Eliminating Tenure = Education Reform?

Education reform has been on the agenda for years.  Most Presidents try one program or another while in office, as do Governors, Superintendents, and Mayors.  While we have never lacked for ideas, the ability to find unity between groups of reformers or even an agreement on where reform should come (Federal? State? Local? Private?) has been incredibly difficult.  Lately, reform has taken on a new urgency with the rise in Charter Schools across the country, documentaries like Waiting For Superman, and President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative.  That, and the fact that we are continuing to fall behind the rest of the global neighbors in the education of our students.

As the New York Times reports, eliminating tenure and related concepts like seniority based firing is beginning to gain traction across the country.  It’s mainly republican and conservative Governors, never a friend to teachers and their unions,  pushing the concept.  Tenure has played a vital role in the history of education keeping teachers from being fired because of race or gender or political considerations.  Does this mean eliminating it is a bad idea?

No, as long as it is nested as part of broad-based education reforms.  Simply gaining the ability to fire bad or under-performing teachers does nothing to improve the education of our children.  Along with raising standards to remove someone from the classroom we need to raise the standards to put someone in a classroom.  Which means working with our teaching colleges to improve the pedagogy.  We also need to ensure the certification process covers the skills a teacher needs in a modern classroom.

These are the questions that should be asked: Does eliminating tenure alone do anything to improve the quality of teachers? Does eliminating tenure without revising curriculum standards and student and teacher evaluations methods do anything to improve the quality of our educational system?  Will eliminating tenure offset the crumbling infrastructure of our schools, the disparities in funding from one district to the next, or the yawning chasm that is the achievement gap?  The answer is no.  As a one-off “reform”, eliminating tenure is an empty partisan ploy.

Teaching should be a hallowed profession and schools cathedrals of learning. We need to make sure that our best and brightest will consider about becoming teachers.  It is vital that they have the tools and resources to educate their students for the 21st century.  It’s time for teachers to be treated as the professionals that they are.  This means paying them like professionals and giving them the support that they need.  It means revising the regime of evaluations to include more than just student scores on standardized tests given at the end of the year.  We should be evaluating teachers and students throughout the year.  Teachers to be involved in designing the new evaluation process.

Once we have an agreed-upon and reliable evaluation matrix we continue to treat teachers like professionals.  If a teacher is not meeting expectations, if their students are not progressing, a district needs to have the power to make adjustments.  That could mean requiring additional training, moving the teacher out of the classroom, pairing the teacher with a “coach”, or even, letting ineffective teachers go.  Districts must have the ability to take action quickly.

Ultimately, education is not about the teachers or administrators.  It is not about Republicans or Democrats.  It’s really not even about the adults.  Education is about the students, about the next generations.  If we can’t get that right, then we can’t get anything right.  We have a genuine need for education reform, but it needs to be comprehensive and always with the students in mind.  We need to experiment and share results.  We need to find best practices and make sure everyone knows about them.  We need to not say “No.”

There are a lot of models out there.  Some charter schools are doing amazing work.  Charters are like their public counterparts – some find success and others don’t.  In the areas where charter schools are working it is incumbent upon the public districts to find out why and replicate it.  In regions where public schools are leading reform, every other public school should ask, “How are you doing it?”  No idea should be off the table.  How do we increase “learning time” – is it cutting gym and art and music or is it longer school days and longer school years?  Do uniforms help to reduce classroom distraction?  Should schools be providing breakfast, lunch, and dinner (yes)?

The reforms in schools don’t stop at the double doors.   Stronger schools means stronger communities.  Schools are a physical anchor to a neighborhood and when they go, neighborhoods go.  For proof just look at the Lower Ninth in New Orleans.  I spent time there this summer and saw boarded up school after boarded up school.  The schools hadn’t recovered and neither had the neighborhood.

How do we fight childhood hunger?  By providing meals at school.  Some districts are beginning to implement a dinner program.  Because they know that a hungry child is a student who can’t learn.  Implementing a longer school year means more time in the classroom and more meals to fight hunger.  It will cost money.  But shouldn’t we spend it?

No one idea is reform unto itself.  Harlem Children’s Zone thrives because  it does whatever it takes.  D.C. Public Schools is partnering with its teacher’s union to find solutions.  It hasn’t always been pretty and it’s still a work in progress, but they are finding success.  Eliminating tenure is just one idea and will not improve education on its own.  Let’s make sure that these Governors and Mayors do more than simply make it easier to fire teachers.

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