Battle over Tenure Pushes Teachers to the Edge

Michelle Chen

Teachers and their supporters gather to protest the passage of Florida legislation that would link teacher pay increases primarily to student performance on tests, on April 12, 2010, in Miami, Fla. The bill is opposed by many teachers, who fear it would eliminate long-term job security for new teachers.

It’s Teacher Appreciation Week, but many educators are feeling pretty underappreciated these days. Within a few months, hundreds of thousands of education workers – teachers, school support staff and higher education faculty – could end up going home with a pink slip, according to the American Federation of Teachers.

Although the Obama administration has offered a small fiscal boost through the Race to the Top initiative, which pushes schools in select states to produce amorphously defined innovation,” many districts are struggling to scrape by as stimulus funding evaporates.

So at a House Education and Labor Committee hearing on May 4, members of Congress got a basic lesson in arithmetic: lower funding means fewer educators, and in turn, more kids learning less in the classroom. Teachers and education reformers called for federal rescue package through bill proposed by Sen. Tom Harkin, still under negotiation. The problem gets complicated, though, when the politics of education reform enter the equation: the legislative discussion centers not only on the immediate budget crisis, but how to decide who deserves to keep their job.

The recession has provided lawmakers an opportunity to explore cutting back on seniority-based job protections. Critics say tenure makes many incompetent teachers nearly impossible to fire, and the last one hired, first one fired” policy disproportionately harms promising young teachers who just lack experience.

On the other hand, scrapping tenure protection could give policymakers and administrators a pretext for arbitrary dismissals. And teachers unions – a perennial target for privatization-oriented reformers–have good reason for skepticism.

The latest flashpoint in the national debate over teachers’ earned job security is proposed legislation in Colorado, which threaten to block teachers from tenure if they failed to meet certain academic-growth criteria,” including test scores.

Elizabeth Collins and Gregg Janus, representing a local teacher union, wrote in a recent opinion piece that the proposed reforms would only exacerbate inequities in the public school system:

The problem most educators have with this is there is no equitable way teachers can be assessed by the way students learn.

This would imply all students learn the same, that all students have the same support at home, that all assessments of learning are fair and equitable, that parents are held accountable for ensuring their children attend school regularly, and all students come into the classroom motivated to learn and do their best. None of these things are the case. Teachers cannot be held accountable for variables over which they have no control.

No school benefits from dysfunctional personnel policies, but would schools really improve if teachers were easier to fire? Patrick McGuinn of the Center for American Progress argues that the current tenure system prevents school leaders from removing ineffective teachers and has forestalled the creation of a robust system of teacher evaluation and professional development.” He also notes that the major unions themselves have recognize that fundamental reforms to teacher compensation, evaluation, and tenure policies are inevitable in the era of accountability.”

But another CAP study on teacher tenure concluded that the call for more freedom to fire weak teachers hasn’t been matched by an effort to develop rigorous standards for evaluating which teachers really deserve to stay.

  • States and districts do not invest in the development and implementation of teacher standards or the robust assessments necessary to assure that those beginning teachers who earn permanent status meet rigorous criteria of quality teaching.
  • Teachers need due process protections given the current status of principal and other administrator training, the lack of investment in serious teacher standards and evaluation, and the stress placed on the school system by demands for accountability, reasonable and otherwise.
  • Labor-management agreements can develop rigorous, fair, and streamlined systems for granting continuing employment to effective teachers and removing veteran teachers who are not performing up to standards.
  • Merely eliminating tenure without addressing the conditions that lead to the recruitment, development, and retention of teachers will neither address the major causes for the presence of inadequate teachers in the system nor lead to significantly improved teacher qualit

Still, the New Teacher Project makes a fairly logical case for reforming the mechanical” firing system, arguing that quality-blind layoff rules” are a relic of a factory-model approach to labor management relations that treats teachers like widgets, [and] they demean teachers by ignoring substantial differences in performance.” As an alternative, the group argues that layoff decisions should take into account a teachers’ administrative evaluations and attendance records, while years of service, attainment of specific certifications, and out-of-classroom responsibilities, should also be factored in, though not weighted as heavily.”

The Center for Teaching Quality advocates a more proactive evaluation system, which rewards outstanding work but does not aim to punish teachers based on standardized test scores. From a pro-union reform perspective, the Tom Mooney Institute for Teacher and Union Leadership pushes back against stereotypes of union protectionism and advocates for peer-based teacher evaluations that draw on more holistic standards.

But even with the fairest layoff policies, what would prevent administrators and officials from exploiting the expanded layoff policies to balance budgets at the expense of staff? Tenure policies obviously should treat educators as interchangeable assembly-line robots. Yet that’s exactly why the paradigm needs to shift away from who gets thrown into the layoff pool,” to how to sustain solid schools that enable all children to thrive.

But such a vision may not always be the impetus behind the anti-tenure agenda, which relentlessly targets unions without proposing an equitable, comprehensive alternative reform model. The same tone surrounds the flipside of flexible” layoffs – the rush to funneling in new teachers into the ranks through elite fast-track programs like Teach for America. Both initiatives reflect the market-oriented corporatist approach championed by the previous administration and current Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

Meanwhile, underresourced schools are at high risk of losing teachers not through layoffs but through turnover associated with job dissatisfaction and poor working conditions–two problems that won’t be solved simply with more pink slips.

As Jim Horn argues on Schools Matter, making a teaching job contingent on overly rigid quality” measures like test scores, will entrench dubious forms of student assessment and will hasten the flight of the remaining good teachers from the poorest schools where the best teachers are already in the shortest supply.”

There’s no easy answer to the challenge getting every classroom staffed with a great teacher. But if the administration is serious about creating and maintaining a strong education workforce, why do the mainstream solutions proposed by policy wonks so often aim to erode job security for career educators?

Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

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