I’m a big fan of raising teacher pay to a level that is competitive with other professions; I think you’d get a much wider pool of applicants than you currently get and give the profession an injection of much-needed cache. But that idea is understandably unpalatable given the current way teacher tenure currently works: Here in NYC, teachers are usually awarded tenure after three years, making them effectively unfireable before it’s really possible to measure whether they’re, you know, good teachers. In the long run, we can’t make serious improvements in teacher pay until we can make sure we’re not giving lifetime job security to teachers who are dead weight.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said last week that he wants to tie the way the city awards tenure to its teachers to student performance, a proposition that the teachers union has never been all that thrilled with. It’s hard not to be sympathetic to his goals, but the plan has a fundamental problem: we still don’t really have a workable, scalable metric for evaluating teacher performance. We’re all rightly skeptical of standardized tests, but Bloomberg’s idea would almost certainly require more reliance on them, as so many kids aren’t in the groups that are currently tested.
Education officials said they had no details on just how scores would be used for tenure decisions. Many teachers have no scores to go by: Only children in grades three through eight take the annual English and math state standardized tests, and high school students take Regents exams only in certain subjects.
And what, exactly, would all these test scores tell us? The scores in a given classroom at a “good school” will be impressive in large part because of the demographics of its student body, so it will be difficult to measure a teacher’s performance — is s/he going all out or just coasting? — in a classroom where the students adroitly hold serve. On the other end of the achievement gap, getting kids to hold serve might require a Herculean effort. If a class full of fourth graders reading at a first-grade level is at a second-grade level at the end of an academic year, it would be a major accomplishment — even if they stayed effectively three years behind as they moved to the next grade.
I’m not sure what the answer is here, but we shouldn’t just exchange one clusterfuck of a teacher tenure policy for another with its own negative consequences for classrooms.