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An Innovative Way to Professionalize Teaching and Boost Teacher Pay

We talk a lot about how to professionalize teaching and boost teacher pay. Much of the thinking on this focuses on things like preparation, training, and evaluation. That's all well and good. But, dating all those decades back to my classroom days, I've been more interested in how webs of rules, routines, and administration stop teachers from growing in their role or bending it to suit their strengths and passions. That's why I was particularly taken by a recent essay Julie Squire penned for my New Conservative Education Agenda series. Squire, a partner at Bellwether Education, proposed applying the intuitions of charter schooling to the teaching profession. She writes,

Just as schools receive charters to run independently of districts, teachers could receive charters to run classrooms independently of schools. In addition to providing teachers with more autonomy, doing so would give families the opportunity to select not the school their child attends but the individual who guides their child's learning and development.

How would this work? It's not really all that complicated, she says:

State-level leaders [could] establish a process for teachers to apply for a charter and become charter teachers. Once approved, teachers could develop and communicate their vision for students' day-to-day classroom experience and their own pedagogical approach to families. Families could consider this information, alongside information from various public and private sources, and identify and select teachers for their children. To maximize equitable access, families could then enroll their children through a transparent process akin to charter school lotteries.

How would this get started? Some teachers might welcome the chance to serve as pioneers, with philanthropic support or pilot funding. Squire explains:

Some states may launch programs to provide teachers with small startup grants to launch their practice; others may rely on philanthropy or other sources of private funding. Some states might leverage educational savings accounts, in which parents access and deploy their child's per-pupil funding to various education providers, including teachers. Some states might draw on the "backpack funding" model and have each child's per-pupil funding follow them to their teacher of choice.

I love that this is a decidedly "little r" approach to reform. It opens the doors for teachers to imagine a different kind of career path for themselves. After all, why is it that it's routine for accountants, architects, and psychiatrists to open a private practice if they wish, but the idea seems so out-there when it comes to teaching. Squire explains:  

Just as a physician might hire a nurse or a medical assistant, teachers could hire someone to support them with anything from data analysis to classroom management, depending on the skills that best complement their own. Just as physicians can decide how many patients to serve, with agency over the trade-offs in compensation and lifestyle, teachers could also exert control over the oft-debated merits of smaller class sizes by deciding for themselves how many students they serve.

It's intriguing to ask how the benefits might extend beyond students and families to education more broadly. Squire observes that this model "could elevate the teaching profession and help retain talented educators by giving them control and agency over their own classrooms and careers. It could also attract a new generation of educators previously disenchanted by the idea of working in a large bureaucracy." Indeed, she observes, it could even "re-engage former educators in more flexible or part-time opportunities.

While we frequently discuss the systems used in other nations, we talk much less often about the antecedents to what Squire has in mind. In South Korea, for instance, top teachers can earn eye-popping seven-figure salariesnot by teaching for the Ministry of Education but by working as tutors in hawongs (private, after-school tutoring academies). Parents seek out the best teachers, and those with good reviews and demonstrated success reap the rewards. Not so surprisingly, that sounds an awful lot like what Squire has proposed here—except that doing this as part of a public system will broaden, even universalize, access to the best teachers.

We can have traditional arrangements and a career avenue for teachers seeking more control over their professional lives. This isn't an either-or. And, in most of life, salaries are pulled upward not by incremental boosts to bureaucratic pay scales but by the stars in any field. In pro sports, free agency led to dramatic increases across the board. The salaries of private practitioners in law and medicine have created upward pressure on the pay offered by universities and public systems. It'd be intriguing to watch the same dynamics play out in teaching.

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