The Center for Public School Renewal

Why We Should Have Teacher-Led Schools
rev. 1/14/06

Part 2 - A Professional Perspective on Teacher-Led Schools

The Rationale For Teacher-Led Schools
Teacher Competence
Teaching as a Craft
School Funding
Freedom of Choice
Non-Classroom Personnel
Other Groups and Organizations
Readings Related to Teacher-Led Schools

The Rationale For Teacher-Led Schools

A general argument for teacher-led schools follows, and as we shall see later, many individuals endorse positions that coordinate, in one way or another, with this idea. First, we need to clarify some basic concepts.

To begin, we need to distinguish between formal and informal education. Informal education goes on continuously, through all kinds of interactions between an individual and the physical and social environment.

Formal education--often called schooling--goes on according to a plan and schedule set and put into practice by older or more knowledgeable people, and followed by younger or less knowledgeable people. In some cases, schooling benefits the society that provides it; in some cases it benefits the individuals who receive it; and in some cases, both occur simultaneously.

Formal education occurs in a way that is not very observable. Most often, the teacher works alone. This makes teaching somewhat "entrepreneurial" and quite resistant to outside control–almost a "do your own thing" activity. Of course, teacher behavior can be changed, but the resources are just not there to change it by traditional "close supervision" practices. Change in teacher behavior comes through education, where what teachers learn causes them to change their own behavior.

Consequently, any improvements that occur are up to the teacher to put into place. If you disagree, talk to staff development specialists and administrators who evaluate teachers. See "Following the Plan" by Lynn Olson (Education Week, 4/19/99, pg. 28) for further examples of the difficulties of bringing about reform by imposing it from outside the classroom.

Proposition 1: Schooling for children up to the age of 18 or so takes place primarily in classrooms where only teachers and students are generally present. The teacher's role is more important than the students', in the sense that her actions largely determine what learnings students are expected to acquire. Furthermore, no other non-teaching adult has quite so important a role with students as has the classroom teacher. In short, what goes on in classrooms is primarily the teacher's business.

Proposition 2: In the vast majority of cases, teachers want to do a good job and know how to do it. Sometimes they need assistance from other adults to be as effective as possible. Even if this were not true, the structure of schooling–where almost all instructional activity takes place in an unsupervised setting–requires that we act as if it were true. In short, teachers can conduct their business as they see fit.

Proposition 3: Improvements in schooling are especially and primarily the responsibility of classroom teachers because no one else can do it effectively. Consequently, they need to have the authority and means to make needed improvements. In short, teachers should be in charge of their schools.

Together, these propositions mean that, most of the time, teachers are the central characters in that part of formal education we call schooling. It would also be possible, at this point, to invoke that body of organization theory and practice that tells us how important it is for workers to have a significant role in determining how their work is conducted. The reader is encouraged to read the works of Peter Drucker and other organization theorists for further information on work and management practices that "flatten" organizations and lead to quality production of goods and services. For teachers, such readings only bolster an already strong case for more control at the classroom level.

However, teachers cannot gain the freedom they need to lead their schools without also accepting the responsibilities that accompany that freedom. This will be a sticking point for many teachers because all they want to do is teach. They want to do their jobs, and they want everyone else to take care of the rest. Unfortunately, it can't work this way under the current system.

 The "helping positions" in education all have their own needs and agenda to follow. It is not that the people who hold these positions are incompetent, lazy or mischievous. They just have other things to worry about than making classroom teaching as effective as possible.

This does not mean that people in non-classroom positions are less important or less worthy than teachers. But they have different roles than teachers, roles which should generally support the teacher. Of course, this presumes that the teacher's job is being performed adequately.


Teacher Competence

Concern that the teacher's role is performed adequately goes to the heart of the worries that people who disagree with the idea of teacher-led schools hold. How can we have teacher-led schools if some teachers are not competent to perform their role?

My contention is that this is not enough of a problem to warrant the kind of authority structure we currently have. When states allowed many woefully undereducated eighteen year-olds (like my grandmother) to teach, a paternalistic authority structure made sense. Now, when many teachers have two or more degrees and tons of experience, it doesn't.

Of course, there may always be a few people who should not be teaching. But this problem can and should be dealt with by other teachers. First, it must be acknowledged that the traditional command and control structure of schools has allowed incompetents to get and keep the positions they have. How can we do better than this? Are colleges going to provide better training, and wash out those who can't make the grade? Are administrators going to become more adept at weeding ineffective teachers out? Are these turn-arounds going to happen as soon as we need them?

Second, it is an incompetent's colleagues who suffer most (after students and parents) when the incompetent continues to teach. The other teachers have to put up with the disorder that often results when incompetents teach. They are the ones who have to put up with the poorly trained and unlearned students who come out of the incompetent's classroom. And, it is as much their school's reputation as anyone's that is diminished when incompetents continue to practice. Teachers have a pressing natural motivation to reduce incompetence in their ranks; colleges and school administrators don't.

The primary problem with teachers evaluating other teachers is that little in the current culture of schools or the practice of schooling supports such an activity. Generally, teachers' response to incompetents is to ignore and avoid them as much as possible. Only where there is some kind of structure like that of a "lead teacher" can teachers supervise, coach, and evaluate their peers. Although there has been support for more of this kind of activity, even among teacher unions in recent years, it is still more the exception than the rule.

What is needed is a new system of bringing teachers into a school, and working with them to the extent necessary for them to become competent, independent professionals. That "new" system is similar to the apprenticeships that have existed in some crafts since the Middle Ages--an extension of teacher mentoring that includes not just instruction, but evaluation and certification as well.


Teaching as a Craft

Treating teaching as a school-based craft will cause many other changes to occur, in a more-or-less natural manner. The biggest change might be for teachers themselves, since making an apprentice system work will require a degree of collegiality that hardly exists in most schools. Teaching in most U.S. schools is an isolated and isolating experience. Developing teaching into a craft with an apprentice system can work but will take some time to develop. Changing teaching into an apprenticed craft will cause changes elsewhere, too.

The role of colleges will be not so much to credential teacher candidates, but to educate and train them so that they will be attractive to school faculties. In fact, credentialing of the kind we have now should become obselete. Administrators will be more like talent scouts, looking for good candidates to refer to schools to become apprentices. Administrators can give up the pretense that they can effectively evaluate so many different teachers and concentrate their efforts on duties where they can be more useful.

Crafts are generally composed of three levels of workers: apprentices, journeymen, and masters. The journeymen and masters oversee the final stages of training of the apprentices and ultimately decide who can move into the journeyman ranks at their workplace and who can't. These classifications are based on an individual's ability to perform relevant tasks rather than just the accumulation of "paper" certification. Adept apprentices could move quickly into journeyman status. Worthy-but less-adept candidates would move along at a slower pace under the expert guidance of a master. Unworthy candidates would be counseled out. Care would be given to the whole process, since the experienced teachers would have to work with any apprentices they bring on board.

Experienced teachers from another school (who had presumably passed through an apprenticeship program somewhere else) would be brought in with some kind of provisional (time-defined) journeyman status. It would also be necessary to eliminate the typical tenure system that exists in many states and replace it with a system of renewable three- or five-year contracts for all journeymen and masters. This would enable a school staff to eliminate an individual whose performance falls below the standard for that school. Since the journeymen and masters are regularly involved with the education and training of apprentices, they could also provide assistance to a struggling colleague before that individual loses his or her position.

A different kind of work day will be necessary to carry out a craft teaching system. Inexperienced teachers would not teach a full load of classes as they currently do. Some masters and journeymen might have few regular teaching duties with students while they are responsible for the training of apprentices. Apprentice supervision could be cycled among all the experienced staff, so that everyone is involved with teaching students and working with new staff regularly. The journeymen and masters not working with apprentices would bear most of the regular teaching responsibilities. The number of teachers who teach children--vs. training apprentices--will ebb and flow as personnel changes occur from year to year. See chapter 8–The Profession of Teaching--in The Learning Gap (by Harold Stevenson and James Stigler, Summit, 1992) for a description of an apprentice-like system that exists in Japanese schools.

Another change that would occur with a craft system of teaching is that teachers' salaries would be handled differently. The funds available for salaries for a school would be distributed according to a plan that the experienced teachers in the school agree to. Salaries would be determined by each school, based on the income generated by student enrollment, and the staff's beliefs about how similar or different experienced teachers are. Pay could be based more on a teacher's ability to perform than on length of service, as happens now. With only three categories of teachers there would be less need for many salary levels, so achieving a higher level of pay could occur sooner. Some portion of the total funds for salaries could be set aside to be used as bonuses if the school achieves certain goals for the year.

What other key changes from the current system do teacher-led schools require? The most important is that teachers in a school should control all the funds in the school's budget.


School Funding

It is expected that most of these funds will be provided by state and local taxing authorities via some per-pupil formula, where practically all of the money flows to the school the child attends. Some grants also may be available from foundations or other sources. Since these are public schools, tuition will not be charged to parents. Funding can be expected to vary from school to school. The manner in which it is expended will vary as well.

Teachers will decide how much money to put into their own salaries versus other ways of spending it. They must decide what other positions have to be funded to make the school operate effectively (see Non-Classroom Personnel, below). They should decide what supplies, materials, and equipment will be needed to run a successful program. If funding is (or becomes) inadequate they should decide where to make the necessary cuts. If funding falls below the minimum level the school needs to function, the teachers would close the program, dispose of its assets, and look for work elsewhere.

Another important change needed to facilitate teacher-led schools has to do with freedom of choice.


Freedom of Choice

This refers both to the freedom parents should have to choose the public school they want for their child (assuming transportation is not an issue), and the freedom that teachers need to control the clientele they work with. As indicated elsewhere in this website (see CPSR Philosophy), families should be allowed to send their children to any age-appropriate public school. And, any public school with sufficient space should enroll any interested student. However, a teacher-led school needs to be free to assign students to the most appropriate program. It also needs to be free to drop students who, through their disruptive behavior (or the behavior of their parents), prove to be detrimental to the operation of the school.

Teacher-led schools could abuse the freedom to manage their clientele. Several controls for this abuse are available. First, note that each student is worth several thousand dollars in tax funds. Only a plentiful supply of other candidates for enrollment would make it easy to forgo that student's funding. Second, it is the mission of public education and its teachers to work with as many students as possible, for as long as possible. If a school gains a reputation for being arbitrary about its enrollment policies this could cause a loss of new clients. Third, it is a fundamental position of the CPSR (see Philosophy) that all schools need to be evaluated and reported on. Teacher-led schools that do not follow good enrollment practices would have action taken by funders to correct that problem. An effective way to deal with concerns about dropping students would be to make such decisions only with the concurrence of all the teachers, and with a group of representatives of the parents whose children attend the school. In no case should a student's civil rights be violated.

If suitable precautions are in place, it must be emphasized that the freedom to disenroll a student is necessary, as a last resort, to the effective functioning of a school. This freedom encourages responsible behavior by both students and the school. For more on this view see "Choice and Compulsion: The End of an Era" or "Compulsory School Attendance: An Idea Past Its Prime?"


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