The author, Kent Grusendorf, served as a member of the Texas House of Representatives for 20 years (1987-2007), all but two as a member of Public Education Committee, which he chaired for four years (2003-2007). His prior elected experience was as a member of the Texas State Board of Education for three years (1982-1984). In addition to this blog, Grusendorf is author of an 1889 Institute report also based on his forthcoming book.
Saving Public Education: Setting Teachers Free to Teach is the title of my forthcoming book, which explores a potentially new professional opportunity for teachers. Most teachers are in the profession because they love to teach. However, far too many leave the profession due to lack of respect, excessive external pressures, and general frustration. Many teachers stay in the profession, but yearn for greater freedom to just do what they love: Teach. Much of that frustration comes from mandates, and a lack of professional freedom.
Well Intentioned, but Wrong-Headed, Reform
Well-intentioned education reform advocates (including me) have attempted to reform the American education system for more than half a century. Most of these reform efforts have been designed to impose top-down mandates on our schools and teachers.
Now, half a century later, despite much hard work by educators, the minority achievement gap remains at unacceptable levels. According to the Brookings Institution, no progress has been made in literacy since the inception of the National Assessment of Education Progress in 1971. Low-income students perform three or four years behind grade level, and far too many teachers are frustrated with a system that fails to treat them as true professionals.
Perverse Results
Virtually all meaningful reform efforts over the past few decades have either failed to produce the desired results, or have been undone over time due to political pressure. It is time to acknowledge one simple fact: Top-down reform efforts and mandates on teachers have not worked as intended.
Over the past three decades, teacher pay, after adjusting for inflation, has decreased. This has occurred even as spending, also adjusted for inflation, has increased dramatically. Today, Americans spend about $4 billion per school day on public education. Annually, we spend about $350,000 per classroom of 25; however, we only pay teachers about $60,000.
Over the past seven decades, administrative staff has increased by over 750 percent, indicating the system simply has its priorities wrong. It emphasizes process and control over the actual practice and success of teachers actively engaged in educating future generations.
America’s political leaders need to understand the subtle yet distinct difference between what is best for institutions and what is best for student success. Unfortunately, in America today, school funding is based primarily on institutional needs rather than student and teacher needs. Formulas are designed to fund the system rather than fund education within the system.
Today, teachers are paid less than their true market value, in part due to monopsony power, and often due to a lack necessary classroom supplies. Teachers are the backbone of the system, yet many are frustrated by lack of professional recognition, and lack of adequate financial support for their classrooms.
In public education’s early years, teachers were actually in charge of the school. They answered directly to parents and taxpayers. Most importantly, they had the ability to do what they thought best for their students. Today, teachers answer to multiple layers of school administrators, and to local, state, and federal politicians, all of whom impose top-down dictates on teachers and their schools.
A Better Solution: Free Teachers to Teach
It is time to acknowledge that top-down control has not worked well for millions of American students, and has not worked well for thousands of America’s teachers. The answer will not come from above. The answer is in the classrooms of America today. The solution is to set teachers free to teach.
Teachers are the individuals who actually deliver education services. The system should be organized accordingly. If organized correctly, educators would be set free from politics and be allowed to focus totally on educating children. To accomplish that objective, teachers must be treated as real professionals, not just given lip service that they “are” professionals while they are denied the real decision-making power that other professionals possess.
Saving Public Education makes the case with simple data that the best way to reward teachers is to allow them to practice their trade as true professionals. Teachers would be empowered by allowing for a new optional component to the education system’s current structure.
This new option would be the professional teacher concept. The Professional Teacher Act would provide a new option for teachers – the freedom to practice as true professionals – that would be a win-win for the entire profession as well as for students and our society’s future.
Once the money already held in trust for students, but sifted through a bureaucratic top-down system, is allowed to follow the child and teacher, there is no limit to the creative initiatives teachers could implement to achieve superior results for their students, for the education system, and for society.
The professional teacher concept would be a new option only available to certain public school teachers. It would allow a public school teacher who has been rated as proficient, or better, for three years to enter into “private practice,” much like a doctor, or lawyer, who is in private practice. Students would not be “assigned” to any teacher in private practice. If students choose a teacher in private practice, the state money would flow directly to the teacher.
This professional teacher concept is a win-win for the entire education profession, for children, and for society. Educators would be empowered to specialize and innovate to meet the individual needs of their individual students. Teacher pay would be enhanced as well, both for those who participate in the program and for those who remain in the current system. This is because the monopsony power, held by school districts, represses teacher pay to a level below market value. Setting teachers free to practice their trade would change that dynamic for the entire profession.
Bottom line:  The purpose of such a new professional opportunity would be to give education professionals the opportunity to function independently, with property rights similar to those afforded other professionals and the rewards inherent in those rights. Further, by allowing teachers to become the professional education practitioners they long to be, they will have the opportunity to innovate and create educational programs suited for the specific needs of their student clientele.
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