Cut a New Deal With Teachers

October 19, 2010 •

Editor’s note: This post by Ted Kolderie appeared yesterday in the National Journal Online. Ted is a founding partner at Education|Evolving.

If ‘Michelle Rhee’ was the answer, what was the question?

Presumably: How are student interests put first; as, with the removal of ineffective teachers? Tenure and other things won by the teacher unions made it hard to put students first, so tougher management came to seem essential; has almost become the definition of ‘reform’.

OK. But lots of things are hard when you come at them the wrong way. What if ‘strengthening management’ is the wrong approach? The goal surely is: quality teachers who put students first. Might there be an easier way?

The country seems to have decided that much the unions have won is not in the student interest and not in the public interest. Their resistance on tenure, on compensation, etc. is ‘a problem’.

But problems, as someone once said, do not arise by themselves. They are the product of circumstances; can be solved only by changing the circumstances that produce them. So the important question is: “What causes teachers and their unions to behave as they do?

We need to consider that their actions over the years are a predictable and understandable response to the deal we try to have with teachers. Which is, essentially: People outside tell the schools what to teach and how to teach it . . . and hold the schools and teachers accountable for success.

A president of the National School Boards Association memorably said: “We’re the ones who run the schools”. But will boards, superintendents and state commissioners accept accountability for learning? Not likely. They’d say: We’re not the ones who teach the students.

Few reasonable people would accept accountability for what someone else controls. You probably wouldn’t. Most professionals, knowledge workers, wouldn’t. Teachers don’t.

If it is this arrangement — dividing authority and accountability — that is producing the trouble in district public education then it will only intensify the conflict to bring in leadership that asserts more strongly both its authority and its demand for accountability. Which it did in the District of Columbia. The answer is, instead, to change this ‘circumstance’ at the heart of the system.

That is: To cut a new deal with teachers in which in return for accepting accountability for student and school success they get professional authority over what matters for student and school success. This is explained and described at

There are now places where this deal is in place. It appears to work. Two teachers in such schools presented the idea in April to Secretary Arne Duncan and his top staff. It cannot be imposed, everywhere. But this model could easily be extended.

The faith in ‘tougher management’ will be hard to shake. But what if it truly is a dead end?