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Tenure — it’s not a dirty word

Submitted by on Thursday, 13 November 2008 No Comment

Maybe I’ve lived a sheltered life but looking back over more than four dozen teachers I had when I was in public school, there were only three that I’d consider incompetent. And only one hopelessly so.

For the other two, classroom-management was the problem. One was particularly ill-suited to deal with snarky teens. To make it worse, he stuttered when angry, giving snarky teens even more ammo to make his life miserable. He did fine after transferring to lower grades.

The other wanted to be kids’ friends and failed to discipline disruptive students who didn’t want to learn. Absent a program to provide needed mentoring, I bet that problem’s still going on today. But he knew his subject matter and was passionate about sharing what he knew.

The third — a tragically, truly incompetent teacher who challenged high school students with spelling words such as “cat” so as to not disrupt nap time — was protected not by tenure but by tight connections to important people.

Outside education, I’d say the ratios are roughly the same. Three incompetents per 50 workers, and two thirds redeemable with proper coaching.

Which is why I laugh every time I see ending tenure trumpeted as the cure for all ills in education. The latest campaign is in the District of Columbia, where Chancellor Michelle Rhee wants to offer eye-popping raises to entice teachers to give up tenure rights.

Her plan would create two tracks: A red one preserving tenure but with smaller raises, and green, where pay would double within two years but teachers would continue to keep their jobs only if they received a principal’s recommendation and their students’ test scores improved.

The first fallacy: That test scores are an indicator of much more than an ability to gray in a bubble. And even if tests were as wonderful as some like to believe, relying on year-to-year results overlooks the fact that each year sees a different set of students tested. It’s no secret that some groups of children simply achieve more than others.

The second fallacy: That people are stupid enough to fall for this. The subset of incompetent and oblivious that I’ve run into in my life is pretty small. The “incompetent but smart enough to know it” set will park in the red track.

Many competent teachers will land there, too, fearful of losing their livelihoods due to arbitrary or capricious decisions. Yes, it happens. For every incompetent worker I’ve seen let slide, I’ve seen just as many good people shooed off because they didn’t hang with the in crowd.

So instead of expending so much energy and money on blowing up tenure, why not focus on things that truly would improve education — making sure every child starts school ready to learn and supplying families that need help with the tools to keep their kids on track?

The tenure controversy has roiled DC since summer, showing no signs of abating. Rhee actually has a better plan on the table, even though she went to it after her salary-track proposal stalled. Using existing law, she wants to provide “helping instructors” to teachers needing assistance. The problem here, though, is it gives teachers 90 days to improve. Yes, let’s fix years of problems in a few months. People always perform better when they’re running scared.

Rhee has said she wants to help teachers “who have the will but are underperforming,” and that’s great. I applaud Rhee’s “no excuses for not learning” posture, but her rush makes it seem like she’s on a witch hunt.

It will take more than 90 days to fix DC’s schools, just as it took more than 90 days to create the mess in there and elsewhere. Tenure tracks and bubble tests are distractions that will keep the mess a morass indefinitely.

Copyright 2008 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.

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