Tuesday, January 06, 2009


On tenure

There’s a fight going on in Washington, D.C. — not in Congress or in the White House, but in the city government, between the school chancellor and the teachers’ union. The chancellor wants to build a better staff of teachers by getting rid of the poorer performers. To do that, she proposes ending the tenure system and establishing a merit-pay system... and, in return, giving good teachers significantly more pay:

Washington D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee is fast becoming the country’s best-known urban school reformer. But her proposal to do away with teacher tenure and replace it with an ambitious merit pay program has divided the teachers union.

This is a case that suffers significantly from conflation of a number of its aspects:

  1. Tenure.
  2. Merit pay.
  3. Union contracts.
In particular, there’s a lot of misunderstanding about tenure.

Teacher tenure does not require the continued employment of bad teachers. It’s widely thought that “You can’t fire teachers who have tenure,” but that takes the concept too far. What’s true is that you can’t fire them without good cause. The precise terms are in their contracts.

The purpose of tenure is to give teachers the freedom to teach without unreasonable pressure to toe particular lines drawn by school administration. A tenured teacher needn’t bow to pressure to give good grades to the school’s football star. A tenured teacher with unpopular views can’t be fired because the school is embarrassed about those views. We often need to allow teachers to be innovative — or unconventional — and the tenure system protects teachers in that regard...

...as long as they teach effectively. A bad teacher, though, can be fired for cause, even if that teacher is tenured. And that gets us to the point about the union contract.

How difficult it is to get rid of a tenured teacher who’s no longer effective is controlled by the contract with the union, where the operative definition of tenure is specified. That means that there’s an option someplace between where they are now and where they’d be if tenure were completely abolished. Chancellor Rhee could negotiate changes to the contract that would retain tenure but would change the criteria by which under-performing teachers could be dismissed. Such an agreement would keep the academic-freedom benefits of the tenure system, while requiring teachers to remain effective and relevant. It would give teachers a reason to push themselves, goals to be achieved, without their having to worry about their jobs whenever they wanted to try something new.

Moreover, tenure gives good teachers an incentive to stay where they are, rather than getting a foot in the door and a few years of experience at a “challenging” school, and then moving out to the suburbs where things may be easier. Giving them tenure — which would be lost if they transferred elsewhere — holds them within the system.

Any merit pay system, in any job environment, is tricky to administer. Performance evaluations are always subjective, even when goals are clearly documented. That works both ways, though: it gives administration the flexibility to excuse a failure to reach specific milestones if the reasons for missing them are in the ultimate best interest of the business — in this case, of the students.

A combination of a merit-pay system that allows excellent teachers to be paid what they’re worth, a tenure system that provides them protection from inappropriate administrative action, and a union contract that gives the administration the ability to dismiss teachers that aren’t teaching well is a package that’s in the best interests of administrators, good teachers, and students.

1 comment:

Maggie said...

I always get nervous when I read discussions of "good teachers" and "bad teachers." This is very difficult to measure. It's not as if there is a well established science of teaching (or technology of teaching). If there were, then teachers who adhere to the science/technology of teaching would have more successful outcomes.

There's so much more to teaching than the teacher. So much depends on the student and the student's home environment. So much depends on the other students in the classroom, the individual student's reaction to the teacher and his/her methods, and what has happened in the student's education prior to encountering the particular teacher. So much depends on the administrative support of the teacher, the (probably horrendous) textbook that's been chosen for the teacher, the curriculum to which the teacher must adhere, and the standardized testing that will "measure"... what exactly?

I'm not saying there aren't bad teachers. Of course there are! I had a horrible teacher in college who walked into the classroom, asked us if we had any questions about the chapter, and walked out if we said "no." (Which everyone inevitably did.) Then he went and hid until his class was supposed to be over, and then he went back to his departmental office. Yikes! But would he have been any better if he'd lectured? Would he have been better if he'd come up with innovative assignments? If he writes the outcomes and then he writes the lessons and the assignments, has he succeeded if we met the outcomes? What if his outcomes were bad?

Anyway, it's a lot to think about, and a difficult question. You make good points about the purpose of tenure. If I thought there were a good way to measure teacher performance, if I thought there were anyone who actually knows what it means to teach, then I would agree with merit pay. That's difficult. I think it's a valuable profession and underpaid, but I'm not sure how to fix it. It would be great if we could attract more talent into valuable professions.