Our guest author today is Kenneth Frank, professor in Measurement and Quantitative Methods at the Department of Counseling, Educational Psychology and Special Education at Michigan State University.
Maybe it’s because I grew up in Michigan, but when I think of how to improve schools, I think about the “Magic Johnson effect." During his time at Michigan State, Earvin “Magic” Johnson scored an average of 17 points per game. Good, but many others have had higher averages. Yet, I would want Magic Johnson on my team because he made everyone around him better. Similarly, the best teachers may be those that make everyone around them better. This way of thinking is not currently the focus of many current educational reforms, which draw on individual competition and market metaphors.
So how can we leverage the Magic Johnson effect to make schools better? We have to think of ways that teachers can work together. This might be in terms of co-teaching, sharing materials, or taking the time to engage one another in honest professional dialogues. There is considerable evidence that teachers who can draw on the expertise of colleagues are better able to implement new practices. There is also evidence that when there is an atmosphere of trust teachers can engage in honest dialogues that can improve teaching practices and student achievement (e.g., Bryk and Schneider, 2002).
If you are with me on the value of teacher collaboration, we should then ask: What are the forces that push against it? One answer is that collaboration is discouraged when teachers are pitted against one another to compete for evaluations or merit pay based only on their immediate contribution to the students they teach directly. It also can be difficult to collaborate with another teacher whom one feels is not committed to teaching or is not competent to teach. But there may be additional, subtler forces at work. Well-meaning teachers can find themselves working at cross-purposes when each champions her own reforms or innovation.
These forces are rooted in the fundamental tensions that emerge when multiple competing stakeholders influence what to teach and who should teach it. While there is no cure-all, I have proposed a set of guidelines in the form of a constitution, which would allow schools as a whole to regulate competing demands in order to facilitate coordination and cooperation among teachers. The Articles of the constitution do not concern themselves with specific matters of leadership, pedagogy, teachers’ practices or curriculum. Instead, the Articles regulate the governance of practices for adopting and implementing changes in policies, practices, and personnel. The first two articles are:
Article 1: Adoption of Reforms, New Policies & Practices
No school-wide reform, or change in policy or practice, may be implemented unless two thirds or more of the teachers in the school approve the change. Similar practices are used by programs such as "Success for All," as well as many comprehensive school reforms. It forces teachers to make decisions for their school as a collective, based on their assessments of how a reform meshes with their sets of existing practices, commitments, student composition, and so on.
Article 2: Evaluating Results from Reforms and Innovations
The effects of any change in practices or policies on student achievement should be assessed at the school level, and not for at least three years after implementation.
It takes teachers time to learn about a reform, adapt the reform to their collective contexts, and then reestablish coordination with each other. Pushing for results before three years have passed can generate superficial change or exert counterproductive pressure on teachers and the relationships among them.
I do note that the Articles may not be immediately realizable. Article 1 may be unrealistic in light of mandated state or district policies. But perhaps schools can push back, asking for exceptions, such as was done for welfare reform. Moreover, these two Articles may give districts and states pause in mandating new policies or practices without considering how teachers and schools will implement such policies.
I expect teachers will appreciate Articles 1 and 2. But they could make other stakeholders in schools anxious. That is why the constitution includes other Articles as a set of checks and balances (Figure 1).
Article 3: Community to School Link: Governing Board.
The school shall be governed by a board, at least 50 percent of which consists of community members. The board can replace a principal by a vote of two thirds or more.* This provides the community a check on the school.
Article 4: Removal of Teachers
A principal can use a streamlined procedure to remove not more than five percent of the teachers in a given year. For example, in an elementary school of twenty teachers, the principal can use the streamlined procedure to replace not more than one per year. This provides the principal a check on the teachers.
Articles 5: Removal of Principal
A principal can be evaluated for replacement if more than 20 percent of the teachers in the school request transfer or leave in a given year (excluding planned retirements). This provides the teachers a check on the principal.
Figure 1: Checks and Balances of Articles for School Constitution
Each of these Articles will have opponents. Reformers and parents may feel obstructed by the need for a two-thirds vote of faculty to implement new policies (Article 1), and may not want to wait three years to evaluate new policies (Article 2). Principals may not want to be vulnerable to a vote of a local board (Article 3), or to the career decisions of teachers (Article 5), which may be influenced by economic forces. Article 4, allowing a principal to remove a small percentage of teachers using a streamlined procedure, is perhaps the most controversial measure. But, just as arbitrary dismissal of teachers can undermine morale, so too can working next door to a teacher who is not committed to her profession or to others in the school, or who is not competent to teach.
Do not expect that adoption of these articles individually or as part of a constitution will create dramatic short-term improvements in educational outcomes. Instead, a constitution should give a school a stable and strong social foundation to implement current and future reforms while encouraging teachers to coordinate and collaborate. Think of it as “investing” in the social capital of the school that will serve the community for generations. Or perhaps longer.
- Ken Frank
* A similar model existed in Chicago in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s - see more here.