Education is the second largest U.S. industry, and female employees outnumber male employees by more than three to one. Since there are more career opportunities today than ever before, ensuring the teaching profession attracts talented women is an important public policy concern. However, since 1983, when A Nation at Risk,a landmark assessment of U.S. education, concluded that the “professional working life of teachers is on the whole unacceptable,” little has changed despite numerous state and national efforts. A fundamental shortcoming of those efforts is that they treat teachers as objects of change, not agents of change. In fact, educators are driving emerging reforms by starting schools where teachers want to work and parents want their children to learn.
Until recently, private schools were the only alternative to the traditional public-school system. Overall, private-school teachers are nearly twice as satisfied as public-school teachers with their working conditions. In the 1970s and 1980s, educators began advocating “chartered schools” or public schools that would abide by the same accountability and admissions requirements as district schools but would be run by teachers, have distinct educational missions, and serve general or targeted student populations. The first charter school opened in 1991, and today some 4,000 charter schools are educating nearly 1.2 million students. Although charter schools represent about three percent of all American schools, charter schools create an instructive microcosm of a diversified educational system and show how that system might benefit teachers and students.
At 82 percent, overall satisfaction rates among charter-school teachers are twice as high as their private counterparts and more than three times as high as their district counterparts. Two-thirds of charter-school teachers report high levels of satisfaction with the influence they have over curricula, student discipline, and professional development, as well as school safety, collaboration with colleagues, and their schools’ learning environments. On those same measures, slightly more than half of private-school teachers and slightly more than one-third of public-school teachers report high levels of satisfaction. These results suggest the teachers’ and students’ ability to choose their schools positively affects teachers’ and students’ experience at school. In contrast to our current system, which is dominated by assigned, government-run public schools, a more diversified system would offer teachers the same wide range of employment options other professionals now enjoy. To attract quality teachers, schools would have to offer competitive salaries, flexible schedules, and a professional working environment in which teachers have autonomy to innovate and are rewarded for their successes.
In short, if their top concern were truly the well-being of teachers, organizations purporting to represent them, such as the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, would make diversifying the education marketplace- through charter schools, voucher programs, and other initiatives that increase parental choice-their top priority.1