Opinion and Forefront

MAHERN: Let teachers operate like professionals

September 24, 2011

Louis MahernOpponents of education reform have successfully convinced millions of public schoolteachers nationwide that efforts at improving public schools are attacks on them. That is incorrect. Almost everyone I know believes the vast majority of teachers are hard-working, often-underpaid professionals striving to provide a better future for their students.

All too often, they struggle in underfunded classrooms, hobbled by a hidebound administration and uninvolved parents. The dozens of public schoolteachers I have known over the past 50 years have been dedicated almost to the point of obsession to the success of their students.

In the early days of public education, there was a winnowing out of underachieving students. In a factory system of public education, there was little room for the odd student who did not immediately respond to an assembly-line approach. Teachers were considered interchangeable cogs in the education machine.

Things are different now. We expect that no child will be left behind. The factory system is no longer acceptable. We now demand professionalism from our teachers and a system that adapts to each child’s particular needs.

However, the way society interacts with teachers is still very much the factory model, with unionized teachers as the workers and administrators as the bosses. That the factory system breeds an adversarial situation is beyond question.

Legal, medical, architectural and accounting practices offer a better model of professionalism with the autonomy, authority and accountability one associates with such professionalism.

Nowhere is it written that teachers must be employees.

There are examples around the country of public schools operated entirely by teachers. They make all the decisions regarding curriculum, budget, compensation and the selection of colleagues. They decide among themselves the partnership management.

Under the current factory system, the evaluation of teachers is dictated by contracts. Debates swirl as to how much test scores, experience or other factors should count in judging teachers. Sick time, prep time and the layout of the teacher’s lounge are all eventually addressed in contracts that run on and on.

Tenure rules provide for the drawn-out “due process” that has to take place before a teacher can be terminated.

Go into any public school and ask teachers, “Who are the good teachers on this site and who are the bad?” They can tell you immediately.

Let the teachers make these decisions.

Lawyers, accountants, physicians, architects and other professionals make these hiring and firing decisions among themselves.

In 2003, Public Agenda asked teachers how they felt about having more control over their professional lives. Fifty-eight percent of teachers were somewhat or very interested “in working in a [charter] school run and managed by teachers.” This included 65 percent of teachers with fewer than five years of teaching experience and 50 percent of veteran teachers with 20 years or more in the field.

What about the union? The professional teachers can organize, if they so chose. They are perfectly free to bargain with themselves. The point is, the decisions are left to the teachers acting in concert.

How do we pay for truly professional teachers? Under the current system, only 65 percent or so of education funding ever makes it to the school building. With virtually all the administrative decisions being made at the site, there is little need for the millions of dollars currently siphoned off by “downtown.”

In fiscal 2010, IPS spent a little more than half a billion dollars, of which a bit over $200 million went to “non-student achievement expenses.”

Even if we could capture only a quarter of those non-academic expenses by driving decision-making to the school building, an additional $1,500 per child would be available for local decision-making. In an average classroom of 30 students, that would be an additional $45,000 per classroom.

Just think what a professional educator could do with that.•

• Mahern has been an assistant to U.S. Rep. Andy Jacobs and U.S. Sen. Birch Bayh and served in the Indiana Senate. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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