Student Well-Being Commentary

Educational Free Agency

By Henry F. Cotton — March 24, 1999 6 min read
The consistent failure of attempts at “reorganizing” by educators has resulted in school boards in both large and small systems across the nation beginning to look outside the profession for leadership.

We trained hard . . . but every time we were beginning to form up into teams, we would be reorganized. I was to learn later in life that we try to meet any new situation by reorganizing...and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing inefficiency and demoralization.
--Petronius, A.D. 66

Absent the author and the date, it would be easy to read the above quotation from the Roman satirist Petronius as a commentary on the past half-century of American public education. Team teaching, block scheduling, modular scheduling, site-based management, cooperative learning, year-round schooling, smaller classes, schools-within-a-school, “classrooms without walls,” authentic assessment, state standards, no standards, and a plethora of other reforms promoted by the field’s alphabet organizations have all managed to create the “illusion of progress” at one time or another. The consistent failure of these attempts at “reorganizing” by educators has resulted in school boards in both large and small systems across the nation beginning to look outside the profession for leadership. Prosecutors, generals, business managers, and academics are now being selected to run districts on the misguided assumption that it is the person occupying the superintendent’s chair that can bring about better educational results.

Here is where a lesson from professional sports can be enlightening.

For years, the accepted wisdom in sports was that if your team was not winning, the solution was to go out and get a new manager or coach. What was assumed to be needed was a new leadership style, one that could reorganize the talent available and get better results. Managers and coaches played the same game of musical chairs that superintendents are now experiencing. If baseball’s Sparky Anderson was a winner in Cincinnati, surely he would bring a winner to Detroit. If Barry Switzer was a football wonder at the University of Oklahoma, of course he could bring discipline to the Dallas Cowboys. The results were generally no better in sports than they have been in education when Dr. Do-it-all has been brought in from Anytown.

The major difference is that professional sports finally got the message. Education badly needs to get it, too. Simply put, the message is that players make the difference. In sports, it’s the quality of athlete teams can put on the field. In education, it’s the quality of teacher schools put in the classroom. The philosopher William James said it best: “Teaching is the insertion of an inventive mind between a fact and a pupil.”

We are all familiar with the problems facing a school system that would like to improve the quality of its teaching staff--for example, tenure laws, protective unions, single-salary schedules, lack of incentives for the best and the brightest to enter the profession. Here, too, we can learn a lesson from professional sports. Unions that protect the rights of athletes can and do coexist with free agency. Contracts that provide minimum salaries and maximum protection can and are negotiated by players’ unions without separating compensation from performance.

History provides another lesson. Education is perhaps the only profession, absent those in the former Communist world, that has tried to succeed while totally delinking reward from performance. The result is a system that undermines the work ethic and destroys productivity. Only the altruism of the best teachers prevents the public school system from collapsing as the Communist world ultimately did.

If the public school system is to survive, new forms, not reforms, are required.

It is highly unlikely that the salaries of individual teachers would ever reach the heights of America’s sports heroes without a sea change in the country’s value system. But I have known many teachers who would revel in the opportunity, if only just once, to walk into the superintendent’s office and say, “I have had a terrific year and, based on my performance, I want a substantial increase in salary.”

In my 30 years in the profession, I have never met a school board member who did not express a willingness to pay good teachers more money. Handicapped by contracts that require the mediocre to be paid the same as the best, they have never been able to exercise that will.

If the public school system is to survive, new forms, not reforms, are required. Threatened by the growth of charter schools, the potential of vouchers, and a rapidly diminishing confidence among its parent constituency, public education must make some fundamental changes.

First, it should no longer be acceptable that a superintendent and the coterie of assistant superintendents and specialists that make up his or her personal court are the highest-paid employees of a district. No one doubts that budgets must be developed, buses must run on time, and someone has to attend Rotary Club meetings, but education does not take place in the superintendent’s office. Hiring yet another superintendent with a large salary, whether that person is a lawyer, a general, or an educator, has not had and will not have any direct, fundamental effect on the quality of education taking place in the classroom.

Next, a new system must be put in place for rewarding the best among our present and future teaching force. Education takes place in the classroom, and when it does not take place, the reason can be found in the same location. When all a person needs do to increase next year’s salary is grow a year older or survive one or more education courses, there is scant incentive to be better.

The complaint about who will evaluate teachers and how it will be done is begged every time one spends more than a day in a school. Yet students know who the best teachers are. Parents know, too. Even the teachers know who the best teachers are. It’s only the teachers’ organization that apparently is not privy to this information.

I suggest that the teacher be his or her own salary negotiator and be allowed to accept or reject an offer, as is the case in the sports world. Unions and boards could set minimums and maximums, but every teacher would be able to negotiate within that range. A look at the sports environment shows clearly that when the best have been rewarded better, all the players have ultimately done better. The young talented teacher will be able to be rewarded right away, the best of the experienced will benefit commensurably, and the mediocre will be driven out by the talented who will have incentive to enter the profession. The game will have changed and so will the results.

This is not all that needs doing if the public school system is to survive, but it would be progress, not the “illusion of progress.” And it would go a long way toward abating the “demoralization and inefficiency” that are destroying the system as it presently exists.

Henry F. Cotton is a retired school administrator whose work in schools in Massachusetts, Vermont, New York, and Colorado has been featured in several books on school leadership. He is now an educational consultant.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 24, 1999 edition of Education Week as Educational Free Agency


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