Ever since the Reagan administration sold the public on the idea that the education system was failing our students, there has been countless misguided attempts to identify the source of a problem that doesn’t exist. Under the 2nd Bush administration, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) attempted to redirect financial resources at the subgroups of the student population in an effort to “close the gap.” The effect of these efforts have been measured by a multitude of standardized assessments. After more than ten years, these efforts proved ineffective. The gap not only wasn’t closed, but became larger.
Under the Obama administration, the Race To The Top (RTTT) program brought something to the forefront that had been swirling around beneath the surface of NCLB. If ten years of focused financial resources and standardized tests didn’t work, then the source of the problem must be the teachers. Thus began the “all teachers are bad” narrative, and concerted effort began to weed out all of the bad teachers and replace them with professionals from other career industries who are experts in their field. Never mind the total absence of educational theory.
The requirements for states to participate in RTTT were few, but by design, were incredibly different outlooks on the education profession. The idea was that teachers are too comfortable in their positions because tenure makes it incredibly difficult to fire them; therefore, bad teachers are protected by tenure. Career teachers not only are a burden to the payroll system, but are also rooted in the old ways and not receptive of new teaching methods. Of course, none of this is even remotely true.
Tenure was among the first things attacked during the early years of education reform in Louisiana in order to meet the requirements of RTTT. What is tenure, and why is important? Tenure is a form of protection that is awarded to teachers after serving a minimum number of years. What protection?
- Tenure protects teachers from being fired for personal, political, or other non-work related reasons
- Tenure prohibits school districts from firing experienced teachers to hire less experienced and less expensive teachers.
- Tenure helps guarantee innovation in teaching by freeing the teacher of the pressure to teach standard lesson plans or teach to a standardized test.
- Tenure allows teachers to advocate on behalf of students and disagree openly with school and district administrators.
- Tenure protects teachers from being prematurely fired after a student makes a false accusation or a parent threatens expensive legal action against the district.
These are just a few of the benefits to earning tenure. Contrary to the narrative, tenure does not protect bad teachers. It protects good teachers. The problem is that education reformers want to use poor test results as a reason to dismiss a teacher and tenure would prevent that because student outcomes is not entirely dependent on the effectiveness of a teacher. For example, when a teacher takes on the responsibility of an Advanced Placement class, the makeup of the class most certainly is mostly high performing students. When most, or all, of these student score very high on a standardized test, such as ACT, the tendency is to label that teacher a “very good teacher.” It is probable that the teacher is good; however, they could also be mediocre. It is more likely that the students’ intrinsic motivation, family structure, financial resources, etc. contributed to the high scores.
Now, consider the teacher who takes on the very difficult responsibility of teaching a low-performing special needs class. Though there are exceptions, it is likely that the students in this class will not perform well on a standardized test such as the ACT. Do we automatically assume that this teacher is bad? No. It is probable that all of the things that made the other class a high performing class are simply barriers to the low performing class.
What about all of the teachers who teach somewhere between that high performing class and the low performing class? Their student outcomes are a shooting match. You don’t know what your class makeup will be as for as these things go. Is this truly a valid method of identifying bad teachers? No.
What we need to do is abandon this idea that student outcomes identify bad teachers and begin to address what really does. In the next blog, I will identify these things and talk about what it is about the current system that perpetuates the idea that tenure makes it difficult to fire bad teachers.