Two approaches to ed reform, but one may do little to reform

Two divergent approaches to education reform are operating in public education today. Both are focused on improving the effectiveness and efficiency of human capital, but while one seeks greater centralization of power the other seeks greater decentralization.

Recent tenure, evaluation, seniority and merit pay reforms are examples of state government trying to improve education by giving school boards more power and mandating that they use this power to increase teacher productivity. Teacher unions, which were created to curb the power of school boards, oppose this power transfer since it’s their power that is being redistributed to school boards.

School board members seem ambivalent about receiving more centralized management power. They like having this additional power but know teacher unions, which play a significant role in local school board races, will fight them if they use it. So board members are trapped between governors and state legislators who will expect them to use these new powers to improve teaching and learning and teacher unions who will demand board members maintain the status quo.

When faced with this dilemma in Florida, our school boards have traditionally followed the letter of the law to satisfy the state while maintaining the status quo in the districts to keep peace with their unions. I predict school boards in states such as Indiana and Ohio will do the same when implementing their states’ new tenure and merit pay laws. Even though these new state tenure and merit pay laws are intended to benefit low-income children, particularly low-income children of color, they won’t because low-income families lack the political clout to counterbalance the pressure school boards will receive from college-educated, middle-class teachers.

Parental empowerment is the other education reform approach sweeping the country. Magnet schools, homeschooling, virtual schools, dual enrollment, tax credit scholarships and charter schools, among others, are enabling more parents to customize their children’s education by matching them with the learning options that best meet their needs. This latter approach is shifting power from school boards to parents and is opposed by board members and teacher unions.

Ultimately parental empowerment will be what generates systemic and sustainable improvements in publicly-funded education. As parents demand more and better learning options for their children, teachers will have more opportunities to be innovative and entrepreneurial, thereby allowing them to be more empowered, also. Unleashing the knowledge and skills of teachers and parents is the best way for public education to maximize its human resources.

Why teacher unions oppose both teacher and parent empowerment is an interesting story I’ll address in a future post.

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BY Doug Tuthill

A lifelong educator and former teacher union president, Tuthill has been president of Step Up For Students since August 2008.