February 19, 2009

The new/old myths about tenure

If you read an entry earlier this month on Fordham's Flypaper blog, you might have the impression that Ohio Governor Ted Strickland rolled the unions by wanting tenure to be awarded after nine years and changing the dismissal standards to "just cause." You might also have the same impression by reading some news stories about the proposal.

You would have the wrong impression, though. As the Plain Dealer's coverage of the proposal explains, both the Ohio Education Association and Ohio Federation of Teachers were on the inside of roundtable discussions on teacher quality, and while they have some quibbles about the reform, it looks like they're generally behind them. That's probably because there's now statewide policy support for early-career mentoring. (The implementation in this budget environment's a different story.) And the quibbles? Surprise! At least as far as I can tell, it's not about the just-cause standard for discipline, since that's standard in union contracts around the country. Let's hear from one union representative:

Michelle Prater, spokeswoman for the Ohio Education Association, said her group likes the added support for beginning teachers, especially since new teachers are spending little time with mentors under the current entry-year system.

But it would be better to tie tenure to meeting standards than to grant it after an arbitrary number of years, she said.

So the quibble of OEA is that they're not getting enough of ... standards.

At Ed Week, Stephen Sawchuk exaggerates moves in Ohio, a bill in Florida, and Michelle Rhee's proposals to assert a mini-trend of attacks on tenure. This is both amnesiac reporting (as if no one criticized tenure before 2007) and overgeneralizing. In Florida, the legislature eliminated the term "tenure" from K-12 statutes years ago, and what happens now is that teachers receive professional contracts... which operate just like tenure. The bill proposed this year is just that right now, a bill. Michelle Rhee's move has attracted lots of attention, but we'll see where it goes. And Ohio's move is different from the others because, well, teachers are inside the process. Not necessarily agreeing with everything, but inside the process.

Now, for the policy questions, especially for the proposal by some of Florida's legislators: what makes you think that eliminating tenure is going to raise teacher quality? In most districts for the first few years (when a lot of teachers leave anyway!), teachers can be fired at any time and their contracts can be nonrenewed. In collective bargaining agreements, there are provisions for gathering evidence that a teacher has problems in the classroom, putting the teacher in a corrective or probationary status, providing support, and then firing the teacher. When administrators don't spend the time supervising teachers, they're not in a position to fire them. So, if tenure for experienced teachers is eliminated, and administrators are still not spending time supervising teachers, what's going to be improved? The most that advocates of tenure elimination can claim is that there will be slightly improved capacity to fire a few experienced teachers at the margins. And all that advocates usually trot out are anecdotes of the administrative headaches experienced when firing teachers. My guess is that behind each of those headaches is a history of passive or incompetent administrators.

Basic fact: it's only administrators who set a fog-the-mirror standard for teachers. It's not other teachers, because they know they'll have to deal with the mess left by colleagues who are incompetent or leave in the middle of a year. It's not unions, because no union officer wants to defend incompetents. (It's part of the legal duty of representation, and it comes with the territory--one of our vice provosts calls us the equivalent of public defenders--but it's not the most thrilling part of the job.) 

In higher education, the debate over "post-tenure review" was about 10-15 years ago, and in the case of Florida, one of our public universities was established on condition that it not grant tenure. Within a few years, from what I heard, administrators at Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) were pleading with their political overlords to create a system of rolling three-year contracts that remain in their first year as long as the faculty member is satisfactory on the last annual review. Why? No one wanted to come to Florida Gulf Coast without some stability, and they left for greener fields given the instability of fixed-term contracts and the hazard of renewal depending entirely on the whim of administrators in the last year. So FGCU ended up with a system that's hybrid... and where it is easier to keep a job than at other institutions, such as mine (where tenure-track assistant professors need to be rated as excellent in research or teaching and outstanding in one to earn tenure).

That inability to keep people at FGCU without a tenure system has its parallels in K-12. Not everywhere, but there are persistent shortages of qualified teachers in math, science, and special education (for almost any definition of qualified you want to pick). To keep good people in those spots, you'd need to pay them decently and give them some reason to believe that they're not going to be fired capriciously.

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Tags: Fordham Institute, just cause, teacher quality, teachers unions, tenure
Posted in Education policy on February 19, 2009 10:00 AM |