September 8, 1994
The place was the annual Education Meeting of the Conference Board, a group of Fortune 500 business executives focusing on educational reform. It was spring 1993, and the 10th anniversary of "Nation at Risk," the U.S. Department of Education’s springboard report for school reform. The speaker, most appropriately, was former U.S. Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell. The words were difficult for him to express: "We have to do more with what we have. We have spent a great deal of money in school reform—not very effectively. We have a major personnel-management problem in the public schools that needs to be addressed."
Reflecting on the last few years of educational reforms, Bell’s message was obvious. When school reformers speak of systemic change, they usually tend to avoid the most important system of all—the system of managing those who teach in, serve and administer public schools in this country.
The American public schools are arguably the largest socialized enterprise the world has ever known. Even the U.S. Postal Service has a more market-driven system. Weal public school teachers are transferred from building to building, passing problems from one principal to another. Tenure is offered without thorough review. Good teachers are not rewarded for a job well done. The school year for employees and students is based primarily on an outdated farm calendar. Teachers and administrators with special qualifications and skills find little or no monetary reward comparable to that in the business world.
Educators do not need to leave their profession to find a better model. While some would argue about the processes that colleges and universities use in peer review, tenure analysis and providing public recognition and monetary rewards, the results are clear. We have the best higher-education system in the world—one that other countries are still trying to achieve.
Perhaps we spend too much time searching for revolutionary ideas. More than two decades ago, a highly successful and nationally known Ohio superintendent of public instruction, Martin W. Essex, wrote an "Executive Teacher Plan" that has significant merit today. In October 1966, Essex told a Martha Holden Jennings Foundation audience that it "is what teachers don’t have that concerns us most deeply. If the American school is to succeed in its enormous new responsibilities, it teachers must be better equipped for a highly complex professional responsibility." He went on to explain why:
Essex acknowledged that "recognizing teachers by variation in rates of compensation and status has been repugnant to teachers." He quoted a National Commission on Teacher Education and Professional Standards 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 common-sense and businesslike approach to the organization of human resources in the public schools.
Regrettably, the former president of both the American Association of School Administrators and Council of Chief State School Officers was ahead of his time. While a few school systems dabbled in half-hearted efforts to implement such a plan, union contracts, legislation and state regulations succeeded in squelching the idea.
In all the talk about school reform, why don’t we simply look at some business, college and other real world human resource practices? Concepts such as marketplace pay for teachers in areas of shortage, peer review, a revamped work year, recognition systems and site-based management need to be revisited by educators and leaders in government and business. Systemic reform will work only when human motivation is a focal point.
is Distinguished Research Professor at the
University of Dayton and is President & Chief Executive Officer
of SchoolMatch®, a Columbus based educational auditing, research, data