The professional-partnership model is a conceivable model, for organizing school and teaching

Memo • January 2005

In our time of rapid technological change it is really no longer possible to project the future from the past. As late as the 1980s the future of communications still looked like the telephone, evolving into fax and perhaps into picturephone. Then came the Internet, the Web and email.

In thinking about education, too, it is well to consider that things might not always be the way they have always been. In some respects the practices that have survived the longest, that we most take for granted, might be the next to change. And might need to be the next to change.

In thinking about teachers and teaching, for example, it might be well to be cautious about assuming the traditional role of teacher-as-employee. Forever, true, the teacher has been an employee. In private education as in public education, the rule was absolute: If you wanted to be a teacher you had to be an employee. You could not have the choice that other professionals have; to be employed or to work for yourself, alone or with others in some kind of partnership. You had to be an employee.

Early signs now suggest this might be changing. Teachers across the country are experimenting now with what we recognize in other fields as essentially professional partnerships. We can see enough already to know that this is clearly a conceivable way to organize the work-life of teachers; to organize school.

Indeed, the professional partnership arrangement seems to have the potential to deal usefully with some of the problems in public education that have proved most resistant to the efforts of management in the employer/employee, boss/worker model of traditional K-12.

The dominant notion in this country at the moment is that improving teaching is something the boss does. Principals, superintendents, commissioners and governors struggle endlessly to find some way to “make” teachers be-better and do-better; over and over trying new programs of ‘professional development’ or ‘pay-for-performance’.

The limited success of these efforts at improvement-through-management does suggest that some other approach might usefully be tried. We might at long last try approaching teachers as professionals; telling them what we want and leaving it to them, organized in collegial groups and made responsible for performance, to figure out how the job can best be done.

The cooperatives and other teacher practices appearing now in California, Minnesota, and Milwaukee and—in budding form—elsewhere in the country are at this stage a small beginning. But the significance of an innovation is not best measured by the size at which it first appears. Or by the auspices under which it first appears.

It is clearly conceivable for teachers like other professionals to work with partners in groups they collectively own; serving a client in an arrangement that gives them both the autonomy we associate with professionalism and the accountability we expect from professionals. The potential implications for public education were explained in Teachers as Owners, a book edited in 2003 by Edward J. Dirkswager for Education|Evolving and published by Scarecrow Press (available at and Rowman Education).

The potential was underscored by the finding from Public Agenda’s survey of teachers in 2003. The question to a national sample of teachers was: “How interested would you be in working in a charter school run and managed by teachers?” The question asked respondents to affirm an interest in coming into the charter sector in order to express their interest in teacher professional practice. Still, the interest is startling to most people: 58 percent of teachers said they would be somewhat or very interested; 65 percent of the under-five-year teachers and 50 percent of the over-20-year teachers.

The idea is gaining recognition. Both the Minnesota model (in 2005) and the Milwaukee variation (in 2006) have made the “final 50” in the Innovations in American Government Competition run annually by the Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.

But the old conceptions hang on; have a powerful hold on people. All the discussion about teachers and teaching still assumes the employee model. And research has been slow to pick up even on what is beginning to happen. As John Witte of the University of Wisconsin has pointed out, research searches for ‘central tendencies’; wants to generalize. It looks for ‘most’ and ‘on the whole’ and ‘overall’. It pays less attention to individual, particular developments that turn out to be the really significant innovations.

This is a serious error, both for policymaking and for research.

From what we know so far it does appear that, where teachers work in collegial groups, their attitudes and behaviors differ remarkably from those we see in conventional school settings. The same seems true of student attitudes and behaviors. (For a sense of this, see the remarks by the lead teachers in two such partnerships, made to Teach for America and Progressive Policy Institute audiences in Washington D.C. in November 2003: “Teacher professional partnerships: A different way to help teachers and teaching“.

Better teacher and student attitudes and behaviors are not in and of themselves ‘better learning’. But if you are looking to grow bananas it makes basic sense to plant where there is fertile soil and a lot of rain. ‘Conditions’ matter.

And there are new opportunities now to try new arrangements.

In a number of major cities the leadership responsible for K-12 education—often, now, the mayor—is interested in starting schools new: high schools, especially. In starting new, outside the old organizational framework, it is possible to try new and different arrangements. So, not surprisingly, leadership in New York City, Chicago and elsewhere has been interested in the idea of teacher partnerships; in which the teacher-group gets the authority to organize and run the school and accepts responsibility for fiscal and student performance.

One of the most intriguing developments is the decision by some teacher union locals—most conspicuously in New York—to start new schools themselves. It is open for these to be organized as partnerships.

It is clear that the model will change, will be adapted, as it moves from one organizational and political setting to another. This happened as the initial model, organized by the EdVisions Cooperative, moved from Minnesota to Milwaukee. Almost certainly it will happen again.

This report describes the ways the early efforts at a professional model do vary. Some are formal; by which we mean organized under state law as a partnership, cooperative, limited-liability corporation, etc. Some are informal; some of these intending at some point to formalize their status and some not.

Variations in the organizational form are both predictable and appropriate. There is room for options building off the central idea, which is to give an organizational reality to the impulse everywhere to get teachers to feel and to work collegially and collaboratively . . . to move from the old culture of ‘my classroom’ to the new collegial culture of ‘my school’. This probably is more successfully accomplished through professionalism than through management.

To read more about the efforts to set up the teacher-partnership or teacher-cooperative arrangements, see E|E’s report “Teachers in professional practice: An inventory of new opportunities for teachers.”