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Published in Print: November 24, 1999, as Governing Well: The Teacher's Perspective


Governing Well: The Teacher's Perspective

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Teachers too often have to engage in creative insubordination to do right by students.

It will take a lot to make public schools more effective for all students: greater academic rigor, higher standards of conduct, more parental involvement, meaningful professional development for teachers, stronger incentives for the students themselves, and, of course, more access to health and social services for the many students who are in need of such. To that list, we must add two critical factors that matter a lot: creating more responsive school governance structures; and expanding teachers' capacity to have more professional discretion over their own practice.

What matters most in education is what happens between the student and the teacher. Yet, teachers are least empowered to make decisions about teaching and learning. Saddled with "adminstrivia" and remote-control mandates, teachers all too often have to engage in creative insubordination to do right by their students. Is it any wonder then that so many teachers lament that they love to teach but hate their jobs?

That is why school governance matters too. It can either enhance or impede teaching and learning. There is a growing realization that how we organize and govern our schools can be pivotal to our ability to make all the other necessary improvements.

The Education Commission of the States has been looking at promising approaches to improving schools by changing the way they are organized and governed. As part of this three-year effort, the ECS formed the National Commission on Governing America's Schools. During the last year, the commission has been taking a serious look at school governance, considering what components of governance are currently working in some states and districts, thinking about what the future holds for education, and discussing various governance approaches that might merit consideration.

The national commission's members represent a broad spectrum of views about which governance approaches could lead to improved student learning. While individual members might favor one option over the other, we have been able to find much common ground—unity without unanimity.

The commission agrees that:

  • Our public system of education should be strengthened, not undermined or discarded.
  • Improved student achievement should be the primary focus of an accountability system.
  • More operating decisions affecting students should be made at the school level.
  • Parents should have more choice about which public schools their children attend.
  • Good information on student, teacher, and school performance should be available for parents and the community.

The commission's final report, "Governing America's Schools: Changing the Rules," puts forth two governance options to consider. These two approaches are based on available research about the relationship between governance systems and education results; the experiences of states, districts, and schools in changing their governance systems; and the various perspectives of commission members on this issue.

The two approaches are:

(1) A system of publicly authorized, publicly funded, and publicly operated schools, based on research, models of high-performing school governance systems in other countries, and the more promising trends within our current system of public education.

(2) A system of publicly authorized, publicly funded, but independently operated schools, based on some of the more promising alternatives to the current system of public education governance.

I favor option one. This approach preserves public education and democratic control over our schools. It builds on the strengths of the existing system by increasing its capacity for adaptability, flexibility, and accountability. Some of the ideas and strategies embodied in this approach have been successfully implemented in states, districts, and schools across the country: school-based decisionmaking, performance-based accountability, public school choice, and standards-based teaching and learning.

Our goal should not be to help some opt out; rather, it must be to help all children gain access to good schools and a good education.

Yet, strategies such as these are the exception, not the rule. This newly crafted governance option—of publicly authorized, publicly funded, and publicly operated schools—would allow and enable schools and communities to bypass the bureaucratic maze and provide greater authority at the school level. In a less centralized system such as this, the faculty, staff, and parents in each community and at each school would have greater authority and capacity to tailor the teaching and learning methods to meet high standards as well as the unique needs of their students.

Fixing governance, though, must be accompanied by the development of new models of labor-management relations. Without it, it is tantamount to one hand clapping. School authorities and teachers must find ways to use the collective bargaining process to negotiate provisions that increase the prospects for student success.

They can do so by collaborating on improving low-performing schools, further expanding the scope of collective bargaining to include instructional and professional issues, investing in the knowledge and skills of teachers, and shifting greater flexibility and authority to the individual schools. The "thin contract" idea that American Federation of Teachers President Sandra Feldman recently proposed is a good example of such a promising direction. That proposal would give school-level professionals the authority and flexibility to adopt programs, strategies, and schedules that work best for their students. Such a model is very much in step with decentralizing school governance—strengthening collaboration and local control.

As the National Commission on Governing America's Schools concludes its work, the discussion about school governance in states and districts is just beginning. The ECS is already working with interested states and districts where leaders are rethinking their systems of governance to help improve student performance. But, as states and districts move forward, they must test these proposals for changes in governance against a set of criteria that not only asks whether the reform measures have a chance for increasing school achievement and school choice, but also whether the options will be likely to serve the most fundamental purposes of public education: promoting a shared set of American values and a common understanding of our history and traditions.

We are a diverse nation, one that is threatened by a growing disparity between the rich and the poor, blacks and whites, and those with access to technology and those who are isolated from it. Any governance change must ameliorate these inequities as well as address academic excellence.

Excellence without equity is not excellence, it is privilege. Our goal should not be to help some to opt out; rather, it must be to help all children gain access to good schools and a good education.

Adam Urbanski is the president of the Rochester (N.Y.) Teachers Association, a vice president of the American Federation of Teachers, and the director of the Teacher Union Reform Network (turn) of AFT and National Education Association locals. He is also a member of the Education Commission of the States' National Commission on Governing America's Schools.

Vol. 19, Issue 13, Pages 33,44

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