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Cross-posted from Education Week

In my last blog, I described several key features of my proposed state accountability plan for the public schools in a state.  I covered the testing regime, the data it would produce, how that data would be made public, how it would be used to identify low-performing schools, especially those serving low-income and minority students, how the state would identify the specific challenges in those schools and how the state would go about responding to those challenges in order to improve their performance, and, in particular, the performance of vulnerable groups of students.

That is all there is in most accountability plans, if there is that much, but there is more to the plan I wish to put on the table.  In fact, in some respects the most important aspect of my plan is what follows.

Those of you who have followed this series on accountability from the beginning will recall my observation that the high-performing countries are moving away from forms of accountability based on blue-collar models of work organization (which accurately describes teaching in the United States) and toward professional models of accountability.  Blue-collar models assume the work provides little in the way of intrinsic rewards and so requires the boss to provide carrots and sticks—mostly sticks— to keep the workforce on task.  The blue-collar model also unites the workers against the bosses.  Because the boss is not to be trusted in such a system, the workers prefer a system that rewards all workers equally, irrespective of contribution, rather than a system in which those who work hardest and make the greatest contribution get the greatest rewards.  The kind of accountability systems that now dominate the education scene in the United States are systems of this kind, holdovers from the day when blue-collar work and blue-collar work organization dominated the American industrial scene.

My readers will remember that I offered another model of work organization as a counterpoint, the model increasingly embraced by the top-performing countries, a professional model of work organization in which there is still some accountability to the boss, but the most important line of accountability runs to one’s fellow professionals, one’s colleagues.  In this system (think here about a large law firm, for example), there is a clearly defined progression of status, compensation, responsibility, authority and accountability as one works one’s way up the professional ladder (in the law firm from associate to partner to managing partner).  Because the professionals work closely together, they are in a good position to judge each other’s contribution.  Because the compensation and even livelihood of each depends on the contribution of all, the professionals work hard to help each other develop, but, when that does not work, they work equally hard to show the deficient colleague the door.  That’s accountability…of the professional kind.  So, therefore, I offer the following:

All districts in the state would be required to implement a multi-step career ladder system culminating in the position of master teacher and another multi-step career ladder culminating in the position of master principal.  Each step up the ladder would come with considerable additional compensation, responsibility and autonomy.  The designations of “master teacher” and “master principal” would have the meanings determined by the state and would refer to people who had won those titles on the basis of meeting known and demanding criteria for each step on the ladder.

Not less than a quarter of the time during which a teacher is expected to be available for work at the school would be spent with other teachers, not with students, engaged in the collaborative development of more effective curriculum, instructional methods and lessons.  Time would be available for teachers to meet weekly by grade and by subject for this purpose and to collaborate with one another on the analysis of the challenges faced by individual students, with a view to combining their individual perspectives to come up with plans for those students that will enable them to achieve demanding standards.  All teachers except the master teachers will have mentor teachers who will be responsible for coaching them to higher levels of expertise.  All teachers at the upper levels of the career ladder will be responsible for leading the curriculum and instruction improvement work and for providing extensive mentoring to new teachers.  They will also be responsible for working with the principal to determine which candidate teachers will be recommended for tenure, which serving teachers will be recommended for special assistance, and which teachers previously recommended for special assistance will be recommended for counseling out of the profession.

In this system, teachers would not be able to move up either the teacher or administrator career ladder unless they had offered their services to the district or state to serve in a low-performing school, probably in an inner-city or rural setting, for some years earlier in their career.  This requirement would both provide a steady supply of capable people willing to serve in schools serving a disproportionate number of hard-to-educate students and would provide these exceptional educators an experience that would serve them well later in their careers.

In schools in which a system of this sort has taken hold, one can feel the sense of ownership of the school by the faculty.  Morale is high and so is commitment.  Teachers do not ask for extra pay to stay after school to do what needs to be done.  They do not look askance at the teacher who goes the extra mile.  Extra effort, both in teaching and in learning one’s trade, pay off in such a system, in increased status in the community, increased admiration from one’s colleagues, higher compensation and more professional autonomy.

Most important for the topic of this blog, teachers in such organizations are accountable to each other for the quality of their work and there is no place to hide.  Everyone knows who the top contributors are and who is not pulling their weight.  Teachers get ahead not because they curried favor with the principal, but because they are very good at what they do.  That is what a good accountability system should do.