I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Monday, August 15, 2011

Does Earning Tenure Make a Teacher "Worse"?

One of the few good things to come out of yesterday's Stronger America special on MSNBC was that it provided a forum so we can catalog all of the blindly accepted assumptions "reformers" make about schools and teachers:

"There are too many bad teachers."

"College teacher preparation programs aren't working."

"We need lots of technology in schools to get kids ready for the 'real world.'"

"Merit pay works, because it's logical." (It's as logical as believing in fairies)

"All children have equal potential to go to college." (This one I love. The same people who claim this will claim in the same breath that not all teachers are equal. I guess when you hit your late teens, all your "potential" goes out the window.)

"When a teacher gets tenure, he or she loses any incentive to do a good job."

Let's focus for a bit on this last one.

One of the hallmarks of the corporate "reform" movement is that the "reformers" never want to weigh the costs of a policy against its benefits. In the tenure discussion, that means downplaying - or even outright dismissing - any benefit of tenure for not only teachers, but taxpayers and students.

I don't think there's a reasonable person who would argue that government agencies don't hold the potential for fraud, abuse, patronage, and cronyism. I don't think there's a reasonable person who doesn't think it's important to have some level of protection in place for government workers; not just for their benefit, but for the benefit of the taxpayer. I don't think there's a reasonable person who wouldn't agree that this especially important in public schools, because the ramifications of allowing abuse impact children.

The system we have to protect teachers is tenure. So we have to weigh the cost of eliminating tenure - a cost that we can estimate by looking at current abuses in schools, even with tenure - against any benefits. What are those benefits?

Let's see what St. Michelle Rhee has to say; here's the entire argument for eliminating tenure as articulated by Student First:
Strategy 1.6: Eliminate tenure, and make teaching a profession based on respect and performance. 
Tenure in K–12 education today means that teachers (and, in many cases, principals) are granted a “job for life” after a relatively short time in the classroom — usually without any serious attempt to evaluate the teacher’s effectiveness. In most states, tenure is essentially automatic after two or three years, barring criminal or extreme misconduct. Once granted, the rules and regulations accompanying tenure or permanent contracts make removing even the most unmotivated and ineffective teachers nearly impossible. These policies do nothing to advance the interests of students, but instead serve only to protect adult jobs. 
If tenure merely protected teachers from being fired for arbitrary or capricious reasons, StudentsFirst would support it. Professionals should never be concerned they might lose their jobs because of their age, sex, religion, race, ethnicity or sexual orientation. Similarly, we support professionals’ rights to fight back if they are wrongfully terminated. 
Fortunately, well-established federal and state policies allow teachers to challenge wrongful actions and prevent discriminatory firing in public education. Tenure is simply not needed to protect such rights. 
To serve the interest of students, tenure must be eliminated so that teachers feel best protected by the quality of their work and the role they play on the teaching team.
Before we get to what she claims to be the benefits, let's talk about the costs Rhee herself admits comes from eliminating tenure. She clearly acknowledges that there is all sorts of potential for abuse in pubic schools. She admits there is clear potential for wrongful termination. She admits that a professional has the right to fight back against these abuses.

How will we do that, St. Michelle? The courts? Do you think it's a good idea, given we have over three million teachers in the US, to turn over wrongful dismissal cases to the courts? Don't you think there will be a bit of a backlog if we jam the courts with teacher dismissal hearings?

Further: what kind of applicants are going to enter the teaching corps once the workplace protections of tenure have been removed? Do you think more qualified applicants will become teachers when they find that any stability in the profession is compromised by having to go to the courts whenever there is an abuse in the schools?

Now, against these and all the other costs of eliminating tenure, St. Michelle raises a benefit: it will be easier to fire a "bad" teacher with tenure. Not that it will be possible to fire a "bad" teacher, because she admits it's "nearly impossible" to fire them, not "impossible"; no, just that it will be "easier."

Well, if we're going to count that as a benefit, we have to buy into an important premise: that there are a substantial number "bad" teachers out there with tenure. A number at least large enough that we should be able to see at least some correlation between gaining tenure and lower student achievement.

In other words: if tenure is protecting a significant number of "bad" teachers, we should see that show up in student achievement. Teachers should work hard and get their student to achieve at high levels before they earn tenure; once they earn it, they should start to slack off, at which point students' achievement would tank.

Which brings me to an intriguing study by a Elizabeth Phillips, a graduate student at Cornell. Phillips attempts to de-couple tenure from experience, so she can determine whether tenure itself leads to a change in teachers' performances in the classroom. It's tricky, and I'll admit that there are some inevitable holes in her methodology - nonetheless:
This analysis suggests that teacher tenure does not have an effect on teacher performance, as measured by student test score gains. Even if we accept the point estimates, the magnitudes of the estimates are too small a percent of the standard deviation of the gain scores sample distribution for tenure to have a truly meaningful impact on student achievement. 
With so much recent attention on how education policies can be used to improve teacher quality, it is important to research and understand the effects of policies, such as teacher tenure, that may affect teacher performance. Because these findings suggest that tenure does not impact teacher quality, the goals of a tenure program should be reevaluated. If tenure policies are meant simply to provide job security and protection for teachers, without affecting their performance, then it may be doing its job. However, if job security is meant to provide an incentive for teachers to improve by giving them the freedom to try more creative teaching styles or, this paper does not find evidence of such an effect. [emphasis mine]
Fair enough: earning tenure doesn't make you a better teacher. But it doesn't make you worse, and that's the critical point. No one has shown that giving a teacher tenure causes them to slack off and do a worse job.

Phillips cites another study of teacher characteristics - including tenure - and performance in Chicago.
First and foremost, the vast majority of the total variation in teacher quality is unexplained by observable teacher characteristics. For example, a polynomial in tenure and indicators for advanced degrees and teaching certifications explain at most 1% of the total variation, adjusting for the share of total variation due to sampling error.34 That is, the characteristics on which compensation is based have extremely little power in explaining teacher quality dispersion.
This is one of the corporate "reformer's" arguments for not having contracts based on seniority: if there's no real difference between a 10-year veteran and a 20-year veteran, why should they be paid differently? (Of course, what these same people never ask is what the consequence of changing the pay structure will be - but let's save that topic for another time)

Well, if you are going to make that argument, don't you have to see it through on other teacher characteristics? If tenured teachers don't do any worse than non-tenured teachers, why is it so important to eliminate tenure? What do you gain?

I would imagine the answer is: "Well, we can't afford to have one "bad" teacher in the schools!" OK; but by the same token, can you afford to get rid of one "good" teacher? Isn't that the risk you run when you eliminate tenure?

Here's my cost/benefit analysis:

Costs of Eliminating Tenure:

  • Increase exponentially the potential for abuse of teachers.
  • Turn schools into patronage machines.
  • Discourage good candidates from becoming teachers.
  • Jam the courts with wrongful dismissal cases.
  • Potentially fire good teachers for bad reasons.
Benefits of Eliminating Tenure:
  • Easier to fire small number of teachers who should be fired.
That's it.

Is there a way to get this benefit without eliminating tenure? You bet: streamline the dismissal process. Cap the time for a dismissal and appeals at 90 days. Send the cases to arbitrators who specialize in teacher dismissals. You'll cap costs and make it much easier to dismiss these hypothetical "bad" teachers.

Still, most agreed that the small numbers of tenure charges filed with the state are really only a fraction of the cases of low-performing teachers for whom the formal filing is a last resort, a vast majority of them eased out of the classroom as the complaints mount.
'You don’t see these statistics, but I would say that hundreds of teachers who receive the first tenure charges resign,” said Eugene Liss, general counsel to the Newark Teachers Union. "Maybe the case didn’t go all the way to Trenton, but many who sit with us, they end up leaving the profession."
Newark has a system in which teachers receiving unsatisfactory ratings are required to undergo additional training through Seton Hall University. Last year, it was 90 teachers, all but 12 of whom returned to the classroom, he said. Those 12 all resigned, none by tenure charges.
This is in addition to the fact that 40% of new teachers in NJ never earn tenure in the first place.

The plain fact is that any of the advantages of eliminating tenure could be gained by making a few simple changes to the system. And all of the advantages to keeping tenure cannot be replicated through other policies.

So why push so hard to eliminate it? What's the reason?

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