Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A Cooperative Manifesto

One of my college courses included learning about various models of early childhood education. My classmates were mostly public school teachers earning continuing education credits. For several classes running we listened as guest speakers detailed the theory and practice of such approaches as Waldorf, Montessori, Reggio Emilia, and Hi/Scope. When it came time to learn about the cooperative model we heard from our own Val Donato (director of the North Seattle Community College Parent Education Department).

Val explained how the parents in a co-op own and operate the school at every level from the executive to the janitorial, with the teacher being the sole paid employee. We learned that every parent spends one day a week serving as an assistant teacher, bringing the adult to child ratio up to the incredible 1:2 or 1:3 category. She taught us about the benefits of teachers and parents working so closely together, both inside and outside the classroom, to create a unique learning experience for each child.

There was the usual polite applause when Val wrapped up, but the moment she left the classroom, there was an audible gasp.

“I could never do that!” said one teacher.

“It would be like having 20 bosses!” said another.

There was general agreement that the whole idea was crazy.

At this point, I’d only experienced co-op as a parent, although I’d already signed my contract to teach at Woodland Park the following year. Needless to say, I was cowed into a doubtful silence. Twenty bosses did kind of sound like a nightmare.

Twenty Bosses
I’ve now spent the last decade in cooperative preschool classrooms, both as a parent and teacher. I’ve never once felt like I had 20 bosses. Instead, I’ve always felt like I had 20 colleagues in the form of dedicated assistant teachers. And these are not just any teachers; these are teachers bringing mountains of love into the classroom.

Of course, at one level it’s true that I have 20 bosses. It’s the entire parent community that hires and fires. It’s the entire parent community that judges, evaluates, and compensates. And it’s the entire parent community that observes and participates in every activity that takes place within the four walls of the school. (And while I hope it’s not true, it’s just possible that I’m a better teacher because of all those parent eyes on me all the time!)

On a day-to-day basis, however, these same “bosses” work in the classroom under my supervision. They are in the trenches with me, so to speak, sharing the work, rewards and challenges. These are not just the parents of my students; they are my colleagues, allies and friends.

It’s the kind of dynamic that can only be found in organizations that operate on cooperative principles.

The Cooperative Model vs. Capitalism
When I look at my own relationships with institutions, the best ones are with cooperatives. I’m a Puget Consumer Cooperative grocery shopper. I buy my outdoor gear at the REI cooperative. I received the best health care of my life as a member of the Group Health Cooperative (where my daughter was born). I love my credit union. These are all variations on the co-op theme, but none are so pure as our cooperative preschool.

As we’re now witnessing the ugly downside brought on by 30 years of increasingly unfettered capitalism and its almost religious quest for profit, it’s hard not to imagine how the cooperative model could be advantageously applied to other institutions.

For instance, when the “customers” own the business, it stands to reason that they will focus like a laser on fulfilling their own wants and needs. When stockholders are the owners, the focus is on the customers only as far as it feeds profits. When applied to healthcare the capitalist model places profit over healthcare. In education it places profit over education. In government it places profit over governing.

When the “employees” hire, fire and pay their own “bosses”, the actual performance of management isn’t hidden in the puffy language of annual reports or stockholder meetings. Performance is totally transparent, found right there in the daily reality of how the institution functions. Capitalist owners tend to primarily consult this quarter’s bottom line when evaluating their managers, while cooperative owners (incentivized by the desire to continue to have their jobs well into the future) tend to focus the long-term health of the institution.

When capitalist bosses hire, fire and pay employees, we ultimately wind up with an adversarial relationship in which labor becomes just another expense to cut because management is incentivized to look to the next dividend checks. When compensation is a matter of cooperative negotiation, “labor” becomes an asset or even (dare I suggest it?) human beings. And, of course, there is no better way to rein-in exorbitant “executive” pay.

I’m not saying I’m against capitalism, but I do believe that the dangers of unregulated capitalism are manifest and that not every institution benefits from the capitalist model. What I am saying is that when we take the imperatives of profit and obscene executive pay off the table, the cooperative model can in many cases be a far more efficient and effective means for satisfying “demand”.

But enough of “radical” economics
The best thing about a cooperative is what it does to our relationship to institutions and the people we find there. Traditional institutions are about people doing things to and for other people. Cooperative institutions are about people doing things with each other.

I understand the reaction of those public school teachers. They are providing education to children and for parents. In their lives a parent’s request to “talk” is all too often a cause for dread. Who doesn’t feel anxious about being called into their boss’s office? As a co-op teacher, on the other hand, I talk with my colleague-bosses every day, work with them, supervise them, and get supervised by them. But it’s much more than that. I also goof around with them. I share joys and sorrows with them. We’re friends and colleagues. We’re a real community in a way that other ECE models make nearly impossible.

I love our Woodland Park Cooperative Preschool and I know I’m not the only one. Families return year-after-year, child-after-child, choosing time and again to be part of what I only half-jokingly refer to as our little communist society.

I probably don’t want a cooperative making my televisions or washing machines and I’m not deaf to the argument that competition and the prospects of great wealth can lead a certain type of high-achiever to innovation and economic growth. On the other hand, I’ve seen how cooperation within the context of a committed, loving preschool community consistently “turns a profit” in the coin of confident, well-prepared kindergarteners. That’s what we come together to do.

And there’s nothing crazy about that.

(Note: If you want to read more about our cooperative and the cooperative model in general, you might want to read my Cooperative Nuts and Bolts series. There are five posts, you'll want to read from the bottom up.)

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Anonymous said...

my first visit, and already i love your blog. :)

Unknown said...

I love voluntary cooperative institutions, for all the reasons Tom lists. But of course being a citizen of a country one is born into is not voluntary. That's why I often defend individualist principles politically, while acting more like a cooperative liberal so often.

And public school teachers don't have the self-selected students that most preschools have. It's one thing when the parents choose the school. It's different when location and economics dictate a child's school. (Yes, the blueberries lesson again.)

Mark said...

Hi Tom!

Sounds like the co-operative model is a great way of building a sense of community as well.

I bet you can't walk down the street without kids running up to hug you. :)


Still learning said...

Teacher Tom,
I found your blog while reading profiles of candidates for the Bammy Awards. What a blessing! I feel validated in my beliefs about how children learn and what is developmentally appropriate practice. I have been growing and learning about early childhood practice for over 25 years. I am very interested in the cooperative preschool approach. How do you train the parents in DAP and the parameters of conversation with children (helping children understand why instead of "because I said so").

Teacher Tom said...

@Still learning . . . Every class works with a parent educator who leads monthly workshops and is present in the classroom to work directly with parent-teachers and their kids. And, of course, I also do my best to be a role model in the classroom.

In our school, enrolling children in our school also means the parents are enrolling in North Seattle Community College as students, making us a true, all-family, educational community!

Rae said...

Hello there! I'm a Finance officer at a public university's college of education, and parent to a 2 year old. Education is heavy on the mind. Love your model. I'd like to note that this bean counter states that you actually *are* running a capitalist model, you are rendering the best quality service to the customer at the price the market will allow. Instead of cash equity, the parents are investing what we call "sweat equity" by donating their time. I guess it's all in how you look at it.

My state is the worst in the nation for public K-12 education, and everyone is desperate to find a model that works. That said, we are being preyed upon by those with money to be reformed into their image. We are also the poorest state in the nation, so the answers are never clear cut, or very easy.

I find that I dream of having several billion dollars so that we could disconnect from the political process and create our own education system that is not hostage to the whims of politicians or used as props for fundraising. After reading some of your posts, I'm not convinced that is the answer.

I am happy to read that at least somewhere, there is a preschool that is exactly what I would want for my daughter. As it stands right now, we're looking at homeschool or private school options.

Thank you for your blog.

Anonymous said...

Hi there, I came across your blog as a mum with a 2 year old thinking about schooling. My absolute dream is a co-operative preschool and I wondered if you know of anything like this that exists in the UK? I have searched and searched but so far I think our best option is home ed, which I'm happy with but the sense of community and learning together are not quite where I would like them to be if we educate at home.

You are an inspiration.