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Tenure Reform in Public Schools January 16, 2007

Posted by Brian Angliss in Education.

Teacher tenure, aka due-process employment, essentially provides teachers a guarantee that they cannot be fired for no good reason. At its best, this means that biology teachers are protected if they teach evolution, history teachers are protected if they teach about now poorly the U.S. government treated Japanese-Americans during WWII, and teachers in general who have personality conflicts with their administrators cannot be summarily dismissed without cause. At its worst, poor quality teachers who shouldn’t be teaching are permitted to continue because they’re careful not to give administrators cause to be fired.

We need to figure out a way to keep tenure’s protections for teachers who teach effectively while easing the removal of teachers who simply cannot teach. While I have some specific ideas, I won’t pretend to have a good overall solution. This is a call for a discussion, and with luck we’ll be able to collaborate and develop a good solution to this problem.

Suggestion #1: We need to develop a good answer to the question “Why should teachers be protected from firing without cause if most private employees don’t get such protections?” If we agree that some form of tenure is valuable, we need to be able to defend both why it’s valuable, and any changes we make to the existing tenure programs.

Suggestion #2: Develop yearly metrics to track the achievement of students from year to year and then attach that information to the students’ teachers. For example, if a student starts 6th grade at a 4th grade reading level but leaves at 6th grade, he’s gained 2 years in one and that indicates that the English teacher is probably better than a teacher who has a similar student who leaves 6th grade still at a 4th grade reading level. The hard part is developing the metrics, testing them, providing feedback in a timely manner, giving poorly performing teachers time to improve their teaching, and doing all this without spending 3/4s of the year “teaching to the test.”

Thoughts, anyone?



1. Jim Pangborn - January 17, 2007

Tenure protects teachers from political bullying. Or, at least, it makes it harder to fire them for dissenting from official propaganda. This has been a crucial protection in the past, and it will probably be in the future. School districts cannot, for example, summarily dismiss biology teachers who believe in evolution and replace them with ones who do not.

As for yacky-dacking with tenure in order to ditch the poor performers, it seems awfully tricky to me, and I wouldn’t want to be on the committee that has to decide whether some particular teacher’s distressing oddness constitutes malfeasance or valuable dissent.

Particularly now, in the NCLB-fired climate of assessment mania, performance standards are almost inevitably tied to standardized test scores, which, in turn, are based on curricular standards that just don’t deserve to be graven upon stone tablets quite yet. The tenure bone’s connected to the standards bone, but the standards bone’s connected to the quivering jelly of our cultural values.

Regarding suggestion #2, hey: we’ve got the technology. I’ve advocated this approach for my own assessment as a college composition teacher for years.

p.s., that’s a really beautiful quotation from Dewey you’ve posted for our consideration. These are hard times for intellectual humility, and the ever-increasing hegemony of bureaucratic discourse over genuine intellectual inquiry is one of the main reasons for that.

2. drslammy - January 17, 2007

First, let me point out that the post you’re responding to was from Brian Angliss, not me. So he gets the credit for asking the good questions. And yeah, Dewey is god. I’m almost tempted to pull out a few of his books and say here, THIS is my platform.

On tenure, I think we can agree on a few things:

1: It’s a valuable protection for good teachers.
2: In its operationalization it provides unfortunate cover for those who need to be working elsewhere.
3: Reform will be tricky, under the best of circumstances.
4: Nonetheless, reform is necessary.

One thing that will cease to be a problem by about 3pm on the day I’m sworn in is the linking of tenure to our ridiculous over-testing pathology. As Cat White notes elsewhere (a comment on one of the posts on the platform page) what we’re seeing is the current manifestation of a long political war on public ed. Taking a machine gun (and I’m probably speaking figuratively here) to those who have advanced and institutionalized those policies will be very high on my First 100 Minutes agenda.

As for HOW we reform, maybe there are some principles to consider:

1: Better evaluation of teacher effectiveness before tenure is awarded.
2: Should tenure be permanent, or should we consider a modified tenure policy where qualified educators are given five year contracts?
3: If we attract better teachers in the first place – a function of compensation and training – tenure becomes less a sore spot.

Also, let’s keep in mind JS O’Brien’s promised thoughts on productivity in the classroom, which I expect to exert some influence on this discussion, as well.

3. graphite_quill - January 18, 2007

What creates a “good” teacher from a “bad” teacher depends on many different things- not just the teacher, administration or standards.

As teaching is a profession of humans dealing with other humans, not everyone is worried about reaching two reading grade levels above what they should be (and thus, the effects of the “quivering jelly of our culture”). I also do agree about teaching to the test- in that the best learning has a meaningful connection to a student, and isn’t just shown to them. Eg. This year, we will learn, x, y and z. However, in our data-driven and standards based society, these are what we are holding ourselves up to- our accountability.

Also, what would happen to those (such as myself) who teach an Elective course? How would you hold us to our standards, when in some states, Foreign Language standards have yet to be approved?

Getting back to the main portion of the post- I do believe tenure is valuable. There are many schools that cannot keep good teachers (for various reasons) and those that do stay are needed. Therefore, if they are not up to par at one point in time, they need a chance to prove that they can do it. After all, if a teacher was great once, they can be so again, n’est-ce pas? And let me assure you- greatness is very difficult to achieve, especially on a day-to-day basis. (Moreso for those of us whom are relatively new to the profession.)

I do agree with all of those whom have posted here so far, but this is a very tricky playing field. It is best to navigate with caution. (:

Oh- and by the way, I was referred to this article from the LiveJournal Teacher community educators.

4. angliss - January 18, 2007

Thanks for commenting! I’ve certainly come at this problem from a “core” teacher perspective, because my wife is a science teacher, so that perspective is what I’m most familiar with.

I’m not sure we have to have state-wide standards, but nonetheless there must be ways to measure the effectiveness of even elective teachers. With a HS band background myself (as a student, not a teachers), I can see how there will be problems taking a “standards” based approach to band, and I see similar problems with art, choir, and anything that’s a “soft” course not easily measured. I’m open to suggestions as to how to handle it.

One possibility is that we need to have more teacher observations, and have trained teachers doing the observations. My sister-in-law is a trained teacher (English and French) who is now employed by her district as a full-time mentor. She not only mentors junior teachers, she also observes and reviews their performance, and her opinions carry weight with the district as to whether the junior teacher gets tenure or not. So in this way, the weeding out of bad teachers happens more effectively before tenure is even granted. Fortunately, her district has enough money to do this kind of program – most public school districts don’t seem to have that kind of money.

Maybe a program of yearly observations (both announced and unannounced) by fellow/former teachers whose job it is to observe and provide feedback might be a good approach. And it’s certainly more likely to catch issues like poor classroom management than any standardized test.

5. Lacey - January 18, 2007

perhaps even more beneficial than yearly/quarterly observations is some sort of collaborative approach to helping teachers improve and stay at a high quality. teaching is an isolating, scary job, so i think it would be useful to encourage more pair-teaching or cross-curricular classes. the reason i suggest this is that teachers can have one really, really rotten day in the middle of a billion good days, and (by murphy’s law) observations fall on relatively terrible days. even multiple observations a year or a semester can give a skewed impression of a teacher’s abilities. i think extended/ongoing help in a classroom would help create a context for observers/mentors to help teachers long-term or to see that a teacher isn’t capable of teaching.

i recognize that this might not work as schools are set up currently–there’s not enough money, and classrooms aren’t really set up for collaborative teaching in most places. but i have a personal objection to stand-alone observations being the sole deciders of a teacher’s livelihood.

6. angliss - January 18, 2007

I wasn’t necessarily suggesting that stand-alone observations be the sole deciding factor. At this point, I’m collecting the good things I’ve heard about over the years and trying to generate a list of “good practices” we can talk about. That way we can hash out the problems with the existing tenure system and come up with effective, pragmatic changes to address those problems. I was suggesting that maybe additional observations was part of the solution, one that might help us with yearly evaluations of teachers, especially in electives that don’t lend themselves to “standards” of a sort.

I do like the collaborative approach idea. Improving teacher effectiveness is a big deal, but while I agree it could improve overall teaching skill, I don’t see how it helps solve some of the problems with tenure. Please, elaborate.

On a different note, mzwyndi commented in The 5th Estate that our entire discussion up until now has been exclusively about K-12 tenure, and we’ve totally ignored higher-ed tenure. Just as with K-12 tenure, higher ed has significant issues that will need to be addressed.

So, I’ve got a couple of seed suggestions as to how to reform higher-ed tenure:

Suggestion #1: Make sure that plagerism and unsupported/unsupportable allegations qualify as “just cause” for immediate termination. Academic freedom is great, so long as you can prove you’re being academic. If you’re not, you don’t deserve any of the priviliges that come with it.

Suggestion #2: Shorten the appeals cycle somehow.

7. drslammy - January 18, 2007

1: As I understand it, JS O’Brien’s forthcoming thoughts on productivity in the classroom will touch on the one-room/one-teacher model that dominates our system. If so, that will perhaps open some doors to alternate ways of evaluating teacher effectiveness.

2: As for tenure at the U level, that’s a whole ‘nother can o’ worms. With private schools there’s nothing we can do, but with state schools we need to look really hard at the way we emphasize research. The tenure process will always pay lip service to teaching skills, but in Research 1 environments especially it’s usually just that – lip service.

Research is obviously important (although I could go on the rest of the day about what passes in certain “social theory” environments – but that’s another screed), but if a professor’s job involves teaching and not just research, then we MUST make teaching training and evaluation a more important part of the process. Further, we have to stop treating teaching specialists like third-class citizens in Research 1s. If you’re a brilliant educator with no interest in research, you simply cannot hope for tenure (and the associated financial security). Period.

8. Quixote - January 18, 2007

Before deciding to tackle the “problem” of tenure, one whould identify if a problem exists and what that problem is.

Everyone has a story about “that lazy guy on tenure”, but anecdotal evidence is not proof of a systemic problem. Does tenure do what it sets out to do? Does it do that despite a minority of people who abuse the system? How much effort do we want to spend to make the system 100% efficient?

To my mind, tenure is a “good enough” system as it stands. It works most of the time. Tenure abusers seem to be in a minority. We should be careful of attempts to remove tenure entirely just to get rid of these few.

9. angliss - January 18, 2007

You have a good point. I haven’t been able to find reliable statistical data, and as much as I’d rather base this discussion on data, I’d be amazed if there was any data. If we had data, that would mean that poor teachers had been identified and were allowed to continue working. And the problem is that poor teachers aren’t being identified. Unfortunately, all we have is personal experience and a small sample size

I guess I have to ask how much is “good enough?” I’m not asking for 100% effectiveness, but the schools I’m most familiar with (I’m familiar with 3 schools – a small sample size, but due to it’s geographic distribution, it’s enough to make me concerned), 10-20% of the teachers need to be removed for one reason or another, including but not limited to general inability to teach their subject area, poor classroom management leading to a disruptive environment, and making the school environment hostile. Any one of these would get a standard professional employee fired for cause from a business, and I see no reason why tenure should protect a teacher from firing in these situations. Yet it does.

And, IMO, 10-20% is too high. 5% is probably reasonable, and I don’t believe that it’s an unreasonable or expensive process to get it to that point. 100% is never achievable, and there is always a point of diminishing returns.

10. Gavin Chait - January 23, 2007

I have become a big fan of ratings ever since starting my little development ratings business. The more comprehensive the ratings, the more transparency. Self-regulation is a myth. After all, would you trust a politician who said, “I’ve sworn an oath. You can trust me.”?

11. angliss - January 23, 2007

The issue isn’t ratings per se, but rather how the ratings are derived, the time it takes to determine a number for each rating, whether the ratings can be determined in the normal course of teaching instead of taking time away from teaching, whether you can standardize on ratings for core subjects vs. electives, and so on.

Do you have suggestions about how you’d go about rating different types of teachers in a way that wasn’t disruptive to teaching?

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