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A Little 'Lateral Thinking' Will Answer the Teacher Quality/Accountability Question

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By Guest Blogger Ted Kolderie


What's known in the policy trade as 'lateral thinking' is the act of re-defining the problem.  If you don't set the problem correctly you won't get to the real solution. A classic story makes the point perfectly: 

A semi-trailer going through an underpass found it was just a bit too tall.  It got stuck. The driver, the police, a tow-truck driver were all trying to decide whether it'd do less damage to back the truck out or to try to push it on through. A young boy, watching, kept saying, "Mister . . . mister . . ." Finally one of the men said to him: "Yes, what is it?"  The boy said: "Why don't you let some of the air out of the tires?"

Flat Tire.jpgWith a little lateral thinking it is possible . . . it really is . . . to find our way out of this problem with teachers, unions, learning and accountability.

All it takes is to step 'outside the box' . . . to re-think the traditional arrangements we've had for schools and teachers.

In the traditional boss/worker arrangement, teachers are employees managed by administrators. Boards of education and superintendents decide how teachers should teach.  Historically, in this arrangement, salaries were not professional and management was sometimes arbitrary.  So teachers predictably and reasonably unionized for protection.  Now difficult questions are arising about the effect certain features of the 'unionizing' are having on students.  In response, people naturally begin to debate the 'unionizing'.  But is that the right question?

The goals surely are clear.  On the public side: Students want good teachers; deserve good teaching . . . everybody wants good people coming into teaching . . . teachers need to be effective . . . and now it is accepted there must be some reasonable accountability.  Teachers, for their part, want a motivating job, want to be reasonably paid, want to be responsible and respected.

We can't get these things without redefining the problem.

'The problem' isn't the visible symptoms that appear: 'The problem' is whatever is causing the symptoms, the behaviors we dislike.  Come at it with that question in mind, and quickly it is clear the source of the trouble is the boss/worker arrangement itself rather than the way the teachers behave within it. 

Ask, instead: "Under what conditions will teachers accept accountability?" and the answer seems obvious: Give teachers the authority to decide what matters for student and school success and teachers will accept accountability for student and school success.  That's what's coming to be known today as the "teacher-powered" strategy.   This professional arrangement is a new deal.  Everybody wins.

Some teachers' work is today arranged like that, with the teachers in charge, able to "call the shots" about learning.  These schools are stable.  They have virtually no teacher-turnover.  They run at lower cost.  They motivate teachers - who in turn motivate students.  Learning tends to personalize.  The teachers handle the 'quality' issues.  Accountability is internalized within the teacher professional group.

(In 2010 two teachers, from Saint Paul and Milwaukee, explained to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and his top staff how in the "teacher-powered"—essentially the professional-partnership—arrangement they make decisions, arrange the learning, manage the school and its finances and select, evaluate, compensate and when necessary terminate teachers.)

In an effort to 'solve the problem' within the traditional boss/worker arrangement everyone would lose.  What passes today for 'school reform' cannot make good people stay in teaching and cannot make good people come into teaching.  More and more good teachers would quit.  Students and learning would suffer.

We have to step 'outside the box'.

So: 'how'?

At this point we come to a major challenge.  Two of them, actually.

The first is to overcome that impulse to debate 'an issue' the way it is initially set . . . to see 'the problem' in the form it which it is initially presented.  The tendency with this current issue will be to keep arguing: "Tenure and seniority bad' . . . "No, tenure and seniority good".  Locked in the old framework, that debate might go on endlessly.

It won't be easy, but it is possible today to get folks to see that the 'problems' with tenure and seniority are symptoms produced by the arrangement in which teachers work —as Richard Ingersoll at the University of Pennsylvania has been saying so clearly for years.

Properly framed, the question we should be discussing is the arrangement in which teachers work: the 'management' arrangement or the 'professional arrangement'.

But at this point we encounter the second challenge . . . which is the assumption implicit in the education policy discussion that a question like this can have only one answer . . . that either the traditional arrangement is wrong and must be discarded, or it is right and must be kept.  You can see and hear—almost feel—this either/or assumption in the statements from the key actors today in this debate.

That either/or mentality is what keeps education from making significant change of any significant sort.  It would likely block any solution now—since on the current question people, teachers especially, are divided.

  • Some teachers are ready to move out of the old arrangement into this new professional arrangement, eager to take responsibility for their math department, for example, or for the district Montessori program, or for their project school (for more on teacher attitudes about this arrangement). 
  • Other teachers are wedded to . . . feel comfortable only in . . . the traditional arrangement working for the administration and protected by the contract.

Leaders in the unions, seeing their members divided, naturally hesitate.

Here again the answer is obvious.  We simply need to step outside that imperative the education policy discussion tries to impose about there being only one answer.

Do both, for heaven's sake.  Make it possible for those ready for the new, professional, deal to move to that arrangement.  Make it possible for those unready to take that step to remain in the old arrangement.  Think of it as a 'split screen' strategy.

That is the way change works in most areas of life, is it not?  Some people are ready early for, say, a hybrid car.  But we do not force everyone to buy a Prius.  Those who prefer the traditional may stay with that, but may not suppress the new-and-different for those who do want that.  Same thing with telephones; cellphones and land-lines.  On and on.

So, again: Do both.

Operationally, this suggests districts move to the 'portfolio' model offering the opportunity for a "teacher-powered" department, program or school . . . offering teachers also, of course, the option to remain with a school run by the district with administrators appointed by the district.  The Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington has spent years working out the mechanics of the portfolio arrangement.

How to get to 'doing both'?

In the education discussion such a 'split screen' strategy—tolerating different models running side by side—is, sad to say, not easy to achieve.  The current situation, set in conflict terms, has become an adversarial proceeding in the courts.  The media love a fight. 

So who will take the initiative to redefine the problem?

  • Union leadership can't realistically be expected to take the lead, with their membership so divided.
  • It's doubtful national political leadership can do it: The Obama administration having accepted the issue as presently defined and currently supporting the 'tougher management' approach.

Perhaps a smart governor could play the 'honest broker'—resetting the issue, raising the idea of the 'professional' arrangement, in the legislative process.

Perhaps one of the large foundations might play that role: Several have been influential in shaping education policy.

Somebody, somewhere, needs to clarify the problem; to distinguish between symptoms and causes and to make the simple suggestion that both arrangements be offered to teachers for their department, school or program.

Quite possibly the best course . . . the one most likely to get results . . . is to think bottom-up rather than top-down.  That is: leave the lateral thinking to teachers and their union locals, and to those local boards and progressive superintendents who see the dead end at which the traditional arrangement has arrived.

Ted Kolderie is a senior associate with Education|Evolving, a policy-design group based in Saint Paul, MN, long involved with K-12 strategy.  Its work can be seen at www.educationevolving.org.


(Photo: courtesy of Toa55/FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

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