Friday, April 25, 2008

The Teacher Led School--The Law Firm Model

I find myself caught up in this subject and to a certain extent riffing off the writing of Marc Dean Millot.

My last post on this subject toward the end discussed a comment on one of Millot's posts dealing with how a teacher led school would look and to a certain extent operate. The commenter thought that a teacher led school, managed by "professional teachers" educated, trained, licensed and regulated like a legally recognized profession such as law or medicine, would look either like an in-house legal department at a corporation or like a private law firm.

The comment immediately got me thinking about a trend in law firm management of hiring a non-lawyer manager answering to a committee of partners rather than the traditional model of a "managing partner." The reasons for the trend include ideas that managing a large entity takes specialized skills, skills that a law firm partner may not have. But running a law firm is a business that does not necessarily require a law degree or actually practicing law, thus a move toward professional managers.

But the idea of a school managed by a committee of teachers with a "director of operations" in intriguing. Having spent some time examining this idea in the context of a law firm, here is what such a school would look like and operate--and it can be done without a full-blown move to a full professional standing for teachers--but it could help the move in that direction.

For those unfamiliar with law firm structures, in general, over a certain size, most firms look and operate pretty much alike. The culture may be different but it works pretty much the same. At the top are the senior partners. These individuals have years, even decades of experience both as practitioners and as "draws" for clients. Next step down are junior partners/senior associates. The different between the two is largely based upon their compensation, partners get a share of the firms profits, senior associates get a salary. But functionally, they operate as the front line, day to day lawyers in the firm, generating a lot of billing, business and work product for the firm. At the bottom are junior associates, usually within 3-4 years of graduating law school. Their job, in addition to doing a lot of the grunt work of lawyering, the research, drafting, calendaring and general scut work that has to be done by lawyers, is to learn the legal trade, usually under the guidance of everyone above them. Finally a law firm has non-lawyer staff, paralegals, secretaries, IT staff, accounting, HR, etc. These non-lawyer professionals run the day to day affairs of a firm in order to allow the lawyers to lawyer.

A teacher run school, in this model would have a similar breakdown.

The method by which this could be accomplished is by using a state's charter law. A group of teachers could apply for a charter with a school along a law firm model. In the model, there would be senior teachers on a managing committee, say 8-12 in total. Each of these senior teachers would have three roles, not unlike senior partners. First would be management of the school. Whether this is delegated to a staff person or handled by committee, they would be ultimately responsible for the schools bottom line--fiscally and educationally. While there may be other senior teachers at the school, this small committee is responsible, just like the management committee of a law firm, for the overall success of the school.

Second each managing teacher would probably be a "department head" responsible for a discreet area of the school's mission. Be that math, science, history, English, Literature, what have you. Most law firms have lawyers who head a "practice group" a groups of lawyers practicing in the same general field. There is often overlap in the membership of these groups, just like having a teacher who teaches both Physics and calculus. Ultimately, these practice group heads are responsible for the success of the practice groups, accountable to the management committee.

Third, each senior teacher is a classroom teacher. Most senior partners at a law firm are among the most successful lawyers in the firm in terms legal experience and at bringing in business. To attract students, these senior teachers need to be the "rainmakers," enticing parents and students with their skill in the classroom and their ability to deliver. They would have the autonomy, judgment and ability to get students to perform to teh best of their ability and to develop other teachers to do the same.

Skilled senior lawyers also know that their success depends on the quality of junior lawyers (the associates) in their firm. Senior teacher will also have to collectively ensure that their junior teachers receive the additional training, practice, supervision and development to continue to build on the school's success. As such, a senior teacher may not spend their entire day as the front line classroom teacher, this would be left to the mid level teachers who would carry the brunt of the teaching duties, so that senior teachers are working to develop the junior teachers as professionals.

At an operations level, I would envision say 20 or so well-known, well-respected teachers in an area banding together to build such a school. They would have some "name draw" and also understand the mechanics of developing curricula, programs and other needs of the school. They would identify/recruit mid-level teachers for day to day teaching and start recruiting junior teachers to flesh out the school's teaching staff. As a charter school, they have a stake in the schools's success, which while not financial, is predicated upon the school's ability to teach successfully.

Finally, as in a lawyerly model, the teachers at this school would develop a code of professional conduct by which to evaluate the reasonableness of their own and their colleagues work. More on that in a different post.

1 comment:

Dan Callahan said...

Just wanted to let you know that your post is by far my favorite of this week's Carnival. It's an interesting twist on the idea of a teacher-run charter.