CHRIS YELICH has viewed education from a number of perspectives - as a local school-board member, as a scientist in private industry wondering about kids' flagging interest in science, and, now, as a teacher of science.
But her teaching career has an unorthodox twist. She is not a public-school teacher with a regular classroom, but a teacher-entrepreneur who hires out her talents to interested schools, typically private, and brings along her own repertoire of programs and equipment.
Ms. Yelich is also executive director of a national organization devoted to expanding opportunities for other teachers who, like her, think of themselves more as ``sole proprietors'' of small businesses than as salaried employees. The American Association of Educators in Private Practice has 300 members nationwide, Yelich says. That's a big jump from the original 16 members when the group was founded in 1990.
Yelich's home base is Watertown, Wis. But Wisconsin has not been particularly hospitable to the idea of teachers as private practitioners. Like many states, it has firm rules about who can teach in its public classrooms and about contracting out teaching duties. Yelich and others have lobbied to get those rules changed, but it's a slow process.
In Yelich's view, school boards ought to be given the freedom to draw up contracts with freelance educators who have a specialty a district may lack on its own staff. This could be anything from art to science to remedial reading - or special programs for the gifted. Recalling her own experience as a school-board member, Yelich notes that school officials often face the dilemma of having room in their budgets for only a ``fraction'' of a new teacher, while the state is mandating new programs.
One solution, Yelich says, would be to contract work out to an independent specialist, who might spend a couple of hours a week at one school, a couple of hours at another, and perhaps work at night teaching adults as well. The members of her association have numerous variations on such arrangements.
Robin Gross, like Yelich, specializes in science instruction. Much of her work centers around after-school enrichment programs, but she also has had contracts with private elementary schools, and less frequently public ones, to teach courses during regular hours. The offerings of Ms. Gross's company, Science Encounters, include architecture, rocketry, solar energy, and various life-science classes.
With a push toward more science instruction for youngsters, schools in her Washington, D.C., area are becoming ``more flexible'' about using outside contractors, Gross says.
Another association member, Jim Boyle, runs Ombudsman Educational Services in Libertyville, Ill. His educational niche is ``at-risk'' students from middle and high schools, those on the verge of dropping out. With branch programs in seven states serving about 1,600 students, Mr. Boyle's business is larger than most of those associated with Educators in Private Practice.
Over 20 years of operation, there has been ``steady growth,'' says Boyle, who taught for 17 years in the Chicago suburbs before forming his own company. ``But nobody's beating down the door. If it comes to providing for an at-risk kid or buying football helmets, you know who's going to win.''
Since no state requires such services, the key, Boyle says, is finding those public-school districts that want to help youngsters on the brink of academic failure. When a district is interested, he sets up a program that breaks familiar molds. ``You've got to do things differently,'' he says. ``You individualize it for every student, use lots of computers, and take failure out of the equation.'' Grades are out too, he adds. It's all ``competency-based,'' with an emphasis on daily attendance, being on time, and developing a work ethic.
Work, after all, is what most of the children he deals with want, Boyle says. ``So we treat them like that, and say, `Hey, this is a job!' '' Eighty-five percent of those that enter Ombudsman programs stick it out until graduation, he says.
Performance is crucial to independent teachers. Typically, the contracts are short term and subject to summary cancellation. Carey Stacy's company, DiaLogos, ran a foreign-language instruction program for the Wake County, N.C., public schools for 11 years, on a succession of one-year contracts. She trained the teachers, usually native speakers, and if anyone didn't measure up, she could promptly replace them.
The reason Ms. Stacy got the contract was that the school district had promised parents K-12 language instruction and had to quickly make good on its promise. Outside contracting was the obvious option. After 11 years, the district recently decided to take over the program, but kept on many of Stacy's teachers.
Like Boyle, Stacy throws out traditional academic approaches and concentrates on fluency in a language, bringing in grammar and writing only after speaking ability is achieved. She has also provided English-as-a-second-language training for those not speaking English in public-school systems, and she also has contracts with colleges.
Neither Gross, Stacy, nor Boyle has run afoul of teachers unions, probably because their contracts have not resulted in any loss of jobs for regular teachers. But unions, many educational administrators, and college-level schools of education can all be what Yelich calls ``people with an interest in the status quo.'' She emphasizes that her organization is not for ``100 percent of teachers on private contracts.'' She estimates that only about 15 percent of teachers would even be interested in private practice.
But the rules governing the use of contractors, and the academic requirements for teacher certification, ought to be relaxed, she says.
Then the door could be opened to greater flexibility in the use of teaching talent. Yelich says Some current innovations, such as the advent of charter schools and schools of choice within public systems, will help nudge that door open. Private practice is only a small part of education reform, she says, but it could be an important part.