How Not to Reform Teacher Tenure

TNTP have decided to stake out a middle ground on the tenure wars, claiming that we don't need to eliminate it -- just fix it. And to that end, they have eight proposals to create "a more balanced system." It's all in this very fancy "paper," which I am now going to "respond to" in this "blog post."
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TNTP, the Reimagine Teaching people and generators of plenty of fancy-looking reformy nonsense, have some more ideas for the post-Vergara world. They have decided to stake out a middle ground on the tenure wars, claiming that we don't need to eliminate it -- just fix it. And to that end, they have eight proposals to create "a more balanced system." It's all in this very fancy "paper," which I am now going to "respond to" in this "blog post."

1. Lengthen the Tryout Period

Awarding tenure after two years is too fast, say the reformsters. Let's make it five years.

Well, let me blunt. If your administrator can't tell whether someone's a keeper or not after two years, your administrator is a dope.

But why five years? Could it be because that will guarantee a more steady turnover, allowing us to pursue our goal of fewer (or none) career teachers, thereby reducing the costs of our school business (goodbye pay raises, and goodbye pension costs). As always, I'm really waiting for fans of the longer tryout period to wrap up their argument with, "...and that's why nobody should hire TFA short-timers ever."

2. Link Tenure to Strong Performance

Today, the only performance requirement for earning tenure is not being fired. In most districts, any teacher who remains on the payroll for a given amount of time is automatically tenured.

First off, depending on what you think constitutes being fired, this is basically saying that the only way to not get tenure is by not getting tenure, which is either very zen or very dumb. At any rate, I can tell you that my own small district has let teachers go prior to awarding tenure. But look -- there's a hugely weird hole in this argument. If your problem is that your district doesn't get rid of teachers during the years they don't have tenure, what possible good will it do to have more years of teachers not having tenure. If your administrators are too dopey to let poor tenureless teachers go, how will you fix that with more tenureless teachers??

Anti-tenure folks like to cite stats about how few teachers are fired, but it's a bogus number. Some large but uncounted number of teachers are counseled out, forced out, chased out, and given the chance to resign with their dignity intact. And that's not counting those who are so miserable (because doing a job poorly is not much fun) that they run away on their own.

Teachers should earn tenure only after showing they can consistently help their students make significant academic progress.

How dopey is this statement? Let me count the ways

1) Do you seriously want to claim that when it comes to your seven-year-old child, the only thing you want out of her teacher is to drag better test scores out of your offspring? That's it? Are you saying that when parents, particularly parents of small children, use the phrase "great teacher" that has no meaning beyond "teacher who got my child to score higher on those tests."

2) You have no idea how to tell if a teacher consistently helped students make significant academic progress. What you mean is, "teacher got standardized test scores to generate, via some invalid disproven VAM method, numbers that look good."

3. Make Tenure Revocable

"Teachers who earn poor evaluation ratings for two years in a row should not be allowed to keep tenure." So this suggestion means either A) tenure should not actually be tenure, which is absurd, or B) teachers with tenure should still be fireable, which is already the case. Next?

4. Focus Hearings on Students' Interests

This one starts out rather bizarrely. The argument is that while "just cause" hearings say they mean the district has to prove a good cause for dismissal, in practice, "districts have been held to a much higher standard." You would think a fancy thinky tank style paper might offer some support for that assertion, but you would be wrong.

TNTP claims that arbitrators often consider the possibility of remediation as a factor, and TNTP says that's like requiring courts to convict only if they think the defendant is both guilty and likely to repeat. It's an odd complaint, given that the justice system is just riddled with places where punishment and rehabilitation wrestle for the upper hand. From the juvenile justice system (predicated strictly on rehab) up to three strikes laws (too many repeats and the punishment increases), the justice system is absolutely loaded with considerations of both rehab potential and recidivism. But TNTP is in a hurry to draw a line between not raising student standardized test scores and becoming a convicted criminal, so there we are.

TNTP wants the hearing to focus on the potential harm to students if the teacher went back to the classroom. So, um, wait -- the arbitrator should consider how likely it is that the teacher will do a bad job again? As the argument ouroboros disappears into its own mouth, TNTP does note that superintendents should come down hard on any principal abusing the process through incompetence or bad intent.

5. Make Hearings More Efficient

Quicker is what we're looking for here. I don't think anybody at all disagrees with the notion of speedy hearings. "I'm so happy that I get to wait even longer to find out what's going to happen to my entire professional career," said no teacher ever. TNTP wants hearings to take a day, because screw complicated situations or a need for either side to present all of their information. But keep the proceedings aimed at producing speedy results? I think we can all get on board with that in principle.

6. Hire Independent Arbitrators

Arbitrators depend on school districts and teachers' unions for their employment, and so might be inclined to keep everybody happy. TNTP suggests using hearing officers such a judges to hear cases, because those guys never come with any biases, and because the court system is bored and empty with hardly any other work to do.

TNTP's complaint is not without merit, but as with much of the tenure argument, it assumes that unions have a real interest in preserving the jobs of bad teachers. That's generally not true. Teachers' unions have an interest in preserving the process, in making sure that there's no precedent by which a district can fire a teacher just because, you know, everybody knows he ought to be fired. The union's interest is in making sure that the district does its homework. That's all. It's not unheard of for unions to be quietly happy that they lost one and that Mr. McAwfulteach is out of there. But the process must be preserved, because contrary to reformster lore, there are not a gazillion bad teachers clogging schools nationwide.

7. Stop Tolerating Abuse and Sexual Misconduct

Well, other than framing this as a "When did you stop beating your wife" fallacy, there's nothing to argue with here.

8. Lower the Professional Stakes for Struggling Teachers

We should be able to fire teachers without taking away their licenses. That way, presumably, principals won't be so reluctant to fire teachers, and they will do it more often because they won't be "concerned about ending the careers of teachers who might perform well in other circumstances."

Which is an odd phrase to throw in there. I'm just trying to imagine a situation in which a tenured teacher deserves to be fired from one school, but would be a great addition at some other school. I'm having trouble.

Unless what we're hypothetically talking about here is the problem of high-poverty schools being career-enders under the reformster system. Because if you teach in a high-poverty school, you will have students whose standardized test scores, which means you will be judged to be ineffective, which means you will not get tenure or, perhaps, you will be fired for being ineffective. Given all that, nobody who understood the system would ever take a job in a high-poverty school ever. But if they knew that after they were inevitably fired, they could still get a job somewhere else, that would make it more appealing, maybe?

While TNTP's proposal has some worthwhile components, it still contains the basic outline of a system that throws out tenure and replaces it with a teacher employment system based on test results. That serves the interests of nobody (not teachers, students, taxpayers, citizens, or parents) except for folks who want to reimagine teaching as the sort of job that never becomes a lifetime career.

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