Fourteen years ago, after discussions he had at a dinner party, Chris Whittle came up with the concept of the Edison Schools, currently the nation’s largest for-profit public school management company in the United States.
The entrepreneur recently turned his attention to improving public schools, producing a 260 page text entitled: Crash Course: Imagining a Better Future for Public Education. Critics of the Edison school movement will be surprised by Whittle’s thoughts regarding the overhaul of public education in this country. Even he notes that his changes will shock the local and state educational unions along with local and state politicians.
The primary change that Whittle proposes is what is paid educational professionals. He would start with the principals, creating incentive-based contracts that mirror those of the business sector. Using a similar concept employed in the Edison school movement, Whittle suggests it is time to dramatically increase the base pay of school leaders and add to the mix the potential for bonuses for those principals able to increase student achievement in their schools. The author suggests moving the pay of school leaders to $120,000 yearly and put on top of that the potential for an additional $80,000 per year, with such pay based solely on student performance and achievement measures.
Whittle’s focus here is simple. The Edison school leader contends that if the current pay structure holds, only those educators willing to make a dramatic economic sacrifice will be poised to become school leaders. Whittle notes that the educational world is fortunate to find as many quality principals as it does, but now is the time to eliminate the shortage of quality applicants for what he feels is the most important job in public education.
Second, the drastic administrative turnover currently facing the profession would be reduced by such a pay structure. As Whittle notes, it literally takes years to build a great school culture. Therefore the current turnover rate has enormous debilitating effects on schools. According to Whittle, the increase in base principal pay combined with incentives for continued quality work will lead administrative turnover to decline significantly.
The Edison school chief has a similar view when it comes to teachers, at least in regards to pay in general. Says Whittle, “If we want a certain level of talent in our classrooms, we must pay for it.”
The author states it is time to at least double, if not triple teacher salaries. Good teaching is as important to society as good lawyering or good health care, notes Whipple, so it is time to reward teachers accordingly.
His suggestion is to start teachers at the US average of about $46,000 year but to also be willing to pay the best in the profession $130,000 or more. Doing so would eliminate a current drag on the profession, whereby education currently attracts a significant number of teachers who truly care about children but is often unable to attract those who have numerous job options.
In addition, Whittle notes it is time to eliminate compensation based on seniority and pay educators based on performance and responsibility. Says Whittle, the concept that everyone should be paid the same amount based on years of experience is perhaps the single greatest indication of the backwardness of the field, completely undermining the notion of being a “profession.”
In discussing the payment notion further, Whittle uses several analogies. He talks of the University concept of full professorship, something obtained only through hard work and after much effort. He talks about lawyers who pass a bar exam but then have to work very hard for a number of years to become a partner in a prestigious firm. He also discusses medicine, where it can take six or even eight years after college before a person can practice independently.
Ultimately, the payment guidelines must be based on the fundamental premise of the purpose of school. As with principals, such classification should be based solely on student achievement.
In his text, Whipple also describes new school formats, innovative ideas about educating children that would turn the current school structure on its ear. He even has innovative ways to maintain the current costs of education even as he makes his case for more money for educator salaries.
But the fundamental notion of the book is that it is high time to make the business of education a true profession and to do so, educators must be paid salaries comparable to that of other professions.