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The Teaching Firm

The Teaching Firm
By: Nancy Jester

Much of the “education reform” talk we hear today gets discussed with the tacit assumption of pitting one group against another. The framework often boils down to parents wanting a better education for their children versus teachers who baulk at increased accountability measures that judge the quality of their teaching and represent a threat to their job security and growth. I reject this paradigm.

The architects and beneficiaries of this faux war are the educational bureaucrats. We now have more administrator than teachers in 21 states, including Georgia. Discussions about accountability are really discussions about creating more jobs for them. Anytime you add another bureaucrat, the classroom teacher is burdened. The growth of these bureaucrats has degraded the teaching profession and created the hostile climate we witness today. Bureaucrats sell parents on “accountability” by making them believe some new program, test, measurement or evaluation system will magically turn their child’s classroom experience into a, heretofore unseen, utopia; opening up educational opportunities previously unattainable. We are just one magic idea away from curing what ails education today. I’m sure some bureaucrats even believe this. Sadly, they burden the teacher, charge the taxpayer and generate false hope in parents, all while collecting six-figure salaries, stretching their bureaucratic tentacles and creating growth in government sector jobs. Well played.

I’m not a Pollyanna. Not all teachers are equal. Some are more effective than others. Some teachers are better-suited for the reserved child; while others do better with gregarious, talkative children. I’m keenly aware some people have made it into the classroom that have no business being there. But I’m also aware that somewhere, a bureaucrat hired them and has allowed them to stay. I also know not every parent is an asset to their child’s teacher. Some parents are incredulous when their child doesn’t get a good grade. There are helicopter parents. There are parents that never show-up at all. And there’s no bureaucracy to evaluate and fix those parenting foibles for teachers.

Parents and teachers should unite behind the idea that they aren’t on opposite sides. Parents, children and teachers are pawns on the chessboard of educational bureaucrats. What’s the alternative? Well, lawyers work at law firms, CPAs work at accounting firms and they manage themselves. Teachers should work at teaching firms and be expected to do the same.

When a lawyer or a CPA begins their work, they practice their profession and do so throughout their career. Yes, they may take an off-ramp, but many work in professional firms from the beginning to the end of their careers. They develop their reputations and their specialized skill set. They may become a partner within their firm. Their firm may also specialize in a particular market segment.

I believe we need to see schools as teaching firms. Just as other professionals manage their “firms”, so should teachers. The Principal should be the managing partner of the firm. Generally the managing partner is someone who has been successful at their career and is seen as an asset to the partners, associates and clients of the firm. The partners of the teaching firm would work with the principal in managing budgets, hiring and planning. Each teaching firm would receive its per pupil funds and the partners could determine their own pay structure and deployment of resources. Of course, they would be responsible for complying with all legal requirements. You could allow schools to specialize in areas. Teachers could recognize their talents with different types of learners and specialize within the firm. Right now, we have no organized way to maximize the talents of our teachers. We expect them to be all things to all people. That’s an unrealistic approach.

The parent compliment to the idea of the teaching firm would be the freedom to choose the teaching firm that works best for them. If parents are allowed to find the best fit for their child, teachers and their firms are freed up to embrace the professional specialization and techniques in which they excel.

The bureaucrats are able to keep control and grow their budgets by creating fear, mistrust and false hope. When teachers and parents realize they are both prisoners in the same bureaucratic gulag, then we’ll have a true reformation. The keys to unlocking the prison gates are Teaching Firms and School Choice.

(9) comments
  1. Intriguing. Do you think there would be more opportunities for corruption in Teaching Firms than the opportunities we have today? I don’t know, but think your concept merits discussion though.

  2. LifeLearner
    I love this idea. It’s a different form of local control. Currently we have one big pot of money and the dispersal of that money to the various schools is intentionally obfuscated. By defining a budget for principals, we shed light on the school budget and push money down to the schools. We mitigate the exposure of corruption to that big pot of money by breaking the pot up into little pots of money. Administration has less money from which to steal and the principals have to run the business of the school.

    The question is, can our principals handle a budget?

  3. “If parents are allowed to find the best fit for their child…” I’m not so sure I agree with this statement. I do agree that the educrats and their budens of administrative nonsense, love of standardized testing and the latest canned programs are a big waste of everyone’s time and money. But, they are obviously trying to find a “one size fits most” approach to managing a field that works best when it is individualized down to each and every child and their own needs. But, I am not so sure this is something we should expect parents to seek and find on behalf of their child. When parents are put into a role of “should know best” on something that even the highly trained professionals cannot pinpoint, the reaction is similar to learning your favorite detergent is off the market and you have to find a new favorite. The first thing a good consumer wants to do is sample what else is out there before making a final decision. Well, that’s not the best thing to do when it comes to education because every time we think we have the right match between teacher and student and there is some little blip of misunderstanding, it has become far too easy for a knee-jerk reaction on both sides – the school suggests another “style” of learning or a different environment. The parent wonders if there might be another type of teaching style, all catering around the belief that the student is not to blame, only the things around him or her in the educational environment. But, as children grow, they want less and less control by their parents. That is healthy. They need to one day become independent self-thinking adults, right? So, when told by a parent that they must leave the familiar to try something new because it will be a better fit, the child will likely think, “you don’t know me. you don’t know what I want. how could you? You’re not me!” What is important to children at a school is making friends and fitting in. That becomes harder and harder with every new situation we plop them in after taking them out of the one they were just fine with. Good teaching takes place in an environment when the child feels safe and comfortable, where he or she has friends who are similar in interests, age, upbringings so there is a greater level of acceptance and therefore greater chance the child will take a risk in class like asking a question, or actually will pay attention rather than worry about what brand of shoes he or she is wearing in order to be accepted. Not every teacher child releationship is perfect, but that is a life lesson in itself. We still have to listen and be respectful with people even when we do not have an instant chemistry. If teachers were allowed to truly practice a career in which they are dedicated to the outcomes themselves, and not constantly measured by the level of success a student has on a flat scale, we could form great bonds with them that would allow us to trust how the teachers are grading our children and believe that they are more of a trusted source than a test written by someone who writes tests for a living. But when teachers are carrying out the wishes of the administration and not warning the parents about the troubles in their own schools, or when they will cheat on a test for their own reasons, it is hard to see the profession in the elevated light of someone who cares about your child’s education as much as you do. Teachers seem to be frequently suspicious of a parent who asks questions and often places blame on issues of the adminsitration that the parents have no understading of. It makes for awkward conversations. If the teachers did feel like we we all out to get them, maybe the communications would improve. But beyond that, parents and teacher alike have to realize the bulk of the work has to come from within the child. No one out there can make you learn. The parents have to stress why education is so important. The teachers need to keep the students focused on the task at hand each day and intervene when there might be some difficulty that parent can help solve or correct. But, a bunch of adult talking to each other about a child has never sounded too inspiring to the child who just hears “Blah, blah, blah.” A bunch of adults focused on listening and learning from the child and slipping in the instruction while the child doesn’t realize it because he or she is enjoying what they are doing – that’s the gift of lifelong learning. That’s the inspirational side we have lost in DeKalb. Underpaid, undervalued, unappreciated teachers in a cut throat profession with lots of people making money off telling the professionals how to do their jobs has got to be one of the worst working envirnoments out there. The fact that children have to witness the fallout from that relationship every day fully explains to me why they are dropping out at nearly 50% as soon as they can. Others just leave and the system doesn’t even track where they go or why they left. We clearly do not care about the children here, just like a deadbeat Dad will try to throw money at something to fulfill an obligation in order to prove to everyone else how much they care… the child always knows even when others are fooled. There are homes with money and no love. There are homes with love and little money. Teachers need to have the patience, skills, understanding and small enough class sizes in order to be able to reach both ends of that very wide spectrum and remove or discipline the children who are disruptive to the point that it affects the other students from learning. I agree with the idea of letting teachers control their own careers like contractors for hire, but this doesn’t sound like the way they want it handled. They want to do as little on the negotiation side of their own careers as possible and expect everyone around them to just “fix” things for them. We, the parents can certainally not do that without their input and help.

  4. This works well in theory, but may not in the real world. While I agree the expectation of schools being all things to all students is unattainable, there is an expectation that school districts provide an education according to the federal laws. What happens when the child has special needs and there are no schools nearby to provide for those needs? Dekalb County is already dancing on the edge of legality with “centers” for special education.

    What happens when each school chooses a specialty and none of them are special education?

    At this time the Tapestry Charter School board is fundraising and looking for a location, but they are not willing to share their business model because it is not feasible based on public funding. Proof that even when there is a school willing to provide for students with special needs, the per-student funding is not enough. (Full disclosure – I am planning on enrolling one of my children when they open. It is going to be a very good school.)

    So, what happens to the hearing impaired, or autistic, or developmentally delayed, student whose family doesn’t have the ability to move to the nearest school which can educate their child? Or, in the case of charter schools, what happens when there isn’t enough room and they don’t win the lottery?

    In regards to providing teachers with a more professional work environment, I completely agree. I have seen teachers in trailers who could easily outperform many of the six-figure VPs I have encountered. Yet, they do what they love regardless of the obstacles put in their paths by “educrats”. You are correct, we do need a way to maximize the talents of the teachers.

    One final thought. Successful schools are those with involved parents. I believe this has been shown to be true regardless of social or economic factors. The current school of thought with says “a highly competent teacher” is the biggest factor to student success is flawed. Parents who enforce bedtime, are engaged with their children’s school work, and provide a nutritious breakfast are the biggest factor in student success.

  5. So far, it seems to me that for a Teaching Firm to exist, we can’t escape the need for a lean system of accountability.

    That lean system of accountability (bureaucracy) must be
    • agile enough to completely allow educators to use their skills, knowledge and positive attitudes to teach students;
    • able to collaboratively address (with other Teaching Firms(?)) accessibility needs described by Tucker Guy;
    • all things to all the people it serves (e.g., mitigator of corruption and mismanagement in the Teaching Firm, provider of parental resources, obstacle remover for educators, etc.)
    • a collaborator with all people it serves;
    • a communicator of objectives and results to the community in which its located; and
    • other things I haven’t thought of yet.

    Once a Teaching Firm is defined also by having some sort of lean accountability system, then next step is to change naysayers’ paradigms to a Teaching-Firm paradigm. To create buy-in.

    I believe, Nancy, you’re already 50 steps ahead of where I am now in wrapping my brain around this paradigm. I like it, but don’t see yet how people can effectively make the Teaching-Firm paradigm an effective and efficient reality. Perhaps the next steps for now are continued prayer and providing awareness? Thank you very much for continuing to provide awareness.

  6. Perfect examples of this kind of eduspeak can be found right here in DeKalb!

    It was discovered and printed at the AJC that DeKalb had far too many administrators:
    Report: DeKalb schools have too many administrators

    The response from Atkinson should have been alarming:

    Atkinson said she’s not sure how closely she’ll follow the consultant’s proposal.

    “This is their recommendation,” she said. “We’ll take it now and massage it.”

    And then, we read later in the AJC:
    Former colleagues are key for DeKalb superintendent

    Reaching back a decade and across multiple states, DeKalb County’s new school Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson has assembled her team of top-level administrators, choosing three people she previously worked alongside.

    Each commands a six-figure salary on par with some of the top educators in metro Atlanta. It’s talent, Atkinson says, that DeKalb, as Georgia’s third-largest public school system, needs to boost student academic achievement.

    Atkinson’s point person for instruction is Kathleen Howe, a former colleague of hers as a deputy superintendent in Kansas City, a district of 17,400 students and 2,300 teachers and other employees.

    Kendra March is DeKalb’s new deputy superintendent for school leadership and operational support. March worked with Atkinson in Charlotte at a district of 125,000 students.

    Gary Brantley, the chief information officer, will be in charge of all computers and technical equipment, such as digital “smart boards” for the entire district. He held a similar post for the Lorain City Schools in Ohio, where Atkinson was most recently the district superintendent.

    Atkinson said that she chose people with strong personalities and a commitment to results.

    “I came to DeKalb Schools with a mission to improve student success, and I wanted the people around me to share that mission,” she said. “It’s a new day in DeKalb and we’re just getting started.”

    Howe, March and Brantley each received a starting salary of $159,800.

    Yep. She massaged it alright!!

  7. @Tucker Guy: Conversely, what if one of them DOES open a school that focuses on special education?!! One very strong, kind, intelligent, determined parent, Mrs. Marie Corrigan started the Sophia Academy, one of the very best options in private schools for students with learning disabilities. Couldn’t another parent or team of parents start a publicly-funded charter using the same model? Wouldn’t it be wonderful for everyone to have access to special instruction for their student with a learning disability and not have to pay a large tuition bill just to get a proper education for their child?

  8. @ShooShee,

    A group of parents are doing just what you said. Please read this web site. http://www.tapestrycharter.org/index.html

    My point is this model does not work on public funding alone. The public per-student funding is not enough to support co-teaching small classes. Have you spoken to Mrs. Corrigan about why the tuition at Sophia Academy is so large? I don’t know, but I doubt it is because she is pocketing large profits.

    At this time all parents do “have access to special instruction for their student with a learning disability.” Until federal laws change, public schools are mandated to provide a free and appropriate education to all children who enroll regardless of neurodiversity. Free and appropriate is not the same as proper. Yes. What you wrote in your last sentence would be wonderful.

    I find it appalling that in DeKalb County there is such a discrepancy in quality of services between schools with deep-pocketed foundations and schools without. I find it appalling that the county does not provide high quality special education services for all of it’s students. Please note I did not imply the teachers in DeKalb County are not of high quality. I am very happy with 98% of all of the teachers I have met. However, the county sets obstacles in their way such as too much paperwork, too many children in a class, and not enough support for the teachers. These affect the education the children receive.

    The difference is access to money. While I believe Charter Schools can be wonderful “Teaching Firms” as Mrs. Jester described, to make that happen will require removing the obstacles of the central office and access to money. Given a limited pot of funding, the only way to pay high-performing teachers more is to pay other people less. This management style works for people who are working for money, but not for people who are working because they love teaching and children. Teachers shouldn’t be competing with their coworkers for raises.

  9. Oh dear! So much…so little time…

    Isn’t “The Teaching Firm” otherwise known as “Private School”?

    When I read things like “… creating growth in government sector jobs” and “… teaching firm would receive its per pupil funds” alarms go off because this is where “run government like a business” goes off the rails. Fact is even with charter schools it is still government money (IE: yours and my tax dollars, some borrowed from the very children we claim to serve) and it is still a government operation and it is going to operate like a government–creating burgeoning bureaucracies.

    “The Teaching Firm” falls short because, unlike the private sector examples, customers really aren’t (customers that is) because they’re “spending” OPM with inconsequential skin in the game and these “Firms” cannot truly fail. I would argue that were DCSS viewed as a “Firm” it has already failed and yet on it goes. Why? Because “failure is not an option” and when a government agency says that it means two things. First, you cannot get rid of us or even shrink us. And we’ll just re-define success, making failure go away.

    Now if you really want to create a “Teaching Firm” you must follow the model of the private sector. Teachers and teacher-managers must create this firm and going out on your own like this takes tremendous fortitude (and capital). Then they must convince parents that money spent on “The Firm” is money well spent. And to the greatest extent possible (>>0) it really needs to be the parents’ money.

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