"The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves." -- John Adams

"No money shall be drawn from the treasury, for the benefit of any religious or theological institution." -- Indiana Constitution Article 1, Section 6.

"...no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish enlarge, or affect their civil capacities." – Thomas Jefferson

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Tenure and Unions

It's perfectly clear in the new movie, Waiting for Superman, by film maker Davis Guggenheim. The problem with the public schools of the United States comes down to two things.
  1. Bad Teachers
  2. Teachers Unions
And it's not just Guggenheim. His movie, advertised as a documentary, but in actuality, an editorial, is part of a public relations plan. The "reformers," Arne Duncan, along with President Obama, Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and now perhaps Oprah Winfrey, are blaming teachers and their unions for the "decline" of our schools.

Tenure, they say, protects bad teachers. Unions support and protect the tenure system which, they say, gives teachers in K-12 a "job for life." The only problem with that statement is that it's wrong.

Tenure, as defined by these reformers and in turn, the general public who listens to them, does not exist. K-12 teachers who achieve tenure -- or permanent status -- do not have a job for life. According to Perry Zirkel, a professor of education and law at Lehigh University's School of Education,
Tenure is no more than a legal commitment (set by the state and negotiated union contracts) to procedural due process, ensuring notice and providing a hearing for generally accepted reasons for termination, such as incompetency, insubordination, and immorality.

Tenure’s primary purpose is economic job security, tied to the otherwise uncompetitive pay in comparison to other professions; however, tenure is not a lifetime guarantee.

Nor does tenure necessarily mean a costly and complicated process for terminating a poorly performing teacher. The balance between a teacher’s individual rights and the school board’s institutional responsibility can be a fairly efficient process. The extent of the procedural process that is “due” depends initially on the will of the public at the state legislative and local contractual level. It may be no more than reasonable written notice of the charges and a one- or two-night board hearing with prompt impartial review.
During 30+ years teaching in public schools I worked with a lot of teachers -- as many as 200. The last 15 or so years of my experience in education was as a non-classroom support teacher, a reading specialist. I was able to actually go into classrooms and see other teachers teach. I saw some bad teachers in action. I could name about 10 teachers I worked with who shouldn't have been teaching. Perhaps they were good teachers at one time, but when I saw them I felt that they weren't doing the job.

However...that's just my opinion. How do we know if a teacher is good or not? Test scores? There are dozens of variables that go into a student's score on a standardized test; their emotional state during the test, whether they had decent meals, their age, and their economic status. Their teachers are an important piece, but not  the whole answer. Over the years educators, school systems and teachers themselves have developed evaluation tools to determine if a teacher is doing their job. Most of the evaluation procedures included "remediation" for teachers who were struggling.

Evaluations are, for the most part, done by building level administrators. Principals visit classrooms and watch teachers teach. They plan visits, conduct surprise visits, interview the teachers and perhaps students as well, and then, use the evaluation tool as an instrument to "grade" the teacher's performance.

What happens when teachers get poor evaluations? Several things are possible, including rebuttals or re-evaluations by another administrator, but the most common thing is for a teacher to begin an improvement plan to help them succeed.

Once the improvement plan is completed the teacher is re-evaluated, sometimes by the same person. If they receive another poor performance they may be terminated for incompetence.

So why is it so hard to "get rid" of bad teachers? It's the administrator's job to identify and document the "badness" of a teacher. If that's done, then the termination can be made. Tenured teachers have recourse to "due process" meaning that the school has to prove that they are, indeed, incompetent. If the administration can prove this, then the teacher is dismissed.

What often happens though, is that teachers are evaluated haphazardly. Even a good evaluation tool is worthless if it's not used correctly or to its full benefit. If a bad teacher gets good evaluations year after year from lazy, overworked, or incompetent administrators a poor evaluation then becomes suspect if it suddenly appears. Due process is the way teachers are protected from retaliation by or personality conflicts with administrators. To deny due process is to deny the basis of the American legal system. Everyone deserves the right to defend themselves against their detractors.

Administrators must evaluate teachers honestly, and bluntly...the same ways that teachers have to evaluate students. If there's a bad teacher in a school, confront them...help them improve...and terminate them if they don't. To do that, they have to document exactly what's wrong with the teacher's pedagogy or in what way they did not sufficiently do their job, as well as steps which were taken to improve the teacher's performance. Administrators, like teachers, have to be trained...and have to do their job.

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