How Teachers Can Benefit From School Choice
by Robert Holland
Rarely does discussion of the prospect for increased educational freedom in the United States extend to the classroom teacher, the person whose work is so crucial to academic progress.
That's too bad. The views of teachers should be heard. Here are the thoughts of some from around the nation who were recently asked to comment on the value or potential value of school choice for teachers. (Teachers.net was among the communications media that graciously allowed the writer to ask the teachers to volunteer their viewpoints.)
Camille Farrington is in her second year of teaching at the Young Women's Leadership Charter School (YWLCS) in the inner city of Chicago. Prior to that, she taught for eight years in regular government schools of Oakland, California, and Madison, Wisconsin. YWLCS -- specializing in mathematics, science, and technology -- is one of only four public all-girls schools in the USA.
Ms. Farrington said she likes the fact that her public school of choice has a clearly stated mission and vision, and teachers as well as families are there because they bought into that design.
"The thing I love," she said, "is that if you have an idea, and it's sound pedagogically and you can argue it persuasively, there's nothing standing between you and carrying it out. The administration and the board of directors are really supportive of teachers."
Illinois law is flexible enough to allow for diversity of background among charter-school teachers. Teachers must have a college degree and either three years' teaching or three years' work experience in the content field. That aids in recruiting math and science specialists, who are in short supply in government schools.
Joyce Clayton, a 10-year teaching veteran with a degree in the social sciences, currently teaches at Lakeland, Florida's McKeel Academy of Technology, which converted to charter status in 1998.
"I feel that I have more freedom, not only in the classroom, but in how the administration schedules classes," she said. "We are able to manipulate the schedule to accommodate the students' needs because we control our funding for teachers. We are also able to limit our class sizes, which creates a more conducive learning environment and gives teachers the opportunity to teach outside the box -- different from traditional teaching methods."
"Both the mission and vision statement were created by the entire faculty. The process made us look at what we want our graduates to ‘look like' -- what skills we want them to possess, abilities they need to succeed, and knowledge they will need to be competitive beyond high school."
McKeel has a performance-based system of pay, pegged in part to 90 percent of students increasing their achievement at least one level on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT).
Ms. Clayton said she plans to continue to teach in a school of choice. "I have visited traditionally funded and taught schools, as well as having taught in them, and I know that teachers have a lot more input into how a charter is run and have more money for technology and classroom materials. In short, charter schools are what is best for students."
Roberta Williams teaches third grade in Corry, Pennsylvania, a rural community in the northwestern part of the state. She has been teaching full-time for 16 years and has taught kindergarten, first grade, a multiage class, and language arts prior to her current assignment.
Asked about the idea of teachers having expanded choices among public charter schools or private options, she replied:
"I am in favor of these opportunities. Teachers bring an enormous array of talents, teaching styles, philosophies, personalities, etc. However, many of us feel as though we are being called to ‘standardize' everything. Making us all uniform squelches our creativity and all that we bring as individuals to the classroom.
"As a parent of five children, one foster child, and four stepchildren, I am very aware that our present education system does not answer the need of all children and in fact does more harm than good to some."
To be sure, the idea of schools being part of a competitive market is anathema to many in public education. Janet Holbrook, a first-grade teacher who has taught for 16 years in Northern California, was concerned about use of the word competitive by the researcher who contacted her.
"Competitive implies that there are winners and losers (as in sports) or superior and inferior (as in business). Competitive works well in sports and business because the inferior usually drop out. In our society today, there is no room for students who have not been successful in school. There was a time in our country when students who didn't achieve at school dropped out. It was a solution. They worked on a farm or did manual labor and were able to support themselves and their families. This is no longer true. We don't have jobs like these in our country any more. All students must be educated so that they have choices among the jobs that are available. I worry when I hear about competitive schools. There is no room in our society for superior and inferior schools. All children deserve a superior school.
"There are also those who seem to think that a competitive school system will inspire school employees to work harder and do better. I've yet to encounter a system that isn't already trying to do their best. I doubt that competition will inspire them to do more."
Anne Furman, an elementary teacher in Ithaca, New York, with 28 years' teaching experience, believes choice can work but only if efforts are made to prevent inertia from moving the benefits away from poor families and back toward the relatively well-to-do.
"Strong, competent teachers can easily transfer out of a school and into a school of their choice," she observed. "Less competent teachers are left behind. In one school, a series of very able teachers, after 10 or more years teaching in a high-risk school, transferred to a school serving upper-middle-class students.
"Over time alternatives to the existing school institutions are not supported by the school district.
"I feel that school choice can work, but school systems as a whole are conservative institutions. They will move to recreate the status quo. Great effort is required to resist movement to the existing system. Schools will return to serving the middle class at the expense of the poor."
As evidence, she cites experience in Ithaca, where public school choice was instituted three decades ago. Parents could enroll their child in any school where there was a vacancy after neighborhood children had been accommodated. However, over time the district ceased to provide free transportation, which was essential to many low-income families. And it closed several schools. These actions limited the range of choice available within the public system.
Don Verkow is an assistant principal at Paramount Charter Academy (an affiliate of National Heritage Academies) in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Before joining the front office, he had taught three years at Paramount. Education is a second career for Verkow, who spent 28 years in the private sector, mainly in supervisory positions in manufacturing. His wife Katie has taught in public charter schools and currently teaches in a parochial school.
"From our perspective, we have met a large number of teachers who have opted out of traditional public education to start over in a new setting," said Verkow. "The main goal of these individuals was to be able to teach in an environment that supports the teacher's right to teach. In our own organization are a number of previously retired teachers and administrators who have enlisted in the cause of education reform. These folks are excited about working among educators who are more concerned with responsibly educating children than about adding to their retirement benefits; more enthusiastic about instructional innovation than union PAC rallies.
"Understand that while some charter school and private school teachers only accept a position as a temporary teaching job, many -- if not most -- are truly trying to make a difference. These professionals also accept that the pay is, of necessity, lower, and will probably always be so.
"The economic benefit will be to society in general, in terms of a better-prepared work force coming from choice schools. Those who choose to teach in choice schools will never be paid on the same level as union teachers. Educating and adequately preparing children as lifelong learners (not the accumulation of wealth and benefits) is the overriding concern in the choice teaching community."
Most teachers who were surveyed echoed Verlow in a belief that greater job satisfaction rather than higher compensation would be the prime benefit choice would bring to teachers. However, Harvard economist Caroline Minter Hoxby believes that school choice could make teaching a more financially attractive career as well, because teachers would be rewarded not just on seniority but according to their talents and their ability to produce results.
In the current system, teacher unions standardize wages so that teachers with the same length of service and same degrees typically receive the same salaries no matter whether they are excellent, mediocre, or poor teachers. This is one reason teaching is not as attractive to persons of high aptitude, strong work habits, and math-science skills, says Hoxby. In particular, bright women with high aptitude have chosen management, law, and medicine over education because those professions do reward individuals according to their performance and abilities.
To test her theory that choice would make teaching more of a profession attracting the best and brightest, Hoxby looked at hiring practices in charter schools as well as localities where considerable choice existed among public schools via choice of residence. (The latter is called Tiebout choice, in recognition of economist Charles Tiebout, who called attention to its importance.) Where parents could choose charter schools, Hoxby compared teachers in the charters with those in private and regular public schools in the same regions.
Basically what she found was that schools that face tougher competition for students face a demand to hire teachers who have graduated from colleges that are selective in admissions. The need of charter and private schools to attract students in order to receive their funding seemingly drives their hiring of higher-aptitude teachers. Only 20 percent of regular public-school teachers attended competitive or selective colleges, contrasted with 36 percent of charter-school teachers and also 36 percent of private-school teachers.
In addition, in areas where there was maximum Tiebout choice, a teacher was 15 percent more likely to have majored in math and science. A teacher in an area with a high level of private-school choice was 10 percent more likely to have majored in math or science. Furthermore, teachers who majored in math or science earned 16 percent more if they worked in areas with high degrees of school choice than they would have if they'd worked in communities with low levels of choice.
Schools that faced strong competition for students also were far more likely than regular public schools to hire teachers who had majored in an academic discipline, as opposed to professional education. In charter schools, 56 percent of teachers had majored in a field of the arts and sciences, compared with 37 percent of public-school teachers.
"Broadly speaking," Hoxby recently wrote in a Hoover Institution paper, "my findings suggest that enhanced competition and choice raise the demand for high aptitude, skills in math and science, subject-area expertise, effort, and perhaps independence among teachers. Choice also seems to lower schools' demand for certification and master's degrees. These findings further suggest that school choice has the potential to create a professional environment for teachers in which more motivated and skilled teachers earn higher pay for such qualities…."
In summary, the evidence suggests choice could benefit teachers and school patrons alike. Choice would attract motivated and broadly educated people into the teaching profession. Teachers would be much freer to practice their art, and students would reap the benefits of being taught by people who were in the classrooms because they had chosen to be there.
(Note: This article is adapted with permission from a paper originally prepared for the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation. Robert Holland is a Senior Fellow with the Lexington Institute, a public-policy think tank in Arlington, Va. He is writing a book, "To Build a Better Teacher," tentatively scheduled for release in 2003 by Bergin & Garvey, an imprint of the Greenwood Publishing Group.)