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NOTICE: The Charter Vision project is dormant as of January 2008. This website is provided for archival purposes only.

Cat on a Leash

Timothy (Northfield School of Arts and Technology) Posted February 15 2007

Editor’s note: Tim Goodwin is the academic director of Northfield School of Arts and Technology, ironically the first charter school to be approved for Q-Comp. This article was originally written in September 2005 for the school’s weblog. It has been reprinted with permission.

One morning after leaving the coffee shop, heading off to school I saw someone walking their cat on a leash. It didn’t look right. It was working, but it did not look quite right. That cat was walking along. That must have been one unique cat. But aren’t all cats unique? Have you ever met anyone who did not think their cat was unique? There he was, walking his cat. I had a cat, who when I put a collar on, I thought she was going to start looking for a cliff to jump from. Cats on leashes — it just isn’t natural, is it?

Recently I attended a training session for Q-Comp. Q-Comp is the Governor’s plan to introduce Quality Compensation into how teachers are paid. Anyone who knows me probably knows that I am not a big fan of Governor Pawlenty, but I have to admit there are some interesting aspects to Q-Comp. But ultimately, it feels like a cat on a leash.

Maybe it will result in the first step to reforming how teachers are paid. But for educators to ever get comfortable with it, some aspects of it have to change. Mostly what has to change is the paradigm from which it, and other education initiatives from the right have emerged. That paradigm is competition. Q-Comp stands for compensation, but the backbone of it really is competition.

At this training, I was in a room with 500 other school leaders, all waiting to learn about Q-Comp. It was the first time I have been at an education event or training that had the room filled with tension and not collegiality. I was at a table with other educators and shared that I had a plan ready to submit. I am sure that my plan needs much work, but I was ahead of every other school official at my table. I was hesitant to share my ideas. Q-Comp has limited money available. There is enough funding for only about half of the schools in the state to participate. It was a state budget decision, not a program decision, to limit the resources. However, this proposal fits with the overall paradigm coming from the Republicans about education reform. Most of their ideas are coming from business models, and most involve competition. Q-Comp is a variation of TQM (Total Quality Management). This is a movement in business to increase productivity and efficiency. One tenant of Q-Comp results in teachers competing for limited “master teacher” spots in a school that would pay additional salary to mentor other teachers.

Why does all this competition make me uncomfortable? Isn’t competition good for improvement? Of course it is. Competition among schools for students just might result in schools trying new things, striving for better results (especially measurable ones like SAT scores), competing for the best teachers, and maybe even paying them more. All of those things may be good things. But I am still struggling with the idea of competition in education.

One of the reasons I went into education was because it wasn’t a business. I didn’t want to swim with sharks. I wanted to be in a profession that was built on collaboration. Educators are all about collaboration. That is one of their greatest assets as professionals. Maybe business could run more like education and not the other way around. In fact many days I would like to run more like a business. My costs go up, so I raise my prices. We need new capital investment into the building, so raise the price to cover the cost. But in education we don’t get that luxury. Education isn’t a business, doesn’t run like a business, and I think is better off for it. This might sound strange coming from the leader of an upstart charter school that exists by providing competition to the traditional school districts. But even in this setting I prefer collaboration, as do most educators.

When teachers write quality lessons, think of new activities, and design new courses, they don’t copyright them: they share them. Education is about sharing and collaboration. As a teacher, when I come up with something that works, my goal is to get it in the hands of as many students as quickly as possible. As a teacher, you can find activities for just about any topic on the internet. These are all there because teachers like to share. Teachers are a collaborative bunch.

Even our school, which exists in competition with Northfield High School, manages to share kids. My teachers have friends who teach in the High School and they share ideas. When a student can’t get all his needs met at one of the schools, Dr. Santerre and I work together to help that kid find his niche. This is what education is about. It is a collaborative effort to provide for kids and their future. It is not competitive, and I struggle internally when forced to be competitive about kids. Maybe Q-Comp will result in a creative pay system for teachers that is not so rigid. Maybe it will result in schools creating more valuable staff development aligning staff training to annual goals. Maybe it will result in an organizational structure that results in more mentor/mentee relationships among teachers. These would all be good. But for me, any reform efforts that have their roots in competition instead of collaboration will always feel like a cat on a leash to me.

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