Friday, March 4, 2011

A Discussion Over Teacher Tenure

With all the political focus on education and creating "better" teachers, there is a big push to remove tenure. Tenure does not guarantee a job for life, a principal can remove an ineffective teacher, but it does take time. This time allows for the teacher to attempt to improve their teaching strategies. I thought this article presented some interesting view points.

Continuing with the tenure conversation Cheryl Williams began earlier this week, I wanted to discuss a recent New York Times article that outlines current efforts by governors to eliminate tenure in their states.

Connecting poor student performance to teachers is clearly a general emphasis among many critics of public education, and it seems to be an especially potent issue now in politics, as evidenced in part by President Obama’s last two State of the Union address in which he discussed teacher assessments. Jumping on this bandwagon of blaming teachers, governors in Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Nevada, and New Jersey (and legislatures in other states) want to focus on removing perceived ineffective teachers through eliminating or imposing drastic reductions in tenure protections.

I imagine few would argue that current tenure systems are less than ideal, and there are legitimate reforms to tenure that would benefit all major actors involved. And as the article points out, both the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association are in favor of good reform (and the AFT practiced what they preach by endorsing a Colorado law last year that allows for the removal of tenured teachers found consistently ineffective). AFT also helped broker tenure and labor reforms in New Haven, Connecticut, and in Baltimore, Maryland, and the NEA was similarly instrumental in principal and teacher evaluation reforms in Hillsborough County, Florida.

So while there are no doubt thoughtful ways to reform tenure to allow for teacher dismissal based on effectiveness rather than simply seniority, these governors and state legislatures seem focused on quick-and-dirty bills that serve more to score political points than to benefit education.

The article quotes former George W. Bush education official Michael Petrilli as asserting that “these new Republican governors are all trying to outreform [sic] one another.” (Although the issue is not confined to Republicans. Democratic legislatures and outspoken democrat Michelle Rhee—former D.C. school chancellor—have also lobbied against tenure.) Clearly in New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s case, his aggressive stances against teachers unions—including in tenure issues—have bolstered his reputation both in his state and nationally, and other politicians seem to be hoping for the same effect.

The article also highlights a specious claim by Republican governor Rick Scott, who recently asserted that “good teachers know they don’t need tenure. There is no reason to have it except to protect those that don’t perform as they should.” Besides the unlikely idea that all “good” teachers are not in favor of tenure, Scott’s statement is rash to say the least. Tenure serves a legitimate function in protecting teachers from arbitrary dismissal based on reasons not related to their effectiveness. Though often misconstrued as automatically granting teachers jobs for life, tenure laws are actually aimed at fair dismissal policies. The third party mediation that tenure laws require helps to tease out whether dismissal is appropriate, or based on unfair accusations deriving from personal vendettas, unfair stereotypes, opposing political views, and differing parameters of what teaching should encompass. A current issue that illustrates the last two categories (and in some cases all four) is that of teaching topics that are controversial in certain religious or political communities. The Scopes trial went up the court system for a reason: sometimes administrators, local authorities, and teachers allow personal beliefs to interfere with legitimate teaching efforts and so mediation is necessary. Further, there are logical concerns by more experienced teachers that if tenure laws are reformed they will have a target on their backs—regardless of their actual performance—simply because they are at the top of the pay scale.

But in any case, there is an underlying problem with the whole debate over tenure: there is not a clear definition of what constitutes a good or bad teacher, nor clear ways of ascertaining how teachers measure up to these definitions (I think we can all concede test scores are highly imperfect indicators). Very few teachers exhibit obviously problematic behaviors like sleeping during school, hitting kids, or reading magazines while students run wild. The vast majority do what the system asks. So until there is a way of changing system expectations and then pinpointing which teachers cannot work outside of teacher manual bullet points, I don’t imagine tenure reform will have much of an impact on the education system and its outcomes.

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