After two decades of education reform efforts, it’s useful to have an outsider’s perspective — particularly when that outsider has had as wide-ranging a career as international education expert Sir Michael Barber.
The protean Brit has been a teacher. He’s worked for the National Union of Teachers, the largest teachers’ union in Europe. He has been a university professor. He directed former Labor Prime Minister Tony Blair’s policy-implementation effort. As former head of McKinsey & Company’s global education practice and now as chief education strategist for Pearson, a large educational services company, he has consulted in dozens of countries.
His nutshell assessment of education in Massachusetts: Our system has made impressive progress in the last 20 years and is high-performing compared to other states and most countries — but that doesn’t mean Bay State schools are up to the challenges of the 21st century.
Barber has been working for months assessing education here for the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, which played a key role in the landmark 1993 education reform law. He and co-author Simon Day prepared their report in their roles with Brightlines, a new partnership of global education experts.
They envision a system where initiative, authority, and accountability are pushed down to the school level; where there are more charters; where district schools have far more freedom and flexibility, as in innovation and turnaround schools; where technology helps stretch resources and learning time, letting students do more on their own, with teachers sometimes acting more as coaches than classroom leaders; and where standards for teacher education and licensure are higher and more attention is paid to professional development.
Parts of that will no doubt set off alarms with some traditional school teachers. Still, Barber thinks other aspects would be appealing, particularly for younger teachers. Pay would be benchmarked to comparable professions. More dollars would be directed to the school level. Career progression would be based on ability, with opportunities for teachers to achieve master and advanced status. There would be more partnerships between schools and more opportunities for a teacher’s extra contributions to be rewarded. More attention would be paid to hiring high-quality principals.
“We think it is a really positive agenda for teachers,” he told me in a sit-down last week. “But it would need some significant political boldness and it would need some leadership on the teachers’ side [to say] ‘Actually, that could be a whole lot better for us.’”
One question quickly occurs: How to get from here to there? Currently, the traditional schools are governed by detailed contracts that often make significant change difficult. Those contracts will be a barrier, Barber concedes, “and the idea that you can renegotiate them district by district seems improbable.”
He and Day, who worked with Barber in Blair’s Delivery Unit, propose several possible ways forward. One is a state-set “thin” teachers contract, which would establish the basic parameters of the job, but leave much more freedom for individual schools.
Call me a skeptic there. In 2010, Massachusetts policymakers agreed that if a school qualifies as chronically underperforming, the need for improvement overrides the claims of the district contract. As time goes on, the point where change trumps contracts may come to encompass schools that are merely mediocre. But this idea has limits: It’s hard to imagine political leaders rewriting existing contracts for good schools. That wouldn’t be equitable for teachers; out of fairness, you’d need their unions’ agreement to go that route — and that, frankly, seems unlikely.
Another possibility is a contest among districts to design more effective schools and governance. One could imagine the thin-contract concept gaining acceptance as part of a Race to the Top-type program that offered increased funding to districts that embraced flexibility. Some might well opt in — and if the new model worked, change could become contagious.
At this point, these are all just ideas, not concrete legislative proposals.
The Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education is out talking to different stakeholders, hoping that people will be willing to engage in a discussion about these ideas instead of retreating to their individual corners.
And are they?
“People are at least interested in having the conversation,” reports alliance executive director Linda Noonan.
Let’s hope that conversation continues. It’s one this state needs to have as we look to the future.