachers working in those schools. Think "Princeton Review Guide To Colleges," and now imagine entries you'd read before you'd consider any job offer.

If many teachers believe X school's principal is nice -- but wimpy and caves in when parents try to overrule grades -- that's in the guide. If many teachers believe that the faculty culture is terrific -- that's in the guide. The real scoop on student discipline, on whether PD is high quality or a yawn, on the true voice of teachers in the school -- all of those things should be easily available to teachers.

(The report itself is likely to influence principals to create better teacher working conditions, which is why I predict a foundation will finance something like this).

4. Option to reject certain tasks in customizing the job.

Here are some tasks that Teacher A may not mind and Teacher B hates: grading papers, monitoring lunch or recess, running an "Advisory" group, proctoring a study hall; or managing a paraprofessional, attending department meetings, or entering comments into a report card.

Traditionally, schools dole out those tasks evenly among all teachers. This is inefficient.

The first class of tasks perhaps someone has to do, but it can either be optimized (do more of the task you like, less of the one you don't) or delegated -- we'll see more schools with a non-traditional division of labor. (Our charter school, for example, provides each teacher with 10 to 20 hours per week of assistance to grade papers, make photocopies, etc).

The second class of tasks can be "conditionally annoying" -- i.e., an effective teacher may not want to enter comments in a report card because a) parents don't read them, and/or b) she spends many night and weekend hours communicating by phone with parents.

5. Option to run one's own micro-school, getting rid of the b.s. and keeping the stuff teachers love.

Those who want to cut loose administration entirely, and run their own "micro-charter" -- which could be as small as two teachers and, say, 40 kids. Let's make up some numbers. A number of large cities spend $15,000 per student per year, and often allocate charter schools 20% less. So let's work with a number like 40 kids * $12,000 = $480,000 annual budget.

If two skilled buddy teachers chose to run their own little "log cabin school," they would: pay an organization to manage the "back office" stuff (everything from insurance to payroll to inspections to compliance); rent two single classrooms from a church; buy supplies and books and computers off Amazon; maybe snag a couple of student teachers from a nearby college; and perhaps pay themselves $100,000 per year.

What do you think? Which of these futures -- if any -- would you want as a teacher?


Michael A. Goldstein is the founder of MATCH Charter School and MATCH Teacher Residency, a specialized teacher-preparation initiative. He also helped to launch a 2010 pilot project to deploy 250 full-time math tutors in nine Houston turnaround schools (as part of the Apollo 20 Project). He serves, or has served, on various advisory boards, including the Boston Schoolchildren's Consortium, the National Council for Teacher Quality, and transition teams for Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and Gov. Mitt Romney.

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