How much confidence would you have in a law firm that was managed and run by legal secretaries and paralegals? Probably not a lot. Legal support staff constitute a vital part of their firms. A good paralegal can free an attorney to focus on the things only she can do. A bad paralegal can be worse than no paralegal at all. But even the best paralegal lacks the training and experience to formulate and execute a litigation strategy. You don’t want a paraprofessional running the show - their proper role is in support of the professional. So why aren’t teachers running our schools?
The prevailing education model in this country is puzzling when compared to other industries. But it’s been this way so long it’s difficult to imagine anything else. We group children by age, not by knowledge or ability. We send them to schools based on address, not teaching methodology. Parents, except for the wealthy, have very little say over which school their children can attend. And teachers, the practitioners who are trained to teach, who are in the classroom every day, who are the soul of the education system, are answerable to more and more people who lack the skill and experience to accomplish what schools fundamentally exist to do.
Teachers have always answered to the principal. He is almost always a former teacher, but does not interact with most students on a daily basis. His incentives are also misaligned. His metric for a successful day is to not have to deal with troublemakers. Rather than maintaining proper discipline and risk a phone call from an angry parent, he can simply shuffle them back to class. Unless he has a deep-seated sense of duty, this “easy” course of action makes the most sense.
Of course, the principal-in-charge model does track with other professional organizations. The senior partner at a law firm might spend so much time doing administrative work and meeting with important clients that he does little legal research. He’s still the ultimate authority within the firm. But he will also defer to an experienced attorney in matters of case strategy. The senior partner hasn’t been in settlement conferences, and hasn’t read the judge’s disposition in case management conferences. And certainly the IT staff, paralegals, and secretaries don’t tell experienced lawyers how to do their jobs.
But a public school teacher might well be answerable to librarians, counselors, and technology staff, and receive relatively little deference from the principal. As schools have broadened their scope from education centers to one-stop-shops for child-centered social programs, the focus on education has waned. So too has the status of the teacher. They used to be the reason schools existed; now they are little more than cogs in the social-work machine.
1889 has proposed a solution to put teachers back in the driver seat, and give parents a wide array of options when it comes to educating their children. In a Professional Teacher Charter, a teacher must be in charge of curriculum delivery. It’s in the law. The law gives experienced teachers in good standing the opportunity to open their own school, and be funded on the same basis as other charter schools. It could be a micro school - allowing pandemic pods to receive state funding. It could be a school designed to teach hundreds, competing directly with public schools. Teachers will be free to experiment with new teaching methods. Parents will be free to choose the school that best fits their child.
Schools will be required to test their students once a year, using any of an approved list of norm-referenced national tests. They must make these results public. This will let parents see how their school stacks up to the competition. Failing schools won’t have to be disciplined by a board of education - parents will simply move to a better school the next year. Educate or die will become the order of the day.
The freedom inherent in the model bill will allow Oklahoma to become a laboratory of pedagogy. Schools will be able to test and improve their teaching methods. Norm-referenced tests allow parents to compare the these methods based on actual output - how much students know. They will also be free to choose a school that they believe works best for their child, even if it doesn’t create the best test outcomes. Not every child learns the same way, and what works for nine students might not work as well for a tenth.
“More funding to the classroom” is the mantra and excuse for nearly every demand for more funding for public education. But the single most important classroom expense, and arguably the most expensive one, is the teacher. Yet the system, even in other types of charter schools, puts the teacher at the very bottom of the decision-making ladder.
1889’s model, which can be used in any state, flips the ladder and puts teachers in charge of schools and then empowers parents to choose the school that is best for their child. Ultimately, this can only benefit Oklahoma’s schoolchildren.
Mike Davis is a Research Fellow at 1889 Institute. He can be reached at email@example.com.