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Overhauling Education

Edison's CEO Chris Whittle knows how to dramatically improve public schools.

Chris Whittle says the idea to create Edison Schools, the nation's largest for-profit public and charter school management company, took off after he attended a dinner party where the idea was bandied about all night.

Now, 14 years later, he's looking to start another argument, this time with his first book, called Crash Course: Imagining a Better Future for Public Education. Yes, you read those last two words correctly. For although Whittle has spent most of his career running Edison and before that Channel One, his aim is simple, but wide-ranging. He wants to dramatically overhaul the way this country educates its students. His 260-page book from Penguin's Riverhead Books offers enough radical changes to shock union leaders, politicians, parents and, of course, superintendents.

In the two main parts of the book, Whittle proves why he thinks many schools are broken, how they got that way and why they haven't changed significantly in decades. Then he boldly imagines a better school system in 2030 and describes in detail how the country can get there and why it has to make these changes to survive.

So what does he propose? As the following excerpt shows, plenty. The section reprinted here concentrates on how the country can double or triple principals' and teachers' pay without raising taxes.

In other parts of the book, Whittle shows us two different sized school districts of the future, talks about how students must be in charge of their own learning and how students can do what he calls "educational chores" such as tutoring and IT help, to make up for the higher paid, but numerically less, teachers in each school.

Intrigued? So were we.


Next Level Educators

There are more than 90,000 public schools in America. On average, the principal of each of those schools holds in his or her hands the formative years of roughly 500 of our children, more than the number of "souls on board" a typical 747. Anyone who has been around schooling very long knows this: An under-performing principal guarantees an under-performing school, and a good one gives you a chance at a good school. Principals are one of the key leverage points within a school. That leads the school designer to many questions. Who do we want our principals to be? What do we want them to know? Where do we expect them to come from? How do we want them developed? How should we attract them? What should we pay them? Let's start with the money: how we must change principal pay in America.

Leaders of our school systems should
receive performance bonuses equivalent to
100 percent of their base pay.

Look at the chart to the right. If the pay structure holds, only those prepared to make a dramatic economic sacrifice will be our schools' leaders. Thousands of those heroic individuals are out there--they make up the best of our principal corps today--but are there 90,000 of them? History and our record of school performance tell us no. So either we dramatically increase the pay of our school leaders or we accept the inevitable result.

What's interesting is that we can, as a society, increase principals' pay rather easily. Let's assume there are 90,000 principals with an average pay of $80,000 each. That means we spend about $7.2 billion per year in principal compensation, or just 1.75 percent of total annual expenditure on K-12 education. The math is pretty simple: we could increase principal pay in the United States to $200,000 per year by adding to or reallocating just over 2.6 percent of annual K-12 spending. We could finance this investment by directing a portion of our annual education spending increases to it. Or we could find the money through reallocation of our existing educational dollars, something I'll show later.

Are Bonuses Good?

But let's talk about this proposed change, for a moment, in terms of the return on investment we would get. Five years ago, Edison Schools had the idea of a pleasant surprise for its absolutely best performing principals. We decided to award them with red Mustang convertibles, cars costing about $25,000. We determined that a principal had to make a gain rate in student achievement of over 10 percent (at that time, three to five times national norms) and also meet his or her school budget in order to win a car. In other words, they had to both deliver for children and be frugal with taxpayer money.

We were worried that this idea might get negative press. "For-Profit Company Gives Away Flashy Cars to Principals" was the kind of headline we could imagine. But we were convinced that serious incentives could drive school performance, so we sucked it up and did it anyway. We could not have imagined the reaction when we announced the car giveaways. The winning principals and all their colleagues were stunned that they were being recognized at this level. They thought it was a prank. We immediately decided to institutionalize this idea, and rather than cars we now award principals achieving this status an annual check, above and beyond bonuses for other levels of performance. Guess what has happened? Each year the number of principals coming to the stage at our annual awards dinner has grown. Now top Edison principals receive bonuses in the $25,000 to $35,000 class. (In thousands of U.S. school districts, there is no incentive award for principals at all, and where there is, it tends to be marginal--for example, 3 percent of base salary.) Some districts are experimenting--using, for example, philanthropic funds to pay bonuses. But for all practical purposes, serious principal performance compensation does not exist.

And guess what has happened to Edison's student performance over that same period? When we began this program, our annual gain rate was about 4 percent, at that time roughly double national averages. In the 2003-2004 school year, the gain rate nearly doubled, to 8 percent! Many things contributed to that increase, but we view principal compensation awards as one of the key factors. If our principal compensation system were only one-fourth of the reason our performance doubled--and I suspect it is more--that would mean that an increase of 2 percent in spending drove 25 percent of our increase in performance. That's a good return on investment--and that's by increasing principal pay by only 30 percent. What would happen if we more than doubled principal pay in America? What if America paid its great principals $200,000 per year?

The Benefits of Higher Pay

I'm not recommending that we increase principal compensation to an average base salary of $200,000 per year. My recommendation would be that, as a nation, we increase average base pay for principals to about $120,000 with bonus potential of up to $80,000 per year, paid out strictly based on achievement performance measures.

Two other benefits would accrue from this approach:

First, the overall candidate pool of principals would increase dramatically.

Second, principal turnover in the United States plagues our schools generally. The problem is worse at the toughest schools, where achievement is most lacking. Given that it takes years to build a great school culture, this pattern has debilitating effects. As principal pay increases, turnover will decline.

The concept that all teachers should be paid
the same regardless of results is the single
greatest indication of the backwardness of
the fi eld of teaching.

One other note: We should execute the same proportional level of increased compensation for the nation's superintendents. Leaders of our school systems should receive performance bonuses equivalent to 100 percent of their base pay if they are significantly moving student achievement ahead.

If significant increases in principal pay will meaningfully increase the quality of candidate pools, then better principal education and training will get candidates ready to lead great schools.

I hear again and again from principals that the course work they did to become a principal was primarily theoretical and often not "on point." They say their training did little to prepare them for the actual role of running a 600- to 1,000-student institution with 50 to 100 staff members and a budget of $4 million to $10 million per year. At the end of the day, most say, they just picked up their training on the job.

How can we expect great schools if our school managers are not purposefully trained to produce them? Shouldn't we have "principal colleges" that look more like medical schools, that are as rigorous as law schools, and that are as practical as flight schools--and just as selective? Shouldn't we have in education the equivalent of Annapolis, West Point and the Air Force Academy to educate the "company commanders" of our world-class schools? And as in the field of medicine, shouldn't the notion of "internship" be more formalized?

I'll say "yes" to all those questions. And go a lot further than that. The federal government should jump-start the launch of five new state-of-the-art principal universities. (Later in the book, Whittle provides a detailed recommendation for this plan.)

In less than a decade, America's educational system can transform the leadership corps of public schools through greater compensation and far more rigorous education of principals. And it can do that for affordable investments within the structure of our current funding system.

Teachers' New Professionalism

In America's great universities, the title "full professor" is bestowed after considerable scrutiny by those who grant it and much effort by those who seek it. In law, you must pass the bar--and then, if you work very hard for a number of years, you might become partner in a prestigious firm. In medicine, it takes six to eight long and arduous years after college before you practice independently, and that's if you don't specialize. And in all these fields, for all this effort and education, you can be rewarded handsomely. Surgeons can earn north of $500,000 per year; partners in top American law firms can do that and more; and even professors at major universities, when one considers income from research and consulting activities, can approach that number.

Contrast that with America's K-12 teachers. In many cities one can literally walk in off the street and get a job, without one day of formal education in the science and art of teaching. Given that degree of selectivity, is it surprising that pay is on average only $46,000? Understandably, because of teacher shortage there is a movement toward "alternative certification" of teachers. An inescapable message is "Teaching is something you can kind of pick up. Anyone can really do it." What does that tell us? How would we feel about "alternative certification" for pilots? Or surgeons?

Teaching is a profession; it's just often not treated like one in America. Though as a society we "talk it up," our actions don't bear out our so-called beliefs. It doesn't have to be like that, and it will not be in schools of the future. We need to pay our teachers much more--and we need to prepare them much better for the complexity of their roles. Let's begin, as we did with principals, with pay.

When I grew up in the 1950s, in pre-feminist times, teachers in our schools were virtually all women, many of whom, today, would be lawyers, doctors, and business executives. Those fields were not, for the most part, open to them. The result was that America's schools had an enormous talent pool and an "artificial marketplace" for talent. Because women had few alternative opportunities in those days, schools did not pay them their true worth. One of the unintended consequences of equal rights for women was an exodus of this talent from our schools.

As with principals, there is enormous capability in many of America's classrooms. Many teachers, who could take their talents elsewhere for much higher pay, choose to make an economic sacrifice to serve children and the country. They are, in effect, philanthropists, and we as a nation are in their debt. But aside from the inherent unfairness of this situation, it is not a scalable model. It is not reasonable to expect 3 million people (the number of teachers in public K-12 schools) to make this sacrifice every year for decades. The result: Many teachers in our classrooms are less qualified than we would like. Or said another way: Except in those cases where people are making an economic sacrifice, we too often get what we pay for.

Differentiated Pay is Key

If we want a certain level of talent in our classrooms, we must pay for it. And unlike pay increases for principals, the adjustment is not going to be a small one in absolute terms. Unions in this country fight for 3 percent and 5 percent annual increases in teacher compensation. That's an important contribution, but we need to understand that a 5 percent increase is not going to get the job done. Let's be clear: we need to double or triple teacher pay in the United States. If we believe good teaching is as important to society as good lawyering or good health care (and just about as complicated--which it is), then we're going to have to reward it accordingly, or at least nearly so. So what does that mean? The average U.S. teacher earns $46,000 today. The lowest-paid teachers should be able to earn today's average--straight out of college. The highest-paid should earn $130,000 or more, a number that should be reserved not for those with the grayest hair but those with greatest performance, whatever their hair color. That level of pay will move teaching from a field that requires a quasi vow of poverty (barely middle-class life) to one that attracts not only those who care but also those who have plenty of other options.

Just as in law, medicine, business, and virtually every other profession, compensation must be keyed to performance and responsibility, not seniority. The concept that everyone should be paid the same regardless of results and, basically, on an hourly basis, is the single greatest indication of the backwardness of the field. More than anything else it undermines the label of "profession," reducing it instead to the equivalent of any number of services that rely solely on "time on task," not "true delivery."

In most schools today, teachers are teachers are teachers. In most collective-bargaining agreements, a central premise is little differentiation in either pay or responsibility based on teaching ability. The key differentiators are (1) how long one has taught and (2) how many degrees in education one has. Many new school designs of the past decade, including that of Edison Schools, have begun to challenge this construct, providing different teachers with different levels of responsibility and differentiated pay.

Schools of the future will take the pioneering efforts of some of the early designs of the 1990s, improve them, and more important, extend them from hundreds of schools to thousands. Look at the chart below as one example of how our teaching forces might be structured.

Having responsibility structures is not a new idea. Edison first proposed something similar to these a decade ago. But we never dared propose anything as "rich" as the pay rates shown in this chart. Even if funding were available, such a structure would be disallowed under most collective-bargaining agreements. And where it might be allowed, the only way to progress would be through tenure--the longest tenure gets you the lead teacher spot. In new school designs, there will be little, if any, limit on how rapidly one progresses to the rank of lead teacher. In reality, it will take some time, perhaps seven years, before one has the experience and skills, but it will not be unusual to see some 28-year-old lead teachers and some 55-year-old ones as well. In every sense of the word, it will be a meritocracy.

As shown in the chart, the potential increase in teachers' pay is dramatic. Most of the increase comes from performance-based compensation, however. And as with principal salaries, the higher the total potential teacher compensation, the greater the performance-oriented percentage. To date, the few experiments in performance-based compensation for public school teachers have virtually all been plagued by a lack of funding that constrains the size of a bonus. A $1,000 bonus potential on a $46,000 base will not materially alter behavior. But imagine the power of a $15,000 bonus potential on a $46,000 base. That has the ability to attract a teacher's attention and drive results.

And what should the criteria for performance be? Eighty percent of teacher performance bonuses should be based on the achievement gains of children. Systems for accurate measurement of annual achievement gains by individual children are rapidly being put in place on a state-by-state basis across the United States. These should be the primary objective measurement for performance pay. A secondary criterion should be adherence to the particular curriculum protocols of the schools. Teachers should be rewarded for utilizing clear best practices instead of "freelancing" with favorite protocols that have not been shown by research to work. If history is a guide, unions will resist most of the above design changes in teacher compensation. They don't like highly differentiated teacher responsibility (particularly the idea of lead teachers acting as managers over new, less experienced teachers), and even more so, they don't like performance pay. For these reasons, these changes are likely to first come about in charter schools free of collective-bargaining arrangements and in states where collective-bargaining agreements don't exist. I say "first come about" because it is clear to me that once pay that is much higher and much more performance-based is put effectively in place in significant numbers of schools, union resistance to it will quickly crumble. That will happen because the rank and file will revolt, desiring and deserving the higher compensation they will see their colleagues receiving.

Where Does the Money Come From?

But a question you are already asking is: How does America fund a doubling of average teacher salaries? Increasing principal pay is one thing. But there are three million teachers in public schools today, together earning about $138 billion per year. If you double their pay, you might ask: Didn't you just spend $138 billion, an increase of approximately 33 percent of the total U.S. K-12 education budget? Answer: no. Reason: Schools of the future will employ far fewer teachers than schools today.

The teacher union leaders reading this book just keeled over, believing that a large portion of their dues just went away and that class size just increased. Wrong on both counts. If the dues of every teacher were to increase pro rata with teacher pay, union revenue would be kept whole and unions would have fewer members to serve. And class size would stay more or less constant, because there would be fewer classes in schools of the future. (Earlier in the book, Whittle unveiled his plan to have future students work independently "out of class" for significant portions of time.) The "horrors" that unions imagine happen only if you believe that the structure of schools is rigid, that the day must be divided into six classes, that children must always be in a class with an adult, and that classes must always be smaller to be better. In short, one has to believe that schooling, unlike almost every other human endeavor, is a fixed design, impervious to innovation and creativity. But designers of schools of the future will not blindly accept any of those particular dogmas. They will see a new way. To put it differently, there was a time in aviation when the propeller was the only way to move a plane forward. Then came jet engines, and the speed of airplanes doubled overnight and eventually tripled. That phenomenon is about to happen in education. It is called a design breakthrough, and it is what this book is all about.

Creating Professionalism

In a parallel to our discussion on principals, a new professionalism in teaching will not result simply from increased pay. As important as pay is, there must be a revolution in the preparation of teachers as well. Professionalism is about adherence to a set of best practices, not for rules' sake but out of an understanding that, until replaced with better ones, proven best practices should drive our methods. It's about a real body of knowledge that must be learned if one is to be a true member of the profession. It comes through years of study and years of work side by side with those who know this.

Schools of the future will look to two key improvements in the education of teachers to move professionalism of teachers to a new level:

First, schools of the future will incorporate the residency concept of medicine, the associate concept of law, and the assistant-professor concept of universities. The right to be called "teacher" will come once you have truly been taught, the right to instruct once you have been instructed. And that occurs best when you have been side by side with teachers in a school.

Second, we need a revolution in our colleges of education. There are great schools of education out there, just as there are great public schools out there. But if we are to move to a new school design, there must be a corresponding evolution in the design of our colleges of education.

Let's discuss both in more detail.


There is a growing recognition that brand-new teachers need additional support. This recognition has been fueled by the large number of teachers who leave the field within two or three years of their arrival. Many school systems now provide those young teachers extra and specialized professional development. And many individual schools attempt to provide them with various types of support, such as mentoring by more experienced teachers. Although well intended, these efforts typically are ad hoc, poorly funded, and, relative to the needs of these new teachers, half measures. For the most part, America's beginning teachers are thrown, on their own, into the frontline trenches of education, spending most of their days alone with their students, alone with their stresses and struggles. And because union agreements allow experienced teachers the right to choose the best schools, many, even most, of America's beginning teachers are thrown right into the cauldrons of educational crises, the toughest, most challenging classrooms in America.

Schools of the future will not tolerate this. Beginning teachers will be intern teachers. And they'll be given the support they absolutely require to become teachers. That support will come in one key way: they will learn at the side of a master, just as a co-pilot learns from his captain, just as an associate learns from a senior law partner, just as an intern learns from his attending physician.

Teacher Colleges

As radical new school designs come into being in the decades ahead, their counterparts should be launched in colleges of education. To lead the way in that revolution, America should launch 10 new teacher colleges. The objective would not be to replace current teacher colleges but rather to provide several significant examples of what teacher education should be in the future.

The federal government can play an important role in jump-starting this effort. (Later in the book, Whittle provides more detail on this plan.)

What, you might ask, are the big differences between what we see today in schools of education and some of these new designs? These things come to mind.

First, I hope we will see far more rigorous courses on "performance-oriented teaching"--the setting of annual educational goals for individual children, real-time assessment of progress, the monitoring of data that demonstrates progress on a child-by-child basis, and finally, the tactics for adjusting instruction when impediments are discovered.

Second, schools must move toward a design that incorporates much more independent learning. This is a crucial element in schools of the future. Teachers must become coaches and facilitators as much as lecturers, floating seamlessly from "station" to "station," student to student, strand to strand, project to project--launching a project here, nudging one along there, and stopping one that is going nowhere.

Third, teachers of the future must have a very high degree of computer literacy and, in particular, great skill in the navigation of assessment systems that will provide crucial data about their students.

Fourth, these new colleges should acquaint aspiring teachers with new school designs, particularly with how school staff will be differently organized.

Reality-Testing the Costs

Above is a summary comparison of a typical 900-student K-8 school today with such a school under a future design in a larger school system.

In addition to increased compensation for the principal and individual teachers, the new design triples a school's investment in curriculum and doubles the robustness of current school technology platforms. And it actually increases the FTEs (full-time equivalent staff) of a school by 67.5 people, mainly by letting students help run the school. The cost increases are funded by reducing the overall number of teachers--through increased independent learning, better technology use, and students' assistance.

Also see Whittle's "Letters to Leaders."

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