Education Opinion

A Blast from the Past with Differentiated Staffing

By Jal Mehta — May 11, 2011 5 min read
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By Olivia Meeks

Over the last several weeks, this blog has featured dozens of insightful pieces which gaze into the future of education, but today we’re going to take a look in the rearview mirror. Rick, Greg, and I have sketched out a vision of education’s future in which schools shift from the do-everything teacher model to a model which leverages staff specialization and new technologies. For those who haven’t had a chance to read the Ed Week piece yet (no time like the present!), a major component of this more tech-centered, specialized system is the adoption of differentiated staffing. While this practice is commonplace in the medical, legal, and engineering professions, it is largely absent from today’s schools. However, as education history buffs may remember, this wasn’t always the case.

From the elaborate slave-based tutoring systems of Ancient Greece to the student-teachers of the 19th century Monitorial system, differentiated staffing has a long history in education... one that you probably don’t have the time or inclination to read and one that I don’t have enough expertise to write. Instead, we’ll take a look back to perhaps the most contested and relevant example--the differentiated staffing movement of the 1960s--to offer a crash course in why differentiated staffing emerged then, what it looked like, and what eventually went wrong. Those lessons can help practitioners and policymakers anticipate and address the challenges ahead.

The differentiated staffing movement of the 1960s arose as public dissatisfaction with student achievement, a rising demand for professionalism within the teaching force, and new supplementary instruction technologies like television pushed schools to change the way they approached staffing. These forces were compounded by a broader economic malaise that was wreaking havoc on state and district pocketbooks. (Sound familiar yet?) In this environment, schools were thirsty for ways to wring out inefficiencies while improving instruction, and reforming the single salary schedule staffing model was a potential solution to both.

Enter differentiated staffing, with its tiered labor model of teacher roles ranging from auxiliary aides to expert educators and its promise of increased cost-effectiveness of faculty dollars. Appealing to education policymakers and forward-looking school leaders, the differentiated staffing model gained momentum quickly, and federal funding shortly thereafter. Participating schools stretched from Temple City, California, to Sarasota, Florida, and though implementation varied, nearly all programs were federally-funded and featured a well-defined hierarchy of tasks that teachers could ascend through training and time.

What went wrong? Like many reform efforts, differentiated staffing fell victim to the inertia of school management and the difficult politics of reforming education. On a national level, the cultural upheaval and integration battles of the 1950s and 1960s made many both in and out of schools uninterested in further unsettling this last bastion of stability. On the school level, states and districts had little to no buy-in for differentiated staffing arrangements since the funding and momentum for the project came largely from the federal government and national education organizations. On an educator level, teachers were reluctant to abandon decades-old teaching habits in order to try and follow a complicated and highly choreographed hierarchy of staff duties and confusing new technologies. And union leaders had just successfully parlayed their recently-won right to collectively bargain into the adoption of single salary schedules, and were thus reluctant to sacrifice this victory and divide their new coalition.

Back to the present. Though a half-century divides us, today’s schools face eerily similar conditions compared to their 1960s predecessors. Public dissatisfaction with student achievement, spurred on by national media coverage, has arguably never been higher. Economic conditions have forced school districts and states make historic budget cuts, while accountability measures demand ever-higher student achievement. And new technologies have loosened our reliance on the one teacher to twenty-five student classroom.

The intervening years have also produced several advantageous changes, including the growth of charter schools and greater autonomy in some districts; an outpouring of interest in part-time or temporary school service from non-traditional sources like elite college graduates or mid-career professionals; and more familiarity among teachers with differentiated staffing-lite practices like paraprofessionals and career ladders. Of course, there are also new difficulties, including the rigidity of some performance metrics which tie individual student performance to a single classroom teacher (a poor fit for a differentiated system where multiple educators are responsible for each student’s performance), and the largely one-size-fits-all approach to teacher preparation and licensure, which assumes that all teachers need training to lead a twenty- five student class (another poor fit for a differentiated system which features a wide spectrum of tasks and demands individualized teacher training).

All in all, it appears the conditions are ripe for another try, but in order for differentiated staffing to take root this time, three key lessons from the past must be heeded. One, teacher training on technological tools and coordination between staff must be robust and frequent so that educators feel comfortable with new staffing arrangements. Two, states and districts must be primarily responsible for implementation, management, and funding, instead of relying solely on federal and philanthropic resources, so that the model is sustainable. And three, as Rick mentioned yesterday, compensation models should be sensitive to the responsibilities and effectiveness of individual educators, not only their particular credentials or time spent on the job.

While the 1960s differentiated staffing movement fueled a new era of teacher quality consciousness, it failed to ignite the transformative reforms its leaders hoped for. If this innovative design is to take hold in 21st century schools, as we propose, then we should take a good long look in the rearview mirror before setting a new course.

Olivia Meeks is a research assistant in education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and co-author of the recent report School Boards Circa 2010: Governance in the Accountability Era.

The opinions expressed in The Futures of School Reform are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.