In reform, ownership matters

RedefinED editor Adam Emerson’s blog entry on Tuesday about the importance of teacher ownership reminded me of an experience that has informed my approach to improving education for the last three decades.

In 1983, I moved back to St. Petersburg, Fla., to help start an International Baccalaureate (IB) program at St. Petersburg High School (SPHS). I bought a small house in a transitional neighborhood near downtown and began meeting my new neighbors. After a few months I noticed a pattern. About half my neighbors owned their homes. The other half was mostly renters. When I took friends through the neighborhood they could accurately identify which homes were occupied by renters and owners. It was obvious because the owners, with few exceptions, did a better job taking care of their property.

I observed a similar pattern when I walked the halls of SPHS and met my new colleagues. The faculty was comprised of “owners” and “renters.” The owners were hard working, conscientious, and passionate about teaching, while the renters were just going through the motions. Most teachers go into education with a sense of ownership and passion about teaching, but large school districts often crush this passion and turn many teachers into renters. At SPHS, the renters included younger teachers who wanted to leave but couldn’t find another job as well as burned-out veterans who were not yet eligible for retirement benefits and were running out the clock.

I decided public education needed to be transformed so that more teachers and students owned their work. I also concluded that how a reform is implemented is as important as the initiative itself. A brilliantly designed merit-pay plan, for instance, will fail if teachers don’t own it.

Failure to understand the power of ownership has undermined many of the education improvements I’ve worked on over the last 33 years, and education reformers today continue to repeat this mistake. Too often we erroneously assume that getting input from a small group of teachers or inserting a provision in a collective bargaining agreement means we’ve got teacher buy-in.

I support well-regulated school choice programs because they tend to foster greater teacher, student and parent empowerment and ownership. Empowerment and ownership are not panaceas, but sustainable improvements in teaching and learning are impossible without them.

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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.