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Education Reformers Sit Down: We Need a Revolution

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For years now, so-called education reformers have sought to measure what we have already known, that children of privilege, children with educated parents and/or strong family support and the enrichments that is the most powerful kind of education, tend to know more and have sharper academic skills that children of poverty, family dysfunction, and other deprivations.

For years educators, politicians, and the public have debated to what extent quality teaching is a function of talent, intelligence, training, and hard work and to what extent it is a reflection of institutional factors, students and their circumstances, and other factors beyond the control of teachers.

We have heard endless calls for increased teacher accountability and little sensible talk about how to accomplish it without destroying the autonomy of our best teachers and eroding the quality of their instruction.

It is true that the quality of instruction is overwhelmingly the most important factor in providing students meaningful educational opportunities. It is also true that many of us could do a better job and some among us probably ought not be entrusted with educating our children. Estimates on how many vary wildly -- from just a few to most -- as do opinions about why they are still teaching. Union-negotiated job protections are blamed. So are ineffectual or apathetic administrators or politicians and the public who lack the will the pay teachers a wage high enough to increase and improve the pool of applicants.

What ought to be clear to all of us by now is that the institutional structure of schools and school systems is ill-conceived. It is a failure. And this failure is at the root of all other educational failures.

Organizing public schools in the image of industrial corporations or military fleets is a default strategy that reflects the lack of imagination that often permeates our schools and numbs the minds of the children we hope to inspire. Top-down management in which teachers are at the bottom assumes that teaches are interchangeable pieces of a machine when, in fact, really good teachers are often really difficult to replace -- and teachers are engaged in virtually the only work in any school that has any direct impact on the outcomes of the entire enterprise.

Trying to improve schools within the current leadership structure is misguided and probably futile. We have to rethink the internal organization. Teachers need to be at the top of the power structure.

Like the partners in a law firm -- experienced, proven, successful teachers should be collaboratively in charge of the schools at which they teach.

This is not really a new idea. Educators in alternative settings have created leadership models in which the principal teaches at least one class. Often this is a token effort and doomed to fail. What we need are teacher-leaders with real authority over instruction.

Schools would still need an executive to perform non-instructional administrative work -- a kind of CEO who need not be a teacher or former teacher. Someone with a business background probably makes more sense. Someone who can manage the plant, procure materials and supplies, get the bills paid on-time and file all the paperwork to comply with the education code. And leave teacher/partners to manage instructional matters -- teacher personnel issues, curricular decisions.

How would these teacher/partners have time to supervise instruction throughout the school and still tend to their own classrooms? Obviously, they would need assistance. Providing that assistance -- without spending money most schools and districts don't have -- might also require a revolutionary idea, one long overdue:

Get aspiring teachers out of university classrooms and onto school sites. Stop wasting a year of their training in the pure and mostly useless realm of theory without practice -- make them apply their new knowledge about teaching and learning in a school setting from day one. Stop throwing new teachers into the deep waters of the toughest classes to sink or swim -- and, essentially, experiment with our children while they possibly figure out how to teach.

Put these novices to work in the schools in an apprenticeship capacity:

--Have them learn how to evaluate student work and relieve the teacher partners of that burden;
--Have them tutor students outside the classroom;
--Have them work as teacher's assistants inside classrooms;
--Let them observe;
--Ease them into teaching, one lesson at a time;
--Let them learn all the individual skills that constitute an effective teacher without being overwhelmed by the sudden responsibility of being a full-time teacher.

Let them interact with students for a year or two before placing an entire classroom of our children in their hands.

In fact, create teacher levels -- tied to salary -- that phase in the responsibility of being in charge of an entire class of students. Don't put anyone in that position until that teacher first demonstrates that she or he is ready.

And in the meantime let children benefit from their presence and give the veteran teachers time to manage curricular and personnel issues.

New teachers will learn more.

They will be mentored and evaluated by teachers -- who understand instruction and the children we teach and who can guide struggling teachers with feedback that has credibility and real insight, someone who can lead schools with the right priorities always and maintain a positive working and learning environment for everyone.

And maybe, just maybe, those teachers who reach the position of teacher-leader can be compensated with the money and respect commensurate with the responsibility to children, their families, and society.

Pretty idealistic. Something like that could probably could never happen.

How about those of us who care about children step up and make it happen anyway?

If teachers are so darn important -- and I know that not everyone thinks so but a lot of people keep paying lip service to that idea -- then let's create a system that treats us like we are.