The Entrepreneurial Educator
By Luci Stephens A commentary by Tennessee Center for Policy Research Education Policy Fellow Luci Stephens in the September issue of BusinessTN magazine introduces an innovative idea for improving schools by turning educators into entrepreneurs. If the scores of Tennessee’s students on recent nationwide tests are any indication, the future of Tennessee’s workforce is bleak. Only one in four Tennessee eighth graders scored at or above proficiency on the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Math scores were even worse. Many of these eighth graders likely will not even get a diploma—Tennessee’s high school graduation rate is a shameful 62 percent. These alarming facts have inspired state and local lawmakers to pump billions of taxpayers’ dollars into Tennessee’s public schools. Since 1999, Tennessee’s K-12 education spending has increased by a third—from $4.3 billion to $5.7 billion. Despite this $1.4 billion increase in yearly education cost to taxpayers, eighth graders have not made any reading gains on NAEP exams, and the state’s overall NAEP scores are still well below the national average. Worse, Tennessee’s graduation rate has actually decreased. If tax dollars are not a panacea for Tennessee’s education woes, where can the state turn to ensure quality instruction for the workforce of tomorrow? The answer may lie in taking a signal from the business community and allowing teachers to become entrepreneurs. The idea is not as radical as it may seem. In Athens, teachers, including Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle peddled their services to potential students. This system helped produce one of the most literate, sophisticated societies in history. In the early United States, families and towns contracted with entrepreneurial teachers to educate their children. Long before the creation of public education, these arrangements helped produce literacy rates above 80 percent. In Minnesota, a group of teachers are taking their cue from history—and from the business community. Fed up with the status quo, these teachers sought a better way to deliver education. Rather than being employees of their local school district, they formed a cooperative and sold their services to a charter school. The charter school saw its enrollment double after contracting with these enterprising teachers. Bill Gates was so impressed that his foundation donated more than $9 million to start other cooperatives in the region. The cooperative has been so successful that it now provides its services to 2,500 students in more than 30 schools in urban, suburban and rural neighborhoods in Wisconsin and Minnesota. The first charter school with which the cooperative contracted boasts ACT scores higher than the national average and a 90% satisfaction rate among its students and their parents. These Minnesota teachers enjoy freedom from district rules regarding pay and certification. This liberation from bureaucratic regulations has some exciting implications. Since participating teachers are paid by the cooperative and not the local school district, cooperatives can choose to pay their teachers based on performance rather than seniority. Such monetary recognition incentivizes the best teachers to continue educating students, rather than leaving the teaching profession in search of higher pay. Freeing teachers from certification requirements also allows individuals to seek advanced degrees and keep jobs in industry while teaching part-time. The result is teachers who bring invaluable real-world knowledge to the classroom. Some analysts even foresee the day when cooperatives will pay more for teachers with advanced degrees in their field of instruction than universities pay their adjunct faculty. As states struggle to help their students meet the No Child Left Behind standards in math and science, they must recruit practicing mathematicians and scientists into education. By contracting with cooperatives, Tennessee can attract a pool of highly qualified individuals who would otherwise not be available or eligible to teach. One of the most exciting prospects of teacher cooperatives is that they may lead to teachers owning their own schools or teaching practices, just as doctors and lawyers often start and own practices. Not only would this help professionalize teachers, but, more importantly, teacher-owned practices would give teachers a vested interest in seeing that their students succeed. Because the viability of their practices will be dependent on the satisfaction of their clients—students and parents—teacher-owners would have monetary incentives to see that their students attain the best possible education. This is in stark contrast to the current system in which teachers are often promoted regardless of their students’ level of achievement. Entrepreneurial teachers could be an important key to the future of Tennessee’s children, and the business community must foster these fledgling teacher practices in order to insure their success. By sharing their knowledge of successfully managing enterprises, state business leaders can become a valuable resource for entrepreneurial teachers. In turn, the business community will benefit from an employee pool filled with more highly skilled homegrown talent. Teachers deserve the same opportunities to earn better pay, improve their working conditions and become their own boss that motivate other hard working Tennesseans. Moreover, children in our state deserve the opportunity to learn from teachers who stand to benefit personally from teaching well. With Tennessee’s students struggling to attain a quality education and hope beginning to fade that Tennessee can remain competitive in the global economy, the time has come to allow teachers and students to benefit from entrepreneurship in the classroom.