Monday, July 18, 2011

The Conversation Around Teacher Tenure

For the past few years, teacher tenure has come under increasing attack. Advocates claim tenure provides a valuable counterweight to arbitrary firings of competent professionals. Detractors argue that tenure stalls effective personel decisions and keeps ineffective teachers in classrooms.

Many people participating in the debate are surprisingly unaware of exactly what tenure is, why it was implemented, and what value it has (or was intended to have).

Tenure, in most districts, is normally granted to teachers after three years of adequate service, following a series of administrative evaluations. Within the first three years of their career, teachers are subject to the possibility of much swifter termination. Once tenure has been granted, the school district is required to submit evidence that the teacher should no longer be in the classroom. There is usually a hearing and an arbitrator to help decide whether the teacher is, in fact, unfit to teach children. In other words, tenure grants teachers due process rights - the right have their side of the story heard and dispute charges brought against them.

Opponents often claim that tenure is equivalent to granting a teacher a job for life. They speak out of the understandable frustration that comes from witnessing and reading about the trouble many districts have had terminating teachers.

While granting an ineffective teacher tenure may have the effect of ensuring them a job for life, the problem is not with tenure as a concept, but with the bureaucracy the termination process is forced to follow in many districts. A recent episode of Lawline provides significant insight into this process in New York City. If you're at all interested in this subject, watch the show below.

The most salient moments of the show include former New York City Department of Education Prosecutor Michael Mazzariello's conviction that he never found firing a tenured teacher difficult if the administrator had done their job. He suggests that the 3020a process (which is the hearing process for a tenured teacher accused of being ineffective) is held up because there are a lot of people making money off the extension of the process. In New York City, the law states the 3020a process is to be finished in 6 months, but it often goes much longer because, Mazzariello claims, arbitrators making $1100 a day have everything to gain by extending the process.

Bryan Glass, a lawyer representing teachers, says that tenure has been emasculated in New York. He notes that it's becoming easier and easier for the Department of Education to terminate teachers who've earned satisfactory ratings for decades in only a short amount of time. Additionally, many arbitrators in the City, Glass says, are new to the position, have no idea what they're doing, and are terminating teachers for "the most ridiculous things."

David Schnurman, the show's host, is reminiscent of many members of the public who've never worked in education but find themselves concerned with its state due to the recent media attention given to it. Armed with information he's gleaned from The Cartel, a polemic inappropriately billed as a documentary about New Jersey's education system (similar to Waiting for Superman), Schnurman asks leading questions and attempts to counter the views expressed by the panelists. In one instance, Schnurman incredulously asks, "Is the fear really though if there's no tenure that all of the sudden principals are gonna start arbitrarily firing people?" To his apparent surprise, his three panelists answer with a resounding affirmative.

Schnurman's views are understandable. Those who've not worked in a school with incompetent administrators or dealt with the bloated educational bureaucracy often do not understand the working environment many teachers are forced to endure. Fighting the effects of poverty and student apathy is one thing. Fighting vindictive incompetence in your leadership is quite another.

As Bryan Glass points out, the way the New York City Department of Education is moving in regard to tenure is creating an increasingly young, increasingly less expensive, increasingly inexperienced teaching force. Superintendents are requiring enormous amount of evidence from teachers and principals before granting tenure (see a teacher's letter to his/her superintendent). The DOE (in addition to the state of New York, and many other states across the country) is also requiring the use of student test scores in determining tenure, despite warnings from test companies and a wide community of education and testing experts concerning tests' inability to accurately determine teacher effectiveness (this is not happenstance). It's even been mentioned that teachers who work at failing schools might be automatically ineligible for tenure.

There is no question that the NYC DOE is acting in an effort to spend less money on teachers and less money on an obviously flawed process for removing tenured teachers. The result, however, will be that students will end up with less and less experienced educators, which should make one pause.

Many who participate in the education conversation seem to be confused as to the nature of the conversation they're participating in. E4E is a prime example. They seem to believe they're participating in a discussion in which the goal of all parties is to ensure the best teacher in every classroom. Financial hardships, committed ideologies, and no-bid contracts to private tech companies will not, in reality, allow that discussion. The tenure discussion could be about amending it to practically ensure experienced educators with a track record of performance are protected from incompetent administrators (Mazzariello says he ran into hundreds or thousands of cases like that as a prosecutor). It will instead be about the degree to which it should be emasculated. Just so long as you know the conversation you're participating in...

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