The Center for Public School Renewal

Brave New Teacher
A Review by Barry McGhan

A brave new world of teaching is taking shape on the edge of the Minnesota prairie. Teachers As Owners: A Key to Revitalizing Public Education (edited by Edward J. Dirkswager, The Scarecrow Press, Inc., Lanham, Maryland and London, 2002) promotes a novel view of a possible future for teachers. It's a readable little book, barely more than 100 pages (not counting appendices), filled with ideas whose time has come.

Teachers As Owners' avowed purpose is to make the case for teacher professional partnerships (TPP). The basic idea is that teachers can sell their services not just as individual employees but, through a contract, as a teacher's cooperative, similar to farmers' cooperatives that have existed for many years.

In such a partnership, teachers are operators (providers of services) and owners (of their services and related paraphernalia). A school building may be owned by a school board (charter or district), but everything that goes on in the school is determined by the TPP, under the provisions of its contract with the board.

With the spread of privatization of various services in public schools, the rise of charter schools, and the growth of educational management organizations (EMOs), it is not difficult to imagine that groups of teachers might also contract with schools to provide services.

Such a cooperative – called EdVisions – runs a number of schools in Minnesota, and has a multimillion dollar grant from the Gates Foundation to establish more such schools (see Education Week, 3/27/2002, p. 1). The practical experiences of EdVisions personnel have been important to developing the idea of teacher ownership, and provide a reference point for the ideas expressed in Teachers as Owners(TAO). However, the general concepts stand on their own.

"Teacher ownership ... recognizes that teachers ... ought to have latitude to practice their trade as other professionals do. ... [F]ormed as a nonprofit or for-profit enterprise ... a partnership introduces an element of entrepreneurship into how teaching is practiced. But it need not place monetary gain over the desire to serve, which is the driving motivation of most teachers. ... Teachers with strong ideas ... have the freedom to develop, implement, and improve upon these ideas, subject only to finding some party who wishes to provide that kind of education for [students]. The professional partnership determines the appropriate fees to set for its services and then determines how to allocate these fees ...." [p. 2]

The passage above may cause many to wonder when TPP teachers find time to teach. But, in fact, they do.

"The teachers in schools run by the [EdVisions] cooperative have chosen to pay themselves higher than average salaries, and the technology budget of the school has also been set higher than average. The learning programs are developed, implemented, and improved by the teachers. ... Each teacher is expected to develop and implement his or her own professional development plan. Evaluation is by peer review, and teachers who have failed to perform have been asked to leave." [p. 3]

With some TPPs already in operation, the essential question seems to be, "Will TPP's flourish?" Obviously, it's too soon to say – although, as mentioned, certain trends may be in their favor. Hopefully, they will flourish, because such organizations put teachers at the center of school improvement where they belong, rather than on the periphery, as with most reform proposals.

As the book's subtitle indicates, TPP's are seen by their proponents as an important education reform. Indeed, the final chapter, "Changing the National Discussion," suggests strategies for promoting TPP's throughout the U.S. The book also contains informative appendices for those interested in pursuing the idea further.

How will TPP's spread?

As Teachers as Owners makes clear, there is a close relationship between TPP's and charters in Minnesota. Like districts, most EMO charter operators also hire teachers as employees. Enterprising groups of teachers may – hopefully soon – come to see themselves offering management and instruction programs to charter school boards.

School districts might also become interested in contracting with TPPs, just as some now do with EMOs. TAO contributors offer a variety of other suggestions for potential TPP contract situations.

TPPs threaten the status quo, and educators who benefit from it will oppose them. Both school districts and teachers' unions will initially oppose the spread of TPPs because they threaten loss of control to these established organizations. Re-tasking certain individuals' organizational responsibilities will help. TAO's suggestions for re-tasking are similar to those discussed in Reinventing Public Education by Paul Hill et. al. (University of Chicago Press, 1997). Re-tasking would be gradual, since it seems likely that TPPs will develop slowly. Standard services will be needed during any period of adjustment to the emergence of TPPs, allowing normal attrition rates to accommodate personnel changes.

Teacher ownership advocates may want to pursue their goals in the political arena as well as within the education establishment. For example, building an alliance with those who promote parental choice may be worthwhile. Choice advocates might be persuaded of the need to support TPPs because that would promote teachers' choice – of where and how to teach – which should lead to improved instructional programs.

An issue of special concern to TAO contributors is partnership size – smaller seems better. Almost 25% of the chapter on the design and operation of TPPs is devoted to a discussion of size-related issues. Recent interest in promoting small schools, especially small secondary schools, may expand opportunities to develop TPPs.

Overall, Teachers as Owners is chocked with interesting views on a new way to organize K-12 teaching. At the end of the largest chapter, "Implications," the editor says "There is no space here, and really no need, to explore these adjustments [in, and by, existing education institutions] and [their] implications in detail." [p. 81] Perhaps so, since the book is about the benefits – not drawbacks – of teacher ownership. But, even readers positively disposed to the idea of TPPs will have many questions.

Let's consider a few "technical" concerns. First, Teachers As Owners offers a clearly student-centered perspective on instructional programs, and recommends substantial use of technology. While these views may be important to EdVisions members, they seem irrelevant to the basic idea of a TPP. For example, the effectiveness of teacher-centered vs. student-centered education is one of the great unresolved controversies of all time. Student-centered views generally appeal to only a minority of teachers. Making them an integral part of TPPs places an unnecessary burden on the spread of the idea of teacher ownership. Similarly, TAO's emphasis on the use of technology will have varying attraction for teachers.

Also, TAO contributors embrace the importance of developing a culture among all owners that supports the operation of the partnership and its goals. Clearly, culture is critical. The culture of a TPP-run school is different from what teacher-employees know. Contributors make a case for careful selection of new teacher-owners so they fit into the partnership's culture. They note that, "Teachers who are members of a TPP are likely to insist on a more active role in the design, evaluation, and operation of both preservice and continuing education programs" [p. 67], and discuss a variety of ways to work with colleges to get appropriately trained teachers into TPP-run schools.

But the book's best suggestion for shaping TPP culture is to develop a school-based clinical program for teacher-owner candidates in conjunction with a nearby university. A model for such a program can be found in the Shady Hill School in Cambridge, Massachusetts (see "Tools of the Trade," Education Week, 2/27/2002, p. 30). Such a program would increase the partnership's control of its culture, essentially "manufacturing" the kinds of teachers needed through an apprentice-style program, thus reducing the need to pick the "right" people.

The most substantial obstacle to the spread of TPPs will come, not from organizations with vested interests, or via the difficulties of developing new school cultures, but from teachers themselves.

The contributors to TAO are candid about the sacrifices teacher-owners must make in order to be owners. The book cites the need to commit "to a great deal of work," [p. 95] and notes that, "Greater autonomy is a trade-off for less security, both at a personal level and an organizational level. There is no tenure – no guarantee of a job." Gaining more operational control means taking responsibility for the success of the instructional program. This will bother teachers who believe that student and parental cooperation is fundamental to teachers' achieving success. Can a TPP contract be structured in such a way as to give reasonable assurance of cooperation, or alternately, account for lack of it?

Some teachers may be put off by the idea of increased responsibilities caused by ownership – but they shouldn't. Most teachers are accountable for student performance without the power to control their work conditions. Autonomy and accountability should go together. One without the other is foolish.

Speaking of contracts, how effectively will they protect the interests of both parties? Paul Hill persuasively argues that a school service contract must protect the interests of the contractor as well as the contractee. Contracts have a critical role in developing teacher professional partnerships, but few contract-related details are covered in TAO. Hopefully, sample contracts and a recounting of EdVisions' experiences with their contracts will be available at some time in the near future.

The greatest single barrier to the development of TPPs is likely to be the conservative, risk-averse nature of most of today's teachers. Many of us – though not all – have no experience with self-employment and are not entrepreneurial types. Of course, an expansion of teacher-ownership opportunities might draw more risk-tolerant candidates to teaching. It's possible that U.S. society is changing in ways that make young teachers less willing to accept the top-down authority structure so common in education, and more amenable to taking on greater responsibilities. Disruptions in 21st Century workplaces may draw increased numbers of older, second career teacher-candidates into the profession – people who might be expected to have a more tempered view of their abilities as teachers.

Nothing seems to present an absolute barrier to the growth and development of TPPs. At the same time, it should be recognized that growth will be slow. If TPPs spread at about the same rate as charter schools have in the last ten years, that would be quite an achievement. Then I might begin to believe that brave new teachers were finally on-track to take their rightful position at the center of school improvement.


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