At a faculty meeting at Miami's Riviera Junior High School last year, just before the Christmas break, principal Armando Sanchez handed around copies of a memo and told his teachers, "Look at this over vacation and see if it interests you." It interested Vicki Cornelius.
The memo came from the county superintendent's office. It outlined a radical plan to let individual schools manage themselves instead of being run by the education bureaucracy -- but only if teachers could put forward acceptable blueprints for self-governance. Cornelius, a six-year veteran teacher of English and reading, pulled a group together and they worked all winter on a plan, which the Riviera faculty voted 60-2 to accept. Now Cornelius chairs a 16-member faculty council through which Riviera's teachers decide many matters that have traditionally been out of their hands -- class size, scheduling, school structure. And, yes, they even have a say in how the school spends its money.
Forty-four of the 300 schools in the Miami-Dade County system, the nation's fourth-largest, now operate under some form of what its officials call simply "school-based management." A lot of their colleagues across the country think they're crazy. "Even the teachers involved can't quite believe it's happening," says Pat Tornillo, executive director of the union local and vice president of its national affiliate, the American Federation of Teachers. The AFT has voiced its support of the endeavor.
The teachers' powers vary from school to school, but basically they can make any change in budget or governance -- short of firing someone -- and can apply for waivers of any clause in the union contract, the state regulations or the board of education's rules -- including salaries. One school council decided not to replace a retiring associate principal, hiring several part-time aides instead. One opted to give $3,500 extra to each of several "lead teachers." Another gave its lead teachers $2,000 each.
Is this unworkably radical? The better question is: Why does it seem to be? The idea fits in with one of the major streams of educational reform, the attempt to make teachers feel more like respected and trusted professionals; it just goes further than most. The experiment's mastermind, county school board official Gerald Dreyfuss, first tried 10 years ago to interest his colleagues in the notion of giving schools their budgets in a lump sum based on the number of students they had (with money for federal programs kept separate) and letting the principals decide how to spend it. It didn't catch on. Then history, in the form of the national education reform movement, began pulling even with Dreyfuss.
The educational wave he caught was a concept now prominent among reformers: the "professionalization of teaching," which is supposed to lure bright kids and bright adults back into this most essential of careers. The simple premise is that the way to change teaching's dismal image and low popularity is to change the way practitioners are treated. "A lot of us talk about salaries being important, and they are, but what else do teachers want?" Dreyfuss asks. "The answer is some ability to shape what goes on in the work place."
Floods of recent initiatives share the idea of making teachers feel more "professional." Some boost teacher pay and create "career ladders." Commissions buzz around the country to recommend stiffer teacher-education majors or national licensing exams, professional leave, "exchange programs" in which high school teachers can mingle with college professors.
So far, though, none of this has much changed gut feelings about how much autonomy teachers can actually handle. The leader of a traveling band of college presidents, touting the high school-college exchange idea in a recent visit to this newspaper, practically blanched when asked whether a high school English teacher might actually teach English courses on their visits. The "career ladder" plans have a faintly gimmicky air, aping the business world to no clear purpose: many of the best teachers just want to go on teaching, not counsel or give demonstration classes or develop curriculum policy.
The Miami-Dade idea, by contrast, stirs apprehensions: the powers it gives teachers are so palpable, so fundamental. They're powers that have to be taken away from someone else. In other school systems, the most obvious opposition to such power-sharing would come from the unions. The Miami-Dade system and its union operate at an unusual level of de'tente -- for a decade, they've been dealing with major issues through joint union-board task forces. The current contract has a "professionalization clause" guaranteeing enough flexibility for the present project, which won't become permanent unless it passes rigorous evaluations after four years.
Flexibility comes mostly from waiving the rules on occasion, not trashing them. One faculty asked for an exception to the rule on class size, another to the rule that teachers had to get a salary supplement if they worked an extra pay period. The union granted both. It did turn down a request to waive all salary supplements, including some for teachers who'd voted against the idea. Three months into the experiment, though, officials are inclined to grant most requests and see what works.
"Sure," says Dreyfuss, "there are state formulas on class size, but teachers who are on the spot can probably tell what the best situation for them is. Maybe they want a higher adult-to-student ratio, but would rather hire aides. Maybe they know a better way to spend the money."
Maybe they do -- better than all the educational and bureaucratic theorists of the education schools. The unfamiliarity of the idea just shows how far we have to go in accepting teachers as intelligent professionals. But if they aren't -- if they can't handle that degree of autonomy -- then what are we doing entrusting them with the minds and futures of children?
The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.