Changing the Criteria for Teacher Tenure.

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.



Gene "G.D." Demby is the founder and editor of PostBourgie. In his day job, he blogs and reports on race and ethnicity for NPR's Code Switch team.
  • shani-o

    What I’m wondering is whether there’s another metric, anything besides testing, by which to measure teacher performance.

    • Alisa

      I listed some suggestions in this post last year:

      There must be multiple measures of performance: credentials, accrued coursework, years of experience, advancing student learning as measured by test scores and added value, supporting students via reflective teaching methods, mentoring new recruits. Teachers should be encouraged to build on their classroom practice and differentiate their curriculum materials to meet the needs of their students. All of this is useless without leadership so there needs to be an increased onus on educational administrators to be instructional leaders. Principals must have the skill and the time to evaluate teachers fairly and accurately; for too long the apparent addition to the expression “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach” has been “those who can’t teach, administrate”.

  • Maggie

    I think this post was well-put and well-thought out–this issue usually gets reactionary responses rather (from unions, especially) rather than talk of viable solutions. As a teacher, I say thank you!

    In response to shani-o, this is not a metric, but at the small school I work at in OUSD, I think that the principal’s observations, as someone who knows our students extremely well, would be the best basis for measuring teacher performance and for granting tenure. I often wish that he had the authority most bosses do–to settle terms of employment with his staff. Though his reviews do matter now, he only has the option to request removal of a teacher (and take a brand new, potentially worse teacher in that place) or to retain a teacher who will “automatically” receive tenure. OUSD follows the same three-year rule as New York, but this has not made teaching in Oakland more viable as a career, and has led to some unfit teachers reaching tenure, as the district struggles so much to retain teachers, period.

    On that note, thanks as well to the nod for professional pay!

  • -k-

    Obama and Arne Duncan aren’t far behind; the requirements for states to be eligible for Race to the Top funds include removing legal barriers to doing just this kind of thing.

  • anonimo

    self-disclosure: ex teacher here, wouldn’t do it again. Still, points to ponder below…

    If you think about it, there are entirely too many variables involved to come up with an reasonably accurate mathematical measure of teacher effectiveness. You’re talking about a group of people who basically work with the mini (and not so mini) version of the general populace.
    What teachers teach and who the teachers are are probably the easiest things to change in the educational equation. I think people want to continually reform the educational system without adequately addressing other major issues that students come to school with that affect their learning. It’s all interconnected–poverty, race, geography, gender, and even culture (I’m speaking generally in terms of culture–I don’t think Americans, in general, truly value education, but that’s another rant).

    Another thought about an issue I don’t often see come up in these educational debates—where are all the good teachers going to come from to save America’s youth? I think it is something like half of new teachers quit within the first five years. That’s saying something…loudly.

    • quadmoniker

      I think one of the pitfalls in thinking about teacher effectiveness is that everyone assumes it has to be some sort of exacting, mathematical model, and I can see why people might not want to be subject to the whims of a principal who may be inept and might not like them. But the truth is, everyone else in almost every industry is subject to that, and job performance evaluation involves your supervisor deciding how good an employee you are based on a somewhat subjective measure of points his or her superior has decided should be measured. Evaluating employees doesn’t have to be exact, it just has to be fair. There’s probably no fantastic way to determine how much kids are actually learning, but there probably are reasonable ways to form panels of professions who can visit classrooms and measure how well a teacher keeps his or her students engaged, disciplined, and on the task at hand. There’s probably a way to determine how much of the high points the teacher hits, and how much he or she misses in a particular lesson. Test scores can be part of it, but I don’t think evaluating teachers needs to rest on them, and I don’t think test scores are only way policy makers score teacher performance. It’s just part of it.

  • anonimo

    I kinda cringe at the notion of education as an industry. I think there are too many significant differences to even call it that.

    I don’t know of any teacher who is not already being judged on his or her student’s test scores and evaluations–maybe that’s just because of where I live. I live in a right to work/weak union state, so those concessions have already been made where I live.

    …and none of this really gets to the issue that people don’t want to teach nor the disillusionment of the many people who do.