"The Executive Teacher." By William L. Bainbridge. The American School Board Journal.
July 2000.

The Executive Teacher

By William L. Bainbridge

Horace Mann’s dream of a common school has become a socialized, bureaucratic nightmare. Weak teachers are transferred from building to building, passing problems—it’s often called "passing the trash"—from one principal to another. The school year is based on extinct cultural norms of an agrarian society, which means bankers, retail workers, tradesmen , and virtually everyone else who is gainfully employed does not understand the teacher work year. Tenure is bargained rather than earned, and good teachers aren’t rewarded for jobs well done. To continue in public education, teachers and administrators with special qualifications and skills sacrifice monetary rewards available in the private sector.

Yet even with all of these problems, reformers tend to speak of systemic change without mentioning the most important system of all—the system of managing those who teach in, serve, and administer our public schools.

This is not a call for revolutionary new ideas. Perhaps we spend too much time searching for those. Maybe instead, we should listen to ideas from the past.

Over two decades ago, a highly successful and nationally know school administrator, the late Martin W. Essex, proposed what he called an Executive Teacher Plan, which still has significant merit today. In an October 1966 speech to a Martha Holden Jennings Foundation audience in Cleveland, Essex—then president of the American Association of School Administrators and Ohio’s newly appointed state superintendent of public instruction—laid out solutions to problems in public schools. He said that teachers need time to teach, a manageable workload, access to materials when needed, and the opportunity to be scholars in their disciplines.

"If the American school is to succeed in its enormous new responsibilities, its teachers must be better equipped for a highly complex professional responsibility," Essex said.

What can school leaders do to encourage such professionalism? Essex acknowledge that "recognizing teachers by variation in rates of compensation and status has been repugnant to teachers." But he quoted a National Commission on teacher Education and Professional Standards document calling for "outstanding teachers to be recognized for their special qualities through variations in their assignments...extra compensation, and status among their colleagues in terms of instructional influence and direction."

"Restoring the concept of the master teacher would be a great breakthrough in elevating the prestige and rewards of the profession," Essex said. He went on to design a commonsense and businesslike approach to the organization of human resources in public schools. Schools should be organized much more like universities or accounting firms, he said, with career ladders and peer review. Aides should assist teachers with clerical work, and top teachers, like endowed professors or accounting firm principals, should receive the appropriate respect and rewards. Like businesses, schools should be accountable for performance.

Later elected president of the Council of Chief State School Officers, Essex continued to promote his Executive Teacher Plan. A few school systems dabbled in half-hearted efforts to implement his plan, but employee union contracts, legislation, and state regulations succeeded in squelching his ideas.

All the current talk about school reform has me thinking about my old friend and his innovative plan. Why don’t we look at the human resource practices of businesses, colleges, and other employers? Concepts such as peer review, merit pay, a revamped work year, recognition systems, and marketplace pay for teachers in areas of shortage need to be revisited with an eye toward seeing how they could be implemented, or better implemented, in schools. Systemic reform will work only if human motivation is a focal point.

American public schools are arguably the largest socialized enterprise the world has ever known. Even the bureaucratic post office has a more market-driven system. Educators do not need to leave their profession to find a better model. Although some would take issue with the processes used by colleges and universities in peer review, tenure analysis, public recognition, and monetary rewards, the results are clear: We have the best higher education system in the world. Other countries are still trying to catch up to America’s colleges and universities. We should look at what makes these institutions work so well.

There are signs of promising change in public schools. Both national teachers unions have endorsed peer review as an acceptable human resource management tool. School systems across the country are looking at marketplace pay to attract teachers in areas of critical shortage. Business and government leaders at the Third National Education Summit last fall committed themselves to providing schools with more flexibility and control over human resources. And business leaders agreed to help at least 10 states incorporate pay-for-performance incentive plans into salary structures for teachers.

The focus on this previously hands-off area is an encouraging sign that real school reform might be on the horizon. As Louis V. Gerstner Jr., cochairman of the education summit and CEO of IBM Corp, has said, "It’s simple. If we don’t have great teachers, we won’t have great students."


, is a former superintendent and is president of SchoolMatch, a research, consulting, and data firm in Westerville, Ohio.