A Denominator of Many – Teacher Professional Partnerships [guest post]

[This is a guest post from Carl Anderson. If you’re interested in being a guest blogger, drop me a note. Happy reading!]

By now it is an old story but still a pressing contemporary issue. Industries that have traditionally relied on a top-down hierarchy of power distribution are folding. We see it today most readily in the newspaper industry but it is painfully obvious that other industries, especially those who deal in information currency, are under siege as well. It is clear that the schools are a part of this list.

Traditionally, or for as long as anyone alive today can remember, most school systems have operated under a very clear top-down hierarchy. The Department of Education passes down edicts to states. State Departments of Education (headed by a commissioner) then pass funding & accreditation requirements and curriculum standards down to school districts. School districts are headed by superintendents operating with an authority given to them by school boards delegating responsibilities to principals and other building administrators. These administrators then delegate responsibilities to teachers and other school employees who then deliver the state mandated standards-driven curriculum to students. I realize this is a very simplistic picture of our school systems and there are great differences in the nuances between schools but for the most part this is the type of system most of us operate under.

This system was very efficient for many years and was necessary for a long time. However, when we hear criticisms of schools operating under an industrial model of education looking more like factories it is not just what goes on in the classroom that causes this comparison but also how they are structured. This structure looks like almost any corporate business hierarchy with the CEO and shareholders at the top and the workers and consumers at the bottom. Just as the corporate structure is designed to make as much profit for those at the top this system best ensures that the needs of those near the top of the pyramid are met. Today, in education, this hierarchy is most concerned with administering RTTT and NCLB measures like curriculum standards. Hence, the overly high concern with high stakes testing and “teach to the test” messages many of our teachers end up hearing. Who does this system serve? With whom lies agency in learning?

There is a new structure of learning emerging that is gaining momentum, one which appears to have no regard for edicts issued via a top-down hierarchy. Web 2.0 & social media technologies have given teachers and students agency in their own learning through the creation of what has been collectively referred to as “personal learning networks” (PLNs). Through PLNs learners choose their own learning agendas and self-select who they listen to and what curriculum (if any) they follow. Through the use of popular technologies like Twitter, YouTube, Blogs, and Facebook informal learning is quickly becoming a viable option. Teachers no longer have to look to their school system for support, they can find it through the networks they have created. This same kind of network structure and powerful informal learning is also what has made this latest phenomenon of unschooling actually seem like a viable option for some. The more our networks grow the more they challenge the authority of the traditional top-down hierarchy.

While unschooling is a little bit extreme and probably not right for most kids the fuel giving this movement momentum is something we need to address in education or our formal institutions of education will suffer the same fate as the newspaper industry. I am reminded of this slide from a TED Talk by Devdutt Pattanaik called, East vs west — the myths that mystify..

In this talk Dr. Pattanaik discusses how the fundamental belief structures between east and west cultures clash. He illustrates this with a simple story about Alexander the Great meeting a gymnosophist, “When they met, the gymnosophist asked what Alexander the Great was doing. To which he replied, ‘I am conquering the world. What are you doing?’ ‘I am experiencing nothingness,’ replied the gymnosophist.” Neither could see the point in the others endeavor because the denominator for Alexander’s life was One and the denominator for the gymnosophist’s life was Many. This fundamental element of belief informed everything about how both individuals interpreted these actions. The traditional hierarchy that has dominated our school systems has a denominator of one while PLNs, student-centered learning environments, and movements like unschooling operate with a denominator of many. If our industry is going to survive we need to find a way for both equations to find a common denominator. We have to look for ways to invert this hierarchy.

One potential method that our schools could use to help address this issue of one verses many is teacher professional partnerships (TPPs). TPPs are similar to law firms where the practitioners own their own practice. In TPP schools there is no administration but instead the teachers in the TPP work together to share the responsibilities normally delegated to building an district administrators.

This solves a few problems that teachers and schools face. First, it brings more decision making responsibility closer to those who are directly effected by those decisions. It places agency closer to those served by schooling and in so doing elevates the teaching profession. With agency comes responsibility and built-in accountability. If a teacher is held responsible for their own performance via a personal stake in ensuring that they offer a quality learning environment that students will want to participate in there will be no need for complex systems of teacher performance pay or other measures like those in RTTT. With a TPP a teacher’s performance is shown in their enrollment and whether a school thrives or fails depends entirely on how well they manage their own practice. What’s more, TPPs eliminate the need for teacher unions since the partnership is in itself a union of sorts.

Currently there are just ten TPP public schools in operation in the United States and so far they all appear to be doing well. This model of school organization holds a lot of potential addressing the problems and issues facing schools and education including the inevitable irrelevance of our traditional school hierarchy. Ted Kolderie from Education|Evolving will be Steve Hargadon’s guest on his Future of Education series this Thursday, July 8, 2010 to discuss Teacher Professional Partnerships. For more information on TPPs I urge you to attend this free online discussion in Elluminate or at least listen to the recording afterwords.

Carl Anderson is an art and technology teacher, technology integration specialist, and adjunct instructor for Hamline University’s School of Education. He writes the Techno Constructivist blog and is @anderscj on Twitter.

15 Responses to “A Denominator of Many – Teacher Professional Partnerships [guest post]”

  1. I had never heard of TPPs. Very interesting and perhaps the next phase in public education. The comparison to a law firm helped me understand how such a structure would work.

    In such a system, I would anticipate the great teachers to flourish and the less effective/less motivated ones to either change or move on. I definitely think a TPP would increase teacher accountability (which is what the public/gov’t is demanding), but actually allowing them to have a say in what happens and directly affects them. Too often teachers are left out of the decision making loop, while those who couldn’t be further from the “trenches”, or classroom, are making critical choices.

    Thank you for the post and resources regarding TPPs. I have a little research to do now.

  2. Thanks Jeremy,

    About the teachers who would flourish in a TPP I suspect you are correct. But, isn’t that a good thing? It might also help to retain really good teachers who don’t feel their efforts are appreciated under the “traditional” system. It would be an interesting question for Ted Kolderie whether any of the existing TPP schools have experience hiring inexperienced teachers. I suspect proven experience/effectiveness is a prerequisite and having visited two of these schools and gone through the interview process at one I can tell you they can afford to be picky with who they let into the partnership.

  3. It is definitely a good thing. I think teachers like that should be rewarded for their extended efforts. A TPP would be an ideal place for self-motivated, self-reflective teacher that only wants to improve for the benefit of those they teach. Being a partnership, each teacher should be required to have such qualifications…it reflects back on the group. I look forward to learning more about TPPs, especially in the public sector. Thanks again.

  4. TPPs won’t necessarily get us to PLNs or unschooling. TPPs are essentially changes in governance and financial flow.

    If traditional school structures went to PK-20 comprehensive portfolios instead of using meaningless tests, the benefits of PLNs and unschooling could be realized while maintaining the structures that will be useful for the kind of things that can only be done well in groups.

    PPTs make the most sense as foils to a system in need of reform and not as the total reform solution. What would be necessary to make 100% of public schools PPTs? And if we don’t go totally to PPTs, what happens to those left in the traditional system? Is this another system of choosing winners and losers?

  5. Hi, my name is Maeghan Whitmire and I am commenting on this as an assignment in my EDM310 class at the University of South Alabama. In this class we have started making our own PLNs. It really is a great tool. I had never heard of TPPs either, but it seems like a great idea to me. My PLN has helped me keep a lot of what I want to learn and know organized for myself. Before I took this class all I did was get on Facebook and now I am open to a whole new world of fun stuff to do. I really enjoyed reading your post. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

  6. Dan,

    I don’t mean to imply that TPPs would lead to PLNs & Unschooling. What I was trying to convey is the rise in teachers using these technologies to take charge of their own professional development (PLNs) instead of relying on the PD the district provides fertile ground for the development of TPPs. Perhaps more TPPs will arise out of more teachers finding autonomy in their PLNs. I use the rise in numbers of families choosing to unschool their children as evidence of a need to reexamine things, especially since it appears this rise has been fueled in part by the relative ease of DIY learning.

    As for your point o this being another system of choosing winners and losers, when has this ever stopped innovation in education before? Just because I can’t have a Jaguar in my driveway does that mean my neighbor shouldn’t be allowed his? And, if this does happen to be the wave of the future how are going to get there if we don’t try it somewhere? That goes for any other endeavor. On the flip side, if we all reverted back to a “traditional” system wouldn’t that also produce winners and loosers? What about the ability for urban schools to offer far more than small rural schools? What about the inequity in teacher:student ratios between big box schools in the city and small schools in rural areas? What about inequities caused by differences in funding depending on whether you live in a property rich district or an economically depressed area of the country? What about schools in districts with savvy politicians and lobbyists who can find ways to circumvent the system to give their schools an advantage? What about inequities caused by union-negotiated policies like tenure and seniority? I think it is clear something has to be done and to me it is clear that the culprit lies somewhere in the power structure we embed in our school systems. TPPs might not be the right answer but right now they are the only thing I know of that is being tested in the field and appears to be working.

  7. I had an interesting conversation on Twitter last night with @ryanbretag about this post. He posted this tweet:

    “@anderscj in essence, you’ve shifted the power structure to diff people. The true notion behind the phil would be to remove all PS, no? ”

    This is an interesting thought and one I felt was too wide a scope to tackle in a post about TPPs but in essence, why should we stop with removing administrators? Why not get rid of state and federal departments of education and the teachers altogether? That is after all what unschooling does. I know there is an element in the Libertarian movement that is arguing just this case (ex. Rand Paul). However, I don’t think that is what is needed either. There has to be a middle ground that allows us to retain this social institution we call schooling but still give more agency to teachers and students. If we did away with the whole institution altogether and let everyone be unschooled a large percentage of those unschooled would seek out people who could teach them things and yes, there are educational needs a society has that are not necessarily in the learner’s immediate interest. There still is a need for public education but public education faces some major problems right now that require out of the box solutions. I don’t know if TPPs are the right answer but they are one field tested possibility that looks promising.

  8. We’re discussing TPPs all this week and next on Education|Evolving’s blog at

    We hope you’ll come learn more about them, and let us know your insights and questions. We appreciate the great discussion here.

  9. I guess change is inevitable. Organizational pattern changes as time goes by i guess.I personally think it’s an exciting update specially since communication and information technology has vastly improved PLNs is emerging to be an strong option for learning.

  10. How did you make that really cool mind map with pictures and names. Looks 2.0…

  11. It isn’t the case — obviously couldn’t be — that teacher-partnership schools have no administration; even no administrat-or. The essential idea is that the teachers as partners are in charge of the operation; decide then (a) to do some of the administration themselves, or (b) to hire (or to contract with) someone or some organizations to do certain of the adminstrative duties. Think simply of flipping the authority-pyramid upside down.

    At Avalon School in Saint Paul, for example, the partners finally decided they needed some person to by an administrator. One of the teacher-founders, Andrea Martin, initially played that role. Later, Carrie Bakken. But Andrea did ‘administration’ the way Gretchen did English: It was role-specialization without authority. Carrie is equally clear with people: I am not a boss.

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