A few nights ago, I threw my two cents into a twitter conversation between a parent that was anti-tenure, and an educator that was strongly in favor of tenure. My comments apparently struck a chord, because I was answered by Michelle Rhee.
I am not a “two feet in the mud” anti-change minded person. Anyone who has either communicated with me, read my blog, or been in my classroom can attest. I am also not the kind of person who will reduce a discussion to mud-slinging, it is part of my job as an educator to model respectful disagreements and argue my points responsibly. I am not sure if many take that approach to disagreements with Michelle Rhee based on what I have heard in the media.
That being said, I found myself having far too much to say about the topic than would really be appropriate for twitter, so I feel compelled to expand through a blog post.
Her argument was straight forward and made sense. “We don’t need tenure. Principals are held accountable for school student achievement, so they have no incentive to let go of higher paid teachers if they are performing well.” (paraphrased) In an ideal world, where we can isolate decisions down to a single factor, this makes perfect sense. In think tanks, theoretical practice, and with the most virtuous of people perhaps, it may just work.
Unfortunately, this is not the world we live in today (or possibly ever.) Human beings are complicated, social-emotional creatures that incorporate multiple streams of information into every decision we make. Something as simple as, “Do I want to stop writing this and go get some water?” requires me to process a number of different factors before deciding. (If you are wondering, no I did not stop.)
So, in deciding which educators to keep in a situation where reduction is required, a leader will need to take into account how good of a teacher is this person with MANY other factors, including money. Perhaps the situation becomes one where a good teacher that is more expensive is let go to keep two newer, slightly less good, but significantly less expensive teachers. This is just a very simplified example of a much more complicated decision process.
In addition to this, it also assumes that human beings are making decisions in a vacuum that is devoid of emotional feeling. Nobody does this, ever. Yes it may be the case that you have an amazing administrator that is making decisions based on what is best for kids all the time, but even the best people in the business make mistakes. People’s judgment is sometimes clouded by their perceptions. Sometimes that cloud provides negatives, other times positives. Yes, there are quality controls on most observation methods, but we cannot take the human element out of them, nor would we want to do that.
Additionally, you have other complicating scenarios where a teacher may have had a difficult year based on factors beyond their control. Family issues, undiagnosed special needs, student migration, poorly grouped classes, illnesses and more are all little things that greatly change a teacher’s and children’s years.
Finally, teachers need to feel comfortable that they can do what is best for kids. While schools are ideally serving this purpose, sometimes the aim gets muddled along the way. Organizations often change slower than individuals. If a teacher has learned something new, found new supporting research for a practice, or makes a professional determination that the learners in the room need something different, they should have the confidence to step outside the lines and work to make a classroom better for kids. In many cases that is not acceptable.
While administrators should take these things into account as part of being a quality school leader, the day when the value of tenure is depleted has not arrived yet.
I am not advocating for the type of tenure law that was overturned in California, but rather one that requires a teacher have time to become a great teacher. Also, one that allows administrators the time to give a teacher a chance, but to make a change before tenure is awarded if they determine that teacher is not a good fit. Tenure should include streamlined processes for eliminating teachers that are not doing their job well, and cost efficient ways for due process to occur. Essentially this accomplishes the goals of those concerned with tenure protecting “bad” teachers, while also protecting the hard working professionals that will continue to flourish under tenure laws.
I am sure there is so much more to the conversation, but this is a start. I am willing to continue discussing this, so long as we discuss and not disgust!