Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Changing the System Is the Only Solution: States Should Hire and Employ Teachers; School Boards Should Focus on Improving Student Learning and Get out of the Business of Running Schools

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Changing the System Is the Only Solution: States Should Hire and Employ Teachers; School Boards Should Focus on Improving Student Learning and Get out of the Business of Running Schools

Article excerpt

Long ago, I was a member of the school board in my home town. I've been an observer of school governance in the United States ever since. I come away from these experiences humbled by memories of the countless unpaid hours of hard work put in by people, often good friends, on school boards across the country, people whose contribution to the improvement of the schools is obvious and vital. But I'm also haunted by other observations.

In many suburban and rural districts, board members are made to feel that they have no business involving themselves in educational issues, which, they are told, ought to be the province of the professionals. In districts of all sizes, it is assumed that boards will have a major say in who is hired and who cannot be fired, with all the opportunities for the exchange of favors those relationships imply. Others run for the opportunity to control the letting of contracts by the district, often one of the largest organizations in town, with all the opportunities for the exchange of favors that implies. Although management is often successful at keeping school board members away from strictly educational decisions, school board members almost everywhere have strong incentives to micromanage in other arenas and to serve as advocates for individual parents and staff members in ways that time and again defeat sound management of the schools. For a very long time, superintendents were hired based on considerations other than their record in improving student performance and were fired despite their strong history of improving student performance, and that is still true in all too many districts. To a degree that still might shock many voters, the arguments about school policy are arguments among adults about which adults get what benefits from the school system, not about how to make the most of the district's resources to improve the achievement of students.

Most school board members, superintendents, teachers, and union chiefs are doing the best they can. But they're caught in a system that is dysfunctional.

The problems I just pointed to are not the inevitable consequence of living in a democracy. There are other, better ways to run school districts.

CHANGE HIRING PRACTICES

First, states, not local districts, should hire and employ teachers. That's the only way to break the connection between teacher quality and local taxable wealth. Until that connection is broken, this country will never have an education system that provides a fair chance to all children. Furthermore, if the state employs the teachers, the people who hope to control the patronage system will no longer run for school board.

This also means that bargaining teacher contracts would no longer be a local district responsibility. Instead, bargaining would occur at the state level. This would place both partners in the bargaining on a more even level than is often the case with local bargaining.

Bargaining would focus on pay and working conditions, and those would be narrowly defined. The teacher partnerships that are described below would determine the actual working conditions, just as is the case in other professional partnerships.

Changing teacher employment, of course, changes the role of teacher associations. At the state level, teacher associations would do more than hold on to their union role; they would also assume a new role. Like most other state and national professional associations, the teacher associations would become a principal source for continuing professional development for educators, providing an unending program of courses and seminars for professional teachers across the country. That is what other professional associations do, besides representing their members in Washington and state capitals.

NEW ROLE FOR SCHOOL BOARDS

Second, school boards should get out of the business of running schools and focus on improving student learning. …

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