Tag Archives: tenure

Interests Matter: Why Teachers Shouldn’t Be the Primary Shapers of Education Policy

The recent transformation of education into a prominent nationally policy issue has prompted an  increasingly important question: who should be crafting our country’s education policies? Though teachers and school administrators have largely controlled education policy for decades, in recent years outsiders–including think tanks, charter management organizations, and other advocacy groups–have had impressive success in implementing reform policies. Unsurprisingly, this has led to a backlash from the traditional educational establishment, who insist that teachers are the only people qualified to decide what our education system needs.

I don’t think anyone could seriously say that teachers shouldn’t be involved in shaping education policy. Besides their obvious expertise and importance in student success, as the primary actors in implementing any reform it would be both illogical and impractical to ignore their input. But that doesn’t mean that they should take the lead. Teachers shouldn’t be the primary shapers of education policy because they have material interests in the system independent of its effectiveness. Education policy should be guided by actors that are solely interested in what is best for students.

Let me be clear. I am not suggesting that interests of teachers and interests of students or opposed–in other words, that teachers do not want their students to be successful. But it’s indisputable that teacher and student interests are not identical. Last-in first-out layoff policies? Nearly unbreakable tenure guarantees? Blocking of meaningful teacher evaluation systems? While certainly in the interests of teachers, those sorts of policies are at best marginally helpful to students. And that’s a problem. We should be able to point to every facet of our educational system and explain how it is the most efficient and effective way to help kids learn. Teachers primarily shaping policy won’t get us to that point.

Don’t get me wrong. Teachers can and ought to continue to pursue their interests within our education system. But let’s stop the illogical charade that they can simultaneously support what is best for our kids.

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Improving Schools by Empowering Principals

Any teacher will tell you that having a good principal matters. Principals help build a positive school culture, support teachers, and bring the school community together. I am fortunate to teach under a great principal, and his efforts are largely responsible for why my school is a great place to teach and learn.

Yet our education system doesn’t give principals the trust and respect they deserve. In other industries, managers are generally given power over hiring and firing of employees, and then (rightly) held responsible for organizational success. But, due to teacher tenure laws, principals are held responsible for school success without the power. Empowering principals with real managerial authority could encourage innovation, attract more talent into the school system, and ultimately improve student achievement.

Principals have thankless jobs. They juggle complaints and concerns from parents and teachers, receive orders from higher district administrators, and then have to observe their teachers and ensure that the school is meeting instructional standards. Plus seven teachers just called in sick and need coverages. And whoops, then the copy machine breaks. All of this while developing a positive, high-achieving school culture and learning environment.

Yet despite that responsibility, principals lack perhaps the most important power of a manager: hiring and firing their employees. It is unreasonable and unfair to hold principals accountable for the performance of employees that they did not select. That expectation no doubt deters talented people–as well as talented teachers–from entering administration. Furthermore, this lack of power blocks the innovation and dynamic leadership that our schools so desperately need. How can we expect a Steve Jobs-type principal to flourish without an ability to make changes and take risks?

It’s no secret that management matters. That’s why corporate boards spend millions to to find a new CEO, why “search committees” are used for important vacancies instead of Craigslist postings. Yet by limiting principal power, we are blocking the potential for transformative management in our schools. As currently designed, our system forces principals to act as little more than custodians to the bureaucratic slog already in place. Given the crisis in our system, that is simply not enough. Let’s give our principals a fair chance to help our schools be more

StudentsFirst is Right to De-Emphasize Poverty

Michelle Rhee and her organization, StudentsFirst,created controversy this past week after Rhee articulated her education reform vision in a Meet the Press appearance and related TV ad. One common complaint about her argument, as discussed by Diane Ravitch among others, is that it doesn’t acknowledge the connection between poverty and struggling schools.

I’m not going to comment on why there is a correlation between poverty and low achievement–that is best handled by a sociologist. But I think that StudentsFirst and its allies are right to de-emphasize the role of poverty in the achievement gap, for the simple reason that it is more likely to help kids. The urban education crisis demands viable policies that will help kids, not “silver bullets” and trumpeted ideals.

It’s no secret that the U.S. has disturbingly high poverty levels, particularly among children. And it would be ridiculous to argue that this does not have an impact on education. A massive nationwide wealth redistribution, or at least redistribution of school funding, would likely fix a lot of the problems in our schools.

But here’s the thing: that’s not going to happen anytime soon. The continuing outrage over Obama’s healthcare reform bill–which is relatively moderate, of course– is perfect evidence that our country is not ready for radical progressivism. As I’ve written previously, we cannot depend on people to vote against their direct interests. To put it bluntly, in the current political climate “fixing” poverty is a pipe dream.

Now, do advocates of those radical reforms have good intentions? Of course. But good intentions do nothing for kids currently forced to attend ineffective, unsafe schools. Talk of systemic social problems as the cause of low achievement serves as little more than a convenient justification for inaction; it masks and ignores the urgency of the problem. Instead of maligning wealth distribution to little effect, let’s figure out what we can do tomorrow to help kids that are being failed by the system. Every day we do nothing is a moral failure. Imagine that you or your child had to go to a terrible school. Would you be willing to wait for a radical economic reorganization? I bet not.

Rhee understands this. It’s not that poverty is irrelevant, just that it is not useful or practical to emphasize it in discussions of education reform. She rightly supports school choice, tenure reform and other policies because they are realistic to implement, and so can  actually help kids. All education reformers ought to use that same logic. If we’re serious about improving the welfare of our nation’s children, we should pocket our ideals and acknowledge that we need feasible policies, not progressive grandstanding. 

Tenure Cases Hurt the Teaching Profession

Yesterday’s WaPo reports that the Fairfax County, VA school system has dropped its attempt to revoke the tenure of veteran teacher Violet Nichols. As I discussed last month,  Nichols was recommended for termination for  incompetence and unprofessionalism, including leaving insufficient work for students when she was out of school, not taking feedback well, wasting class time, and leaving emails unanswered. She claimed that she was unfairly singled out, pointing to her lengthy record as a strong teacher and valued member of her school community. She suggested that she was targeted because of the color of her skin or her leadership role in the local teachers’ union.

I can’t really comment on whether Nichols or her principal “were right” in this case–I don’t know either of the parties or the circumstances involved. What I do know, however, is that this outcome, though on its face a victory for teachers, is deeply damaging to the reputation of the teaching profession.

In any industry, people get fired; it’s a reality of employment. Whether the reason is a tight budget, “restructuring,” incompetence, or a capricious boss, when you take a job you accept that you could lose it. But teachers don’t really face that risk. To fire a tenured teacher, a school district will inevitably have to win a lengthy, incredibly expensive legal battle with the local union. And given today’s budget constraints, districts rarely can afford to do that. As a result, tenured teachers have essentially gained a “right” to their jobs.

Sounds peachy, right? But teachers accept this at the expense of reputation and societal respect. When teachers hide behind tenure after making a mistake, they flaunt a luxury of the teaching profession not afforded to other professionals. Is it any wonder, then, that teachers are not afforded the same respect? We need to realize that respect and trust is earned through measurable success and accountability; it is not simply handed to us. Teachers won’t be treated like professionals until we start acting like them.

Cheating Scandals and Disrespect of Teachers

According to a report released today, three schools in Washington, D.C. cheated on 2011 standardized tests, while 20 others were found to have some degree of testing violations. These test results were intended to be used for teacher evaluation and hiring, further raising their significance.

This is not the first case of cheating on standardized tests, and it won’t be the last. Indeed, when employees in any industry are expected to meet certain goals, there is a pressure to act deceptively or flat out break the rules (just ask Enron shareholders). When these incidents happen they should be dealt with firmly, harshly, and consistently.

What puzzles me about cheating scandals, though, is that there is a tendency to shift the blame from the perpetrators to the test. As a 2003 Harvard University study claims, high stakes testing actually leads to cheating. From that assertion it is not far to make the next leap: we shouldn’t have these tests.

As an educator, I find that argument deeply offensive. The implicit claim is that teachers will cast all legal, moral, and pedagogical obligations aside when there is pressure to perform. As opposed to blaming the institution, we should blame the cheaters. Any teacher or administrator who willingly contributes to cheating on a standardized test is disrespecting themselves, their profession, their community, and (most importantly) their students. The potential pressure of bonuses, promotions, and contracts is no excuse.  Though I teach at a school where teachers are held accountable for student performance on tests, I have no sense of empathy or solidarity with the accused teachers in D.C. Their actions prove that they should not be in the classroom–nothing more. The teachers I work with have more pride in their work and their students to be so blatantly dishonest. We should do what we can to improve monitoring on tests to prevent this from happening, and of course swiftly remove guilty teachers from the classroom. But let’s not frame this as a problem with testing. Teachers deserve more credit than that.

Thinking about Tenure: The Nichols Case

In the Sunday WaPo, Emma Brown discusses the case of Fairfax, VA sixth grade teacher Violet Nichols, who was recently recommended for termination by Terry Czarniak, her principal. Czarniak provided several pieces of evidence of Nichols’ incompetence and unprofessionalism, including leaving insufficient work for students when she was out of school, not taking feedback well, wasting class time, and leaving emails unanswered.  Nichols, a 21-year teaching veteran, claims that she was unfairly singled out, pointing to her lengthy record as a strong teacher and valued member of her school community. She suggests that she was targeted because of the color of her skin or her leadership role in the local teachers’ union.

I’m not going to comment on the specifics of this case, simply because I have never met any of the parties involved, been to the school or school district, or seen any official documentation. Maybe Nichols’ practice and professional comportment have deteriorated; maybe Czarniak has a vendetta against unions. Ultimately, it obscures the more important point: tenure battles tarnish the reputation of the teaching profession.

The reality is that in any industry, hiring and firing is not entirely based on rubrics and foolproof data. When we interview for jobs, we are told of the importance of silly conventions that are irrelevant to our qualifications or future job perfomance.  Arrive early. Wear a well-pressed suit. Don’t forget a breath mint.  And while data can certainly be used to measure perfomance–particularly in fields like sales–anyone who works in an office knows that intangibles can be just as important in determining whether you remain employed. Are you a positive influence in the office? Are you ambitious and eager to improve? Even if they aren’t quantifiable, those factors matter.

So how does the system work? Ultimately, we assume that bosses have the best interests of the business in mind and so want the best team. They collect all of the information they can about an employee and make a decision about whether they are a good fit. Do bosses make mistakes and fire the wrong person sometimes? Sure. But it’s safe to assume that a boss who makes arbitrary decisions and gets rid of his strongest employees will not remain a boss for very long. The risk remains, but in general the right people end up in the right jobs.

Tenure changes the equation. Principals generally do not have the authority to make decisions about personnel, and if they decide to move to revoke tenure, they are usually in for a lengthy, expensive legal battle. While it is unfortunate that Ms. Nichols may lose her job, I think we need to ask ourselves a simple question: why should teachers be treated differently from other members of the workforce? Judging from Czarniak’s complaints, it seems that Nichols’ actions would have led to her termination in most other jobs. As I’ve previously discussed, if teachers demand unique privileges, we also have to accept a negative reputation and lack of respect. Regardless of the specifics of Nichols’ case, this battle only serves to hurt public views of our profession.

Even Teachers Think that Tenure Means Nothing

The Quick and the Ed has a story on some new data on what teachers think about tenure and the prospect of meaningful tenure reform. The basic conclusion is fairly unsurprising: teachers want to keep tenure, but are willing to consider changes to it. 75 percent of teachers would support unions simplifying the process of removing ineffective teachers; most teachers do not think that tenure should function as a shield for bad teachers. These numbers represent a substantial increase from when the survey was given 5 years ago.

I’m glad to see that teachers are growing more receptive to the idea of tenure reform (though it is mildly terrifying that 1 of 4 teachers think that tenure should remain a barrier to taking ineffective teachers out of the classroom). But that wasn’t the only data presented:

And there is some evidence that tenure is becoming a more meaningful signal of teacher effectiveness than it was just a few years ago. In 2007, only 23 percent of teachers said that awarding tenure meant that a teacher “has proven to be very good at what s/he does” as opposed to just a formality; in 2011, the number increased to 28 percent. A small increase, but a significant one that bodes well for fair and effective tenure reform.

I almost spit out my coffee when I read this. In other words, our system is designed to give essentially lifetime employment to teachers, and even the teachers don’t think it is earned. Even if you support the idea of tenure, how can you justify a system that awards it without effective consideration of quality? I understand that there are benefits of having career teachers; stability in the faculty is great for schools and communities. But if we’re using our tax dollars to employ people for their entire working life, it is reckless and irresponsible to not be sure that they are doing their jobs effectively. And if the employees themselves don’t think that’s happening, we have a major problem.