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About this blog: The Raucous Caucus shares the southpaw perspectives of this Boomer on the state of the nation, the world, and, sometimes, other stuff. I enjoy crafting it to keep current, and occasionally to rant on some issue I care about deeply...  (More)

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Tenures After (Vergara) Part 3: Tenure and Education Quality

Uploaded: Jul 14, 2014
If there's one thing about which most Americans can agree, it's that our education system needs to get better.

Whether it's academic rankings that place other countries way ahead in math, science and book-larnin' in general, or new curricula like Common Core, or so-called 'skills gaps' between what graduates have and what employers claim they want, or personal family experiences – NObody seems to be satisfied with the status quo.

Where we can't find any consensus is about what changes make sense. Is it home schools, or charter schools, or year-round schools, better teachers, better funding, later start-times, smaller classes, fewer unions, more standardized tests, less standardized instruction methods, more Rs (like religion), exclusive focus on the other three Rs, and on-and-on or what?

If you answered 'better teachers' above, then the recent 'Vergara' decision declaring tenure laws unconstitutional in CA may sound like sweet music. In it, the Judge ruled that a system that grants permanent employee status after two years, makes it impractical to remove incompetent teachers thereafter and makes seniority the sole criterion for who survives lay-offs violates students' fundamental right to educational equality. I wrote last time that I think the case he makes is weak on its Constitutional legal merits; beyond those technicalities, the policy arguments against the current tenure system seem to fall into two categories.

First, there are those who believe in general that "guarantees are bad for the soul" – meaning that the assurance of continued employment discourages effort – as in, why bother? This argument takes a dim, "Theory X"-type view of human nature in general, and of the teaching profession in particular – but okay. There is probably a subset of the teacher universe who are coasting. But how big is it? I think adopters of this view need to reflect on whether fear of job loss is how They themselves are motivated at work, and to what extent. Who among us can claim to always operate at maximum efficiency and effort (certainly not those who comment hereabouts during working hours ;-) )? So, do you think it's really all about the tenure?

It should also be noted that even those, like the estimable Michelle Rhee, who oppose tenure per se do not suggest that teachers should be mostly unprotected, at-will workers (see Part 1). So-called due process or 'Skelly' protections against arbitrary firing are advocated, and in our Lake Woebegone world, where all the children are above average, such protection contributes to candor and avoidance of undue pressure from Snowflake's parents. I argued in Part 1 that tenure does not seem to me to be different-in-kind from Skelly rights, and if it contributes to continuity and perhaps lower acceptable compensation rates (accompanying less job risk), those factors need to be weighed in the overall balance.

The second set of arguments against tenure claim that it protects incompetent teachers, and restricts the flow of newer, energetic blood into the profession. Judge Treu accepted evidence to the effect that there were 1-3% grossly incompetent teachers in CA, meaning between 2700 and 8000 in a population of 275,000 K-12 public educators (those who are 'merely' incompetent were not estimated). But if that also means that 97+% of teachers are Not grossly incompetent, will the removal of those bad apples transform the system? Seems unlikely. *

It's also interesting to look at the Oregon experience, since that state abolished teacher tenure in the 1990s, in favor of 2-year renewable contracts. I found no reports of markedly better student achievement since that time, or as compared to that state's geographic neighbors; indeed the teacher replacement rate didn't even change much in its wake. Now, I think some new blood is often a good thing in the mix, but tenure per se did not seem to be keeping it out. It's also true that teaching skills tend to improve over time and experience – that was absolutely the case in my particular case, which is not unique. Experience and continuity do contribute to teacher performance, and student learning.

For my money, a better argument against tenure, also from Michelle Rhee, is that it tacitly encourages the tendency to treat teachers as fungible, especially as to compensation. We all recall exceptional educators, as well as those who were mediocre. A better incentive to new, innovative, effective teaching would be to reward the best-of-breed, financially. If job insecurity is a stick, then tangible appreciation is a carrot – and carrots always work better. Availability of better pay would also incent better, more frequent and thorough skills evaluation systems, also a good concept (that can be badly applied, but that can also be fixed). Of course, raising the ceiling costs more money, even if there's some lowering of the floor – are you ready to risk more tax dollars on that proposition?

Does California's K-12 system need work? Yes. But are teachers in general, or tenured teachers in particular, the crux of the problems? I doubt it. If 'Vergara' has a lasting impact, it may be to align the disparate interests – teachers, administrators, parents, students, etc. – around the need for reform. And if this case does that, it will have done a great service. I just don't think that tinkering with tenure will be a big part of the solutions.

Next: an educator weighs-in on how to improve the system.

* As an aside, our Unintended Consequences Department here at the RC also reports that if Judge Treu's logic is upheld on appeal, it may usher-in an era of pretty active judicial oversight/interference in matters of education. That era would sooner-or-later extend to the vastly differential funding levels that currently exist among districts, as a similar Equal Protection problem. That suggests diversion of education tax money monies to underfunded districts; those districts are not around here. Be careful what you wish for, perhaps?

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