Checker Finn gives the “ending teacher tenure” argument the old college try:
Tenure arrived in K–12 education as a trickle-down from higher ed. Will the demise of tenure follow a similar sequence? Let us earnestly pray for it—for tenure’s negatives today outweigh its positives—but let us not count on it.
Yeah, let’s not.
I wish all these tenure-haters would at least acknowledge that teachers can be easily dismissed in some circumstances. Teachers are fired for crossing clear, bright lines is done every day. Having sex with students? Gone. Proven violence against students? Buh-bye.
Even fuzzy lines lead to firing if the circumstances allow it. Have a past or a present that’s simply….distracting? Easy. Have an unpopular opinion? Game over.
Firing teachers simply because the boss just doesn’t think they’re very good? Book some time, start a file, document madly, hit every deadline, give them a lousy schedule and hope they get the hint and leave.
We teachers don’t really have free speech or a right to privacy in any meaningful way, if the students know about it. But we also don’t have any agreement on what makes a bad teacher, which turns out to be our secret weapon. It’s much easier to fire an exemplary teacher who strips (or, gulp, blogs) in private than it is to fire a mediocre one whose students are bored. A new principal who really wants to ‘clean house’ and bring in a bunch of bright shiny new cheap teachers to do her bidding is doomed to disappointment.
You’d think by now that any article pushing to “fire bad teachers” would start by making that distinction, but here I’m the one likely to be disappointed.
Checker’s a bright guy, capable of thoughtful discussion. But here he brings up a goofy red herring, arguing public school teachers don’t deserve the same protections that university professors do.
I’m not convinced by the analogy. K-12 tenure is “trickle down” from university tenure? Eh, maybe. While many journalists give Massachusetts credit for instituting teacher tenure in 1886, the text of the law doesn’t suggest any such thing. More accurately, I think, New Jersey first passed teacher protection laws in 1910. By 1930, tenure had come to most states, and by the 1950s, some 80% of teachers had tenure. The push for women’s suffrage, the ridiculous controls schools boards put on teachers’ private lives, nepotism, and a desire for good governance were all involved in granting K-12 tenure (Dana Goldstein agrees, a tad repetitively.)
Ultimately, university tenure became much more about lifelong employment and academic freedom–similar to judicial appointments. Teacher tenure, on the other hand, began as and remains an offering of job security, more akin to my favorite parallel for the teaching profession: police. So the four or five paragraphs Checker devotes to arguing that K-12 teachers don’t really need academic freedom is pointless.
I agree, we don’t need academic freedom. Which is good, because we don’t have it and have never had it. That’s why I’m anonymous.
How valuable is job security to the employee….Would you rather earn $50,000 a year in a job that you know will continue indefinitely and does not depend on performance, or $75,000 in a job that is assured only for a several-year term and where renewal of the position hinges on your performance in it?
But Checker’s own organization surveys teachers on this very issue every year. Did he forget? Why not cite his own data? Probably because it shoots his case down cold. Teachers are quite consistent: less than 1 in 5 wants merit pay. 3 in 5 teachers in EdNext’s survey think tenure’s a good idea.
It’s no secret that the HR practices of private and charter schools—neither of which typically practices tenure—work far better than those of district schools from the standpoint of both school leaders and their students.
This, too, is a curious argument to make. First, given the fact that neither private nor charter schools have managed to post extraordinary gains over publics, Checker’s claim that tenure is better for students is a bit shaky. At best, all the selection bias and skimming has gotten Checker’s preferred options are a few fractions of a standard deviation, if that.
As for flexibility working better for school leaders–well, immediately before Checker’s article is this piece by Kirsten Schmitz: Why do Private School Teachers Have Such High Turnover Rates? Bad timing, that. Charter turnover is so high we have a term for it.
So Checker’s got some chutzpah in asserting that privates and charters get a big win out of flexibility.
(Notice whose standpoint isn’t mentioned, of course, when discussing hiring flexibility. Notice, too, that Checker argued for decreasing job security as a tradeoff for improving teacher pay but neglects to mention that private schools pay far less than public schools.)
A while back, Paul Bruno argued that teacher tenure is a perk, since the reality is that our chances of being fired are quite low. Bruno’s logic here has never, to my knowledge, been engaged and it’s inescapable:
One of the central tensions for reformers when it comes to improving teacher quality is that on the one hand they believe teachers are fighting desperately for excessive job security but also, on the other hand, that you can substantially reduce that job security without making teaching significantly less attractive.
In theory this is not impossible. Making it work, however, requires admitting that job security is a benefit for teachers and that taking it away will – all else equal – make being a teacher less appealing.
Bruno believes (or believed, he hasn’t been writing for a while) that teacher valuation of tenure is overrated, since we’re not really at risk of being fired, anyway. I agree we’re not at risk of being fired, and tenure vs untenured doesn’t seem related. Compare terminations per district (per teachers per district) in tenured or non-tenured states. My rough take is that terminations has as much to do with size of the district as it does tenure policy (the smaller the average district size, the more firings, particularly in rural areas or charter districts).
But freedom from random firing because a new boss has a new agenda is of considerable value–Paul cites 10% of salary, I’d guess more. Moreover, bosses get extremely tempted to cut payroll by canning older employees. Freedom from that fear is worth a few ducats, too.
Meanwhile, as Checker advocates for easier teacher dismissals, Idaho and South Dakotas legislatures’ attempt to end tenure was rejected by voters. In California, Minnesota, and North Carolina , the courts did the rejecting. Kansas, which did successfully end tenure, is now working to enact legislation to bring it back. Wisconsin’s rollback of tenure and union protections may have led to the state’s teacher shortage, but it’s definitely increased district hopping as teachers negotiate better salaries–not, perhaps, the ideal outcome for anyone but those teachers. Yet Checker acts as if schools are groaning under the weight of unwelcome pension-pathers.
Supply’s the problem, Checker. Firing teachers, ending tenure, pay for performance–those are the choices available in a teacher glut. No one has really pinned down the nature of the current teacher shortage–I wasn’t terribly impressed with this recent study, although I quite like Goldhaber usually–but state behavior of late is pretty consistently taking actions to increase supply. New York’s much derided decision to end the literacy credential test, Illinois similar decision to reduce the testing requirements for teacher credentials, large California districts aggressively recruiting senior teachers from smaller districts with moving bonuses and removing the work years cap for salary calculation(a big disincentive for switching districts)–that’s just a small sample. Most states are making decisions that suggest they’re worried about getting and keeping teachers.
Checker knows better. But his audience–and his funders–don’t. So he keeps spinning the same old line.
Random but not unrelated: My administrator just emailed me my review, with an “outstanding” rating, I am convinced administrators meet up and decide which handful of teachers are going to get singled out for top marks while the rest (usually including me) get lumped into “satisfactory”. Administrators, like bosses everywhere, are restricted on how many top marks they can give out. Most teachers I know realize the box checked isn’t as important as the review text–is it anemic, or strong? Complimentary or critical? The box, eh. But if you think I shrugged off this rating, ask yourself why I mentioned it.