Saturday, June 21, 2014

Talking about Tenure and Trust

Rick Hess (one of my favorite bloggers that I frequently disagree with) recently reflected on his conversation with Randi Weingarten about tenure.

He had several smart observations, but I think one of the most useful ones was an acknowledgement throughout that the reform battles in general and the tenure conversation in particular are hampered by distrust on both sides. In a companion post to this one, I look at the question of where such huge distrust was built. In this post, I want to answer a different question:

What would a conversation about tenure look like if we all trusted each other?

Tenure would be a great place to start, because of all the educational issues before us, it's the one on which we already have agreement on most of the major issues.

Teachers know full well that bad teachers exist, probably better than anyone; after all, your kid was in Mr. McNumbnutt's class for a year, but I've been working next door to him for ten. While there are teachers who are going through a patch, need some guidance or are struggling with a difficult assignment, some teachers, having had their chance to shape up, need to get out.

Likewise, many reformsters have acknowledged that teachers need to be protected from capricious firing, that they should have the job security necessary to actually do their job in without fear of retribution for following their best professional judgment.

If we can agree on those two points, everything else in the tenure conversation is detail.

So what would we need to sort out? What topics would have to be settled to create a workable system that protected the interests of teachers, students, and school systems?

A Real Evaluation System

We don't have one. The old system of administrator fly-bys followed by a mostly-subjective eval by the administrator was only as good as the administrator (and sometimes not even that good). The new systems based on some version of VAM are terrible and serve the interests of literally nobody. Administration would get better data out of reading tea leaves. A thorough Danielson-style observation like Pennsylvania's is better, but it is also onerous for principals, who are left with little or no time to perform any of their other duties.

This is a huge challenge, but it's essential. The most fundamental problem with every system ever is that we don't have any reliable way to sort the teachers. Teachers do not fear accountability because we are afraid of having to do our jobs; we fear accountability systems because we're afraid we'll get tagged as ineffective for no good reason.

 Likewise, a school leader nightmare (as they've presented it during tenure debates) is having to fire all their good teachers and make do with the bad ones that are left. We should all be trying to figure out how to fix that. And teachers are going to have to talk about taking a role in the process. (Note: I have a proposal for a system. Just waiting for my call.)

A Remediation System

A school does not want to start from scratch, particularly after they've already invested time and money in a new staff member, and particularly when starting from scratch doesn't necessarily guarantee a trade up.

It's fair to make the question, "How badly do you want to be a teacher?" part of the eval process. It's fair to the teacher and efficient for the district to try to shape up a marginal teacher.

Safeguards for Teachers

We need a system that provides some sort of safeguards for the teachers, some assurances that they if they are terminated, it will be for reasons related to their job performance and not for matters of internal politics or crossing the wrong parent or failing to pucker up for the right tuchus or for being old and getting too large a paycheck. This is a benefit for the school district as well, because it makes recruiting and retention easier and thereby improves the stability of the schools.

Safeguards for the Districts

Districts need to know that firing a clearly-unfit teacher will not turn into an unending legal nightmare. This is where trust would be a huge benefit. Unions fight termination to the bitter end, even when they know the person on the block should be drummed out of teaching, because they don't want the district to use it against them later. They do not want to be trying to defend Ms. McSwellteach from an unjust termination and hear, "Well, you let it go with that last guy."

Districts and unions need to find a point at which they can agree that it's time cut Mr. van Swine loose, and not drag the process out into infinity.

Training and Support for Administrators

One of the reasons the current tenure system is under fire is because it's not used properly. Administrators consider taking action against teachers, but decide it would be hard, or get hives thinking about starting job interviews again, or just hate filling out forms. So they mutter, "Well, I would do something, but, you know, tenure" and hide behind that excuse.

We can put the best new system in the world in place, but it won't survive a bad administrator. Whether he's lazy or clueless or unable to get along with uppity women who don't know their place, an administrator who doesn't know what he's doing will twist any system completely out of shape. Some sort of support and training for the administrators is a minimum requirement.

If we could agree to trust each other to be working to protect the interests of school systems and teachers (and thereby taking care of the interests of students), talking through these five points could begin, and we might end up with a new version of tenure/due process/what have you that would actually work.

Of course, first there's the trust thing.


  1. But such a thing really does already exist. We have it here where I live and where I worked until asked once too often "How does data drive your instruction?" It is pretty much the gold standard of teacher evaluation instruments that I'm aware of, AND it has a remediation component built in!

    I don't know how long ago this was written, but several years at least as our current superintendent is not Jerry Weast (PAR is about the only thing that happened in MCPS during his tenure that didn't make me cringe.).

    The sad thing is that now teacher evaluation must include a "significant percentage" of its weight from student test scores, although we have - surprise! - a moratorium on that for the moment in MD.

    Too many Reformers keep asking how teachers should be evaluated if not by test scores, and they're out there reinventing wheels right left and center, when this one has not only been around but been duplicated elsewhere.

    1. Yeah, I would bet there are many districts out there that had a pretty good handle on things before they were told to scrap it. No question that a serious conversation would include looking at some of the best of what we already had.