5 Facts to Remember in the Teacher Tenure Debate

old teacherThe issue of tenure never used to come up in conversation between my teachers friends and me.  Since the North Carolina General Assembly acted on the growing movement among conservative legislatures and began to eradicate the practice, however, it is all that we seem to talk about.  And since the Vergara ruling in California earlier this month, it seems the Internet is similarly obsessed.

As is my tendency, I tried to absorb as many facts and as much opinion as I could find (on both sides of the issue) before writing about how I feel.  Here’s a sampling of writing by some really knowledgeable folks:

  • Tom Whitby writes here about why he feels that the Vergara ruling is potentially devastating to the profession.  In particular, Whitby makes the point that poverty trumps teacher effectiveness in their effect on student learning.
  • Peter Greene, like several others, points the finger at teacher evaluation.
  • The always-awesome Valerie Strauss does a fantastic job summarizing the conversation and clarifying what exactly tenure is.

After reading those posts and many others, as well as tracking down some references on the subject, here are five important things that educators and legislators alike need to keep in mind about the issue of teacher tenure:

  1. Tenured teachers can be fired.  Tenure is simply a commitment to follow due process before terminating a teacher.  Many other professions have similar due process that isn’t call tenure, leading to the erroneous belief that teacher tenure is something particularly special or unique.
  2. Many teachers, especially in the states in which tenure is being argued vehemently, are evaluated based on student test scores.  This should only be acceptable to you if you believe that these test scores actually measure the learning that we want students to have AND you trust the faulty VAM statistics to tell us whether individual teachers increase scores.
  3. Firing the least effective teachers is one of the least effective (and efficient) ways to improve public education.  It may seem a lot cheaper to simply fire the teachers who are not doing a good job, but you still need to train more teachers to take their place.  It has been proven that providing high-quality professional development results in a more effective teaching force.
  4. With or without tenure, teacher job protections vary greatly between union and “Right To Work” states.  In North Carolina, for example, recent moves to phase out teacher tenure by the General Assembly may have little effect on job security.  But in  states like New York and California, unions have negotiated strong protections that have (in the past) led to situations like the infamous “rubber rooms“.  Ironically, tenure is often toted as compensation for otherwise inadequate pay, yet the states with the highest pay also have the strongest tenure provisions.
  5. Tenure is the only reason veteran teachers can compete with new teachers who earn much less money.  On the contrary, research has shown again and again that it costs less to keep and train veteran teachers than to equip new teachers.  And, the research is similarly clear about the greater impact that veteran teachers have on student learning.

I’m still a bit undecided about whether tenure harbors unfit teachers or protects academic freedom.  What I know for sure is that in a world in which student success and teacher effectiveness are measured using high-stakes standardized tests scores, it’s hard to tell which teachers are truly mastering their craft.

Unless, you know, you actually watch them teach.  Duh.  #sarcasticbuttrue

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