The Elite Attack Teacher Tenure

Steven Strogatz’ tweet drew my attention to the Frank Bruni column in the New York Times with that quote. While this blog post is way too late given how fast debate happens on the Internet, I will still offer a few thoughts on tenure and why the wisest course is to keep it… though many places have already gotten rid of it. (And by the way, I do not think Strogatz buys this simplistic argument Bruni puts forward.)

Tenure basically means that teachers must get due process or some sort of hearing to explain why the district is ending their contract.  The administration needs to have educational reasons for its decision.  Not “my fishing buddy needs a job,” nor “my niece needs a job.”  Yes, there do exist administrators who think that way. Administrators are human beings, and have human nature.

Now let’s look at what Frank Bruni quotes from a Colorado Democratic State Senator Mike Johnston:

“[Tenure] provides no incentive for someone to improve their practice,” he told me last week. “It provides no accountability to actual student outcomes. It’s the classic driver of, ‘I taught it, they didn’t learn it, not my problem.’ It has a decimating impact on morale among staff, because some people can work hard, some can do nothing, and it doesn’t matter.”

There’s an assumption that motivation only comes from losing a job. There’s also an assumption that tenure is the source of morale problems. These are two really tenuous assumptions. Often times, morale is bad because administration insists on pointless or harmful educational techniques. Or maybe administration discourages collaboration among colleagues by eating up the hours with paperwork and meetings.

The whole idea that problems in a school are due to lack of motivation and threat of unemployment (and the poverty that follows in today’s bad economy) is the only way to motivate–that just assumes that the powerful must instill fear in the rank and file. That power dynamic does not work so well between teachers and students (just as it does not work well with police & citizens).

But there’s also a mathematical reason America should not try to hire & fire its way to better teaching. PJ Karafiols worked it out clearly. There’s like 3 million public school teachers in America. And you could try firing 20% of them, that’s 600,000, but…

If lots of bad teachers are suddenly fired, the applicant pool will get worse, both because the fired teachers are now in it, and because lots of people are trying to hire the good ones (remember that 3/5 of the teachers we hire, even under the pessimistic assumption, are good teachers). And then as we’ve seen, hiring procedures become less effective at securing satisfactory teachers for jobs. So as a system-wide policy, “fire the bad teachers” is unlikely to produce substantial improvements for a large fraction (probably more than half) of the kids in the system.

The tenure issue is a waste of time. It sounds nice to people like Frank Bruni, who has written restaurant criticism much of his life, and Whoopi Goldberg, who knows how to entertain people. It sounds nice to politicians (like Johnston & Arne Duncan) who often live under threat of losing their jobs (though there are safe-seat politicians like Barney Frank and Ted Kennedy who accomplish a lot and don’t seem to need extra motivation).  But if the math of firing the bad teachers does not work out, then it won’t work out in the real world.  No matter how many elite people like Bruni or Goldberg (or Rhee or Duncan) want it to.

So it’s time to take the focus off of firing our way to improvement and start focusing on the real question: “What would be a better way to encourage learning?” The vast majority of teachers would love to work on that, instead of test prep and filling out coversheets for TPS reports.

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