Sunday, July 6, 2014

Is tenure a good thing?

I have written elsewhere on evaluation and on "bad" teachers (and also here). So what do I think of tenure? Like everything in discussions of education, I think the answer is complicated. However I do think that having tenure and arguing about tenure allows for a shift in the argument away from what matters.

I do not agree with tenure. I have seen bad teachers shuffled to where they can "do least harm", typically with younger or lower-ability students which are arguably the two groups who should have the better provision. I have seen bad teachers promoted up; I remember one department head who was both less than competent and widely-rumored to have had a glowing reference from her previous school given to get rid of her. I have seen bad teachers moved sideways; we have all heard of New York's "rubber room". I remember one who was made a History department resource officer, although to be fair he was one year away from retirement after 40 years and it was hardly his fault no-one previously had acted, preferring instead to move him along.

The public-school and union-driven argument on tenure has replaced discussion on what works, and in particular on teacher-effectiveness with "due process". With tenure, a school leader must show a teacher to be "bad" as opposed to proving s/he is "good".

The problem with this is that proving the existence of something is obviously more difficult than not having to discuss it. If teacher Jo is bad because she is often late to class, all she has to do is to show that the timetable requires her to run 100 yards between rooms as the bell is ringing so she does not leave one early and arrive at the other late. If Jo is bad because of low test scores, she has only to show improvements on baseline testing or refer to poverty indicators. If Jo is bad because students rate her as such, simply show the unreliability and non-validity of such ratings.

Above all, issue challenges and refutations which take up time, require resources, and cost money to meet. Such "due process" can and does derail many if not most discussions on teacher improvement and/or termination.

We know what good teaching looks like, and we know how context-dependent it is. A school should be free to define good teaching on a year-by-year or strategic plan-by-plan basis and require its teachers to meet it. Of course, those teachers must be a part of designing both the initial definition and the subsequent evaluation. Thus, due process can be ensured by building it into both which would simultaneously address the challenge of someone who is "not fit for purpose".

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