Hold Them Accountable: Tenure or No Tenure

Eleanor Nicholson

Like a good parent conference, let’s have the good news first. I am in 100 percent agreement with James Thindwa about merit pay. What is there about Wrong!” that businessmen, civic leaders and politicians don’t understand? Children are not widgets, inputs do not equal outputs and the production line is at least 14 years long. Schools are unique among human institutions in that all the constituent pieces – children, teachers, parents, administrators – are often together for years, from pre-kindergarten to grade 12 in some schools. And during those years all the constituents grow older, learn more and, hopefully, grow wiser. The core of good schooling is continuity and stability – or should be.

Teacher unions and schools will both be better off when those who do not, will not and cannot teach are gone.

A century ago, progressive educator Francis Wayland Parker characterized a school as a model home, a complete community and an embryonic democracy.” Those words have guided my work in schools for more than 40 years. Unfortunately, not very many schools are like that, but it’s a vision worth pursuing.

The constituents of a complete community are interdependent. The accomplishment of the third grader and his teacher rests on the accomplishments of the child’s kindergarten teacher, first-grade teacher and second-grade teacher; his individual pattern of development (do those who look to the business model for school success know that children develop cognitively and behaviorally at very different rates?); his parents; and myriad variations in environment and genes. 

Given all this, how can you reward only those teachers whose kids score well on state tests, tests that children take under pressure over a period of a week? One of many snapshots, yes; a test of material learned over the years, no. To do so jeopardizes the precious fabric of a collaborative community.

The problem with education is not teachers alone. In fact, that blatant statement is symptomatic of one of the problems – the lack of respect teachers and teaching receive. In 2010, a Gallup poll asked parents if they respected their children’s teachers. The percentage of positive response was overwhelming. Yet, when asked if the respondent would want their child to be a teacher, one-third of respondents said no.

Some parents are not doing their part and some administrators are not doing theirs; some school boards have failed to serve the public and some schools of education run programs that send their graduates, no matter how mediocre, into the workforce. It’s a hydra-headed monster; no one factor is the problem. 

Young people go into teaching because they want to make a difference in the lives of children; they don’t need to be incentivized.” What they need and want is the opportunity to be both collaborative and autonomous in a high-quality teaching/​learning community, where their voices are heard and respected.

But at every level of schooling we have individuals who have no business being with children. I have seen them shuffling down the halls, I have heard them screaming at second graders and I have watched them exhibit unjust and counterproductive disciplinary methods. Unfortunately, many of these misfits are in the very schools where good teaching is most needed – in our most disadvantaged neighborhoods.

Politicized school boards, angry parents and misguided laws like No Child Left Behind can all hound good teachers out of a school. An inept principal can wreck the career of even the best teacher. Unions were formed to stand up to such injustices.

But teacher unions also protect inadequate teachers. A greater number than deserve get satisfactory” ratings. This will not change until every school uses fair, comprehensive, clear teacher evaluation processes that both establish quality teacher performance and that determine when documented performance does not meet the level of excellence needed to remain in the position. These processes must be developed by and agreed upon by teachers, administrators and the school system, and they must be implemented.

A good evaluation system is time-consuming, which is why it is often done inadequately by busy principals, and why there is often insufficient data to support termination.

With the rubrics for measuring effective teachers, we can identify the poor teachers. They should not remain in the classroom, work with children or be protected by their union. Teacher unions and schools will both be better off when those who do not, will not and cannot teach are gone, tenure or no tenure.

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