Warning! A lot of teachers are going to disagree with me on this one.
Last week NYC Educator had a post called The Tenure Question. He began it this way:
I recently wrote about a colleague who told me a change in venue brought his Regents passing rate from about 30% to a much more respectable 90%. He claims he did not at all change his teaching methods, but his new audience was simply much more receptive. Was he a bad teacher at the previous locale? You could perhaps conclude that, but his 32% passing rate was the highest in his old school.
Do his new passing rates make him a great teacher? Not according to him. He claims to be the same teacher he was then, albeit a little older.
Now NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein is fighting tooth and nail for the right to be able to grant or deny tenure on the basis of test scores. How do you do that fairly when a simple relocation produces such a radical change in results?
NYC Teacher's story illustrates why so many teachers see tenure as being so important, and it also shows why we get very nervous about being judged by our students' tests. I am no fan of our tenure and seniority systems, but replacing them with a testing system is a horrible idea. If my salary and employment were going to be based on the performance of the sophomore class that I had in 2002-03, move over Bill Gates. (That's an exaggeration.) But if it's going to be based on the performance of my sixth hour class this year, move over all you guys on the unemployment line. (And that's not an exaggeration.)
The best analogy I can give for this involves my hockey coaching. I am the only person in Minnesota high school hockey history to have been a head coach for a team that has gone winless, and then also for a team that has gone undefeated. In 1980 I coached a team in Mt. Iron, Minnesota that went 0-17, but it was not because I was a lousy coach. We had a very young team, and we were one of only a handful of teams in the state that had to practice outside. In 2005, I was the co-head coach of a team that went 29-0-2 and won the Minnesota Class A Championship, and although I think I did a pretty good job, that didn't happen because I was a great coach. We were loaded with talent, and we had one of the best practice situations in the state. There are many teachers throughout the nation who are dealing with situations in their classrooms that are at least as challenging as what I faced as a hockey coach in 1980, and they don't necessarily deserve to be fired. There are also some teachers who have classroom situations that are as wonderful as the one I had as a hockey coach in 2005, and they don't necessarily deserve merit pay. The teacher NYC Teacher talks about makes that point very well.
Nevertheless, that does not make me an advocate of our tenure and seniority systems. Later in his post, NYC Educator argues that if the city of New York has been sloppy about who it grants tenure to, that should be the city's tough luck, and the tenure system should be honored:
Tenure can and should be enforced. If the city fails to identify those who don't deserve it, that's plainly the city's fault. If the city chooses to hire based on college credits, or the ability to meet whatever reduced standard it's negotiated with Albany, that's the city's fault too. If the city chooses to hire through bus ads, 800 numbers, intergalactic recruitment schemes, or the capacity to draw breath, that's on them as well.
Here is where NYC Educator and I part ways. Part of this is probably due to our different locations. I work in a small school district, so I know and like nearly all of our administrators, and I am at least acquainted with most of our school board members. NYC Educator, on the other hand, works in a system that might be the mother of all bureaucracies.
That being said, I don't think teachers should be protected by tenure and seniority systems. NYC Educator says the the great majority of teachers are competent, and I agree with him. But as he acknowledges, there are teachers who have managed to get tenure who are awful. It has to be much easier to get rid of those teachers than it is now. No kids should have to be stuck with them, and they give all teachers a black eye. As one former teacher, who later became the chairman of the school board in a large suburban district in the Twin Cities area, said to me, "As long as teachers have tenure, the profession will never get any respect." I think there is a great deal of truth in that statement.
There are two major problems that I see in our tenure and seniority systems. One problem is that some teachers become lazy as they gain seniority. They may not become "incompetent," but they quit working as hard as the should and they quit being as good as they should. Teachers, as a whole, are probably more altruistic in their motivation than most other employees, but we certainly are not immune from self-interest and laziness.
The second major problem is the one that I see as the worst. When cuts have to be made, as happens at one time or another in so many school districts, the least senior teachers are the ones that have to go. Sometimes those younger teachers are the best in the school. Both of the school districts I've worked in have gone through periods when many cuts had to be made, and I've seen too many outstanding young teachers forced out the door, while teachers who weren't nearly as good and hard-working as them stayed. That is a tragedy.
The answer to this problem, however, is not to make decisions about who to retain by using tests. There has to be some human judgement. About a year-and-a-half ago, I wrote a post dealing with how I think teachers should be paid and retained. In that post, I said that this should be the job of the school principal, but there were teachers who responded to that by pointing out that in some larger schools the principals are clueless about the performance of individual teachers. That may be true, but then it should still be the job of some person, probably an administrator.
Would politics enter the picture if we did this? Of course. But all this would do is to put teachers in the same boat as millions of employees of private companies. I have two sons who work for private companies that have gone through periods in which they had to lay off employees. My sons had to impress their bosses enough so that they got to stay. I think teachers should have to do the same thing. Granted, this is a very imperfect system, but it would be hard to find a worse one than the one we've got now. Basing those decisions on how our students do on tests, however, comes darned close.