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

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Tenure, Seniority, and Merit Pay

Had a long talk with a friend today about teacher tenure, seniority, and merit pay. It made me want to codify my thoughts here:

Tenure: Tenure is not a guarantee of a permanent job if you are incompetent; tenure only means you can't be fired without a hearing. Is it harder to remove a tenured teacher? Of course. What I have yet to see, however, is any sort of major study about how many incompetent teachers remain in the classroom thanks to tenure, and what impact that has on student learning. If you know of any, please post in the comments.

The main point for me is that tenure provides protection from political interference in schools. School boards are inherently political organizations, even if they are "non-partisan." Tenure provides a way to insulate teachers from that political process.

Think about a teacher giving a grade to the mayor's kid. Can that teacher really be sure they will have the freedom to assess that kid fairly without some sort of firewall set up between him and the politically powerful?

Tenure also protects political freedom on the teacher's part and academic freedom in the classroom. People find that funny when referring to elementary teachers, but there are ramifications in literature choices even at the youngest grade levels. There are parents out there who do not want any references to evolution in the classroom; others do not want their children exposed to the idea of religious tolerance, as it calls into question their own orthodox faith. Teachers need protection from such interference to do their jobs, even in the kindergarten classroom.

Seniority: It's important to understand that seniority is not the same as tenure. Teachers with tenure can be RIF'd when they don't have seniority compared to the rest of their colleagues.

I know there are good young teachers being let go in this latest culling that could have kept their jobs had the determinations been based on ability. I do think some teachers get burned out.

But, again, we don't know how big of a problem this really is; my sense is that it is exaggerated in the current climate, although I will concede that one bad teacher can leave a pretty wide swath of destruction, and even one bad teacher is too many.

Further, there will be enormous pressure put on administrators to RIF senior teachers in favor of younger ones if it reduces the total amount paid by a district for salaries, and that is a serious problem. It is reasonable for teachers to think that they can make more in real dollars as they progress through their years if they do a good job.

But my big problem with all of this is the framing: why are we talking about RIFing teachers? Why aren't we questioning the notion that we have to shrink the teaching corps in the first place?

"We don't have any more money! Don't you get that?!" Well, yeah, maybe, but then why aren't we doing something about heath care costs? Why not address the insanity of paying for schools primarily with property taxes?

Merit Pay: "What other profession is there where someone who is mediocre at their job gets paid as much or more than someone who is good at it?!" Um, hello, welcome to the real world. That happens all the time. Ask anyone who's ever worked in an office.

A big problem with using economic incentives in teaching is that you can't really move up without changing jobs, and the higher up you move, the further you are from the kids. In business, if you prove yourself, you take on more responsibility and get the pay commiserate with that. In teaching, the last thing you want is to take a good 1st Grade teacher away from 1st Graders.

So you can give some extra dough to those who teach well, but you're not really giving them more responsibility, and that's very different than most of the "real world."

And then there's the problem of judging things fairly. Does it all fall on the principal? Test scores? What about all those teachers, as Bruce Baker points out, who can't really be judged by state tests? What about all the conflating factors: home life, parents, SES, etc.?

I do think we need to assess who teaches well and who doesn't; every other profession claims to do so (although there is a lot of bull out there regarding that). My vote is a combination of peer and supervisor assessment combined with some testing results.

But again, as a practical matter - how much money are we talking here? A few thousand? Is that really going to get under-motivated teachers off their duffs?

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