A Perfect Ten(ure)?


Tenure /TEN-yur/ n. The status of holding one’s position on a permanent basis without periodic contract renewals or threat of dismissal.

My grandfather, a full professor (Chemistry) at Temple, had tenure. My cousin, a full Professor (Wildlife Ecology) at Perdue, has tenure. My 12th grade English teacher, the one who made me memorize John Donne’s birthday, has tenure. OK, she’s dead, now, but she still has her teaching position.

Vermont and Florida are at-will employment states. Under American law, the legal doctrine simply means the employer can fire your furry butt “for good cause, or bad cause, or no cause at all,” and the employee can quit, strike, or take a permanent sabbatical with no liability. There are a couple of caveats. Tenure, an employment contract, or a collective bargaining agreement all govern the employment relationship and negate at-will laws. According to employeeissues.com, “Virtually all states are employment at-will states.”

Teachers unions love tenure.

I taught in Vermont Colleges for a number of years. I have never sought nor held tenure.

There’s no real point to teacher tenure, especially in primary or secondary schools. These schools aren’t universities where professors like my grandfather and cousin create controversy through groundbreaking research and publication. School teachers teach. They need the same level of protection against bombasts, crying parents, and incompetent bosses that any professional needs. And not a penny more.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R-CA) supports California Senate Bill 955. That bill proposes to give school administrators the ability to assign or fire teachers based on their effectiveness and to clean up the firing process itself. No longer will bad teachers get the free ride.

The legislation was quickly blasted by the California Teachers Association and by my friend Lido (“Lee”) Bruhl who thinks it a mere ploy to fire all the senior (translation: “expensive”) teachers. “I do not think a teacher should get sacked just because they’re higher up the pay scale,” he said, “and I don’t think there’s enough difference between how teachers teach for that to be much of a factor.”

Lee was born on another planet. They may not have schools there.

Public school teachers across this country receive step raises every year. Year in, year out, a teacher who does nothing but show up for work most of the 179 days in the average U.S. school year gets a raise. Exactly the same raise as the teacher who works overtime every day, brings work home on nights and weekends, attends conferences, takes extra courses, and (just as an oh, by the way) happens to have classrooms full of happy, productive students who actually learn stuff.

A Los Angeles Unified School District task force has delivered recommendations about teacher effectiveness. It’s a major push toward removing outrageous obstacles to firing bad teachers and creating a robust evaluation system for teachers.

Imagine that. Judging a teacher’s worth by his or her performance on the job. Now there is an unusual concept.

“‘Worth’ is not always easy to judge, Dick, outside of the fantasies of right-wing ‘thinkers’ like you,” Lee said.

Another planet. With neither creativity nor original thought, it is difficult to design a system that measures how well teachers teach. After all, having successful students ought not be part of the equation, now, should it? The creators of the standardized tests we all took for college and graduate-school admissions, academics to a person, all claim their tests are not “objective.” The employee ranking systems now popular with B-School grads uniformly lead to disaster in employee morale and performance. After all, it is possible to have a department full of chowder heads. Do you want to grade them on a curve? Or you could be part of a department of superstars. Do you want to end up on the bottom of that curve?

This ain’t rocket science. The appraisal criteria for a teacher:

  • must be objective;
  • must be based on an analysis of actual job requirements;
  • must be based on individual behaviors (performance) rather than personality;
  • must relate to classroom actions, not what the school board or state is doing,
  • must be measurable;
  • and must be within the control of the teacher.

This ain’t rocket science. Principal communicates the job requirements to the teacher. Teacher sets measurable goals. Principal and teacher meet every now and then to measure performance against the goals.

On the other hand, my next notion may be heresy. If we look at objective measures like today’s test scores, Lee might be right. There may not be enough difference between teachers for classroom performance to be much of a factor.

January 21, 1572

2 thoughts on “A Perfect Ten(ure)?

  1. *Lee* wrote:

    “‘Worth’ is not always easy to judge, Dick, outside of the fantasies of right-wing ‘thinkers’ like you,” Lee said.

    George writes: Lee is only partly correct. Worth is not easy to judge. However, such an ideal is not a fantasy as he avers. A valuable governance principle is that a crude measure of the right thing beats an exact measure of the wrong thing. Measuring levels of studen learning and teacher efficiency based on the cumlataive score of boiler house tests (SAT for example) is the wrong thing.

    So, you may ask: What is the right thing to measure?

    Another valuable governance principle is to never consider answering your opponent’s question until he agrees with the first statement.

    — George

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