Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Teacher tenure under severe fire in U.S.

By Trip Gabriel and Sam Dillon, New York Times, January 31, 2011

Governors in Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Nevada and New Jersey have called for the elimination or dismantling of tenure. As state legislatures convene this winter, anti-tenure bills are being written in those states and others. Their chances of passing have risen because of crushing state budget deficits that have put teachers’ unions on the defensive.

“It’s practically impossible to remove an underperforming teacher under the system we have now,” said Gov. Brian Sandoval of Nevada, lamenting that his state has the lowest high school graduation rate in the nation...
The former school chancellor of Washington, D.C., Michelle Rhee, who campaigned against tenure as early as 2007, has made abolishing it a cornerstone of a new advocacy group, Students First, which has advised the governors of Florida, Nevada and New Jersey.

All are Republicans, but Ms. Rhee, a Democrat, insisted that the movement was bipartisan.
“There’s a willingness to confront these issues that has never before been in play,” she said, noting that some influential Democratic mayors, including Cory A. Booker in Newark and Antonio R. Villaraigosa in Los Angeles, have also called for making it easier to dismiss ineffective teachers.
Everyone has been a student in a classroom where a teacher at the front of that classroom should never have enetered the profession. And everyone also knows a horror story about a teacher who, in their view, did not deserve tenure. As a former, now retired, member of the O.S.S.T.F. (the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, the union for high school teachers in Ontario), over a twenty-plus year career in private and public schools in Ontario, I am also aware of the names of teachers who needed to be retired, removed, or terminated. And the reasons are as diverse as are the reasons for supporting a policy of tenure.
First, it is tragic that the American education system is now calling on this deep reservoir of resentment against tenure, at a time when both the performance of students is at an all-time low and the pressures of budget cuts are at an all-time high.Also at an all-time low is the public reputation of labour unions. It is far too easy and far to glib to point the gun at the tenure policy, as one of the most important remedies of the system. It is one of the issues that require address, but certainly not the only one.
While there is research that links student performance to teacher performance, the question of how to evaluate a teacher's performance has been a significant conundrum for decades. Let's look at some of the variables that constitute teacher performance:
  • subject knowledge and enthusiasm
  • preparation of detailed lesson plans
  • outline of specific expectations for students
  • classroom management and organization
  • capacity and skill to motivate students' learning
  • student enrolment and evaluation patterns
  • student performance on examinations, tests and assignments
  • continuing scholarship and peer leadership
  • integration into both the school community and the local neighbourhood
  • respect for and from students of all backgrounds, interests and abilities
  • mental, emotional and physical health and wellness including the capacity to withstand social and political pressures
  • examplary role model for students intellectually, socially, culturally, and relationally
The list, while not to be considered complete, or exhaustive, begs some questions. While each of these qualities has both an objective and a subjective aspect to it, only the objective aspect achieves a standard measurement approach. Certainly, the subjective qualities, and the ranking of each quality in its importance to a specific school principal, board, city, town and perhaps even state or province will vary widely from place to place.
Another variable is the quality of the evaluator(s) and their perspective on the teacher being evaluated and the relative importance of each criterion. There is, and has always been, a significant degree of subjectivity in evaluation of teacher performance.
In the days of provincial examinations for graduating students English essays were submitted to various "markers" at the same ecaluation session, and the grades ranged from A to F on the same essay. Similarly, a teacher's grade will depend on the quality, consistency, reliability and veracity of the evaluation process.
And to reduce the process to some kind of exclusively objective evaluation is to completely miss the point of the exercise.

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