April 14, 2010

How not to reform K-12 teacher tenure, and how to do it right

The blog management system here tells me that I started this entry on April 2, which tells you something about the intervening 12 days. We're on the edge of a potential governor's veto of Senate Bill 6 in Florida. As I've written before, SB 6 takes several issues and marches several bridges too far. Most of the concerns with the bill have been covered extensively in print media, and the protests have been covered in both print and broadcast media. I'm going to poke away at a few quirks below as an illustration of the type of problems that are both important and also ignored in the larger discussion and then discuss an example of an alternative policy that would accomplish the bill sponsors' goals more effectively than what the bill says.

Quirk the first: Senate Bill 6 could threaten Florida's eligibility for federal aid on the maintenance-of-effort (MOE) requirement for ESEA. The bill forces districts to sequester 5% of the state financial package of operating revenues for two years in a way that is explicitly not in the classroom. The federal government granted a waiver from MOE for stimulus funds, but there are still requirements, and though the ARRA funds disappear the day before the 5% sequestration rule exists, there are still MOE requirements in ESEA.

Quirk the second: Senate Bill 6 forces districts to spend money to develop end of course exams that Senate Bill 4 refused to schedule because ... er ... the state doesn't have money. If you've been following Paul Cottle's blog, you'll know he's not happy that the Senate removed a provision from SB 4 that would have set a date certain for EOC exams in chemistry and physics. The explanation given in the senate is that the creation of state-level EOC exams should wait until there's money. But ... a provision of SB 6 forces districts to spend money developing appropriate assessments in every single grade and subject for which there is not currently a test, such as ... high school chemistry and physics. By the same deadline that was removed in SB 4. So the state doesn't have money certain for a state assessment, but districts do? And 67 school districts will be more efficient in creating 67 different EOC exams than the state?

These issues don't touch on the larger questions about the constitutionality of SB 6, but they still boggle the mind a bit, since failure to pay attention to MOE requirements could threaten hundreds of millions of dollars for education Florida receives from the federal government.

Now, let me answer the obvious question in response to my argument that SB 6 overreaches, starting with the question of due process for experienced teachers. How else could a state address the question of job security and due process? Let's take the issue of probationary status (i.e., can be fired at any time), one-year contracts (where a teacher can be released without cause at the end of any year), and permanent status (where the burden shifts to the employer to show cause for termination). A number of states have taken different approaches, from extending the probationary period to requiring a certain number of strong evaluations before a teacher shifts from probationary to permanent status. One could also imagine a hybrid of a year or two of probationary status and then a shift to one-year contracts until a teacher has met certain benchmarks of effectiveness.

But why is it in the public interest for teachers to have some job security beyond a one-year contract (the maximum that would be allowed under SB 6)? Consider high school biology teachers first: Do you want biology teachers willing to talk about evolution in a district that is socially conservative and where the school board majority often is opposed to teaching evolution? Do you want teachers willing to give poor grades to students who don't do the work, including if the students are children of school board members (as the father of St. Pete Times columnist Robyn Blumner was able to do with job security)?

Due-process protections provide protection against capricious or malicious disciplinary and termination decisions. There is nothing in Florida law or union contracts that provide for "employment for life," which is what Senator John Thrasher claimed on a public radio program. Florida provides for a 90-day correction period for teachers found to be ineffective, after which a school board can fire the teacher. Neither Florida's collective bargaining agreements nor state law require months and months of legal proceedings to fire an ineffective experienced teacher. 

But let's assume that there is something inside the black box of administrative decision-making that somehow doesn't work with the 90-day correction period for teachers with professional service contracts. There are a number of other options that's far removed from SB 6, including a rolling multi-year contract... say a three-year contract where a satisfactory rating in the first year of the contract means that a teacher has a fresh three-year contract in the following year... or an effective teacher is essentially always in the first year of a three-year contract.

All of these are options that address either the probationary period or the question of job security after a probationary period. It seems that SB 6 could lead to less honest evaluations by administrators than the options I have laid out, because administrators would want most of their teachers to feel secure in their jobs, especially in a school where jobs are hard to fill. This would undermine the claimed intent of SB 6's sponsors.

If Governor Crist vetoes SB 6, I will be relieved, and there will be a chance for a more inclusive discussion that solves existing problems rather than creates new ones.

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Posted in Education policy on April 14, 2010 10:10 PM |