Thursday, April 7, 2011

Distracting Everyone With Myths That Distract Policymakers: Part V

Another favorite myth from the myths that distract policy makers is that “teacher tenure rules make it impossible to get rid of poor teachers”. According to the refutation the real problems is “ill-trained and supported administrators.” Another point of research indicates it is actually “poor evaluation procedures.” I, personally, feel it is definitely both.

That’s right, I agree that poor evaluation procedures and under supported administrators make it hard for evaluations to work properly and thus make it difficult to get rid of poor teachers. Which is why we should end tenure…period.

Urban school leaders face a million crises every day, and unfortunately I’m only engaging in a little bit of hyperbole. They are CEOs, education leaders, middle managers, politicians with warring constituencies and human. Yes, you have to be crazy to want to be a principal and you have to be crazy to be a good principal. By definition they are under supported, just like the teachers and pretty much everyone involved in urban education. By definition they are ill-trained if only because of the sheer number of things they need to be trained on. So complicated, cumbersome evaluation tools are going to be problematic no matter what, even if their focus is on evaluating their employees rather than ensuring the proper running of their school. Just like in the real world, I think a boss should be allowed to choose their own team. And they will sink or swim with that team. By effectively holding principals accountable, there are fewer incentives for them to play favorites with their employees at the expense of running a successful school. This doesn’t make principals dictators, it gives them the autonomy (a key motivator for successful people) to build a successful environment according to their vision. They still aren’t allowed to abuse employees, discriminate against employees or violate labor laws. The unions exist to protect teachers from abuse, not to protect their jobs. So let everyone do their job.

And yes, sometimes a teacher will get a crazy boss, just like in any profession, who doesn’t value their contributions appropriately. That is the loss of the principal in question. The teacher should be able to find employment at another school if they are an effective, professional teacher. Evaluation, tenure or anything else is not going to protect a teacher from a boss they don’t get along with, it will more likely exacerbate the situation.

Poor evaluations and evaluation procedures are more difficult questions. Nobody can seem to agree on what good teaching looks like. That makes creating good evaluations difficult. Nobody can seem to agree on who should do the evaluating either. DC employed an interesting compromise that included both third-party content experts and principals. This was in response to teacher feedback that wanted to avoid the personal biases of the principal but also include the understanding of context of the principal. DC also employed both announced and unannounced evaluations, allowing for multiple observations, thus avoiding the “30 minutes that mean everything” effect to a great extent. These seem like appropriate compromises but they do require enormous investment. Teacher evaluation is an area where the teachers and teacher unions need to put a flag in the ground and stand by…anything. At least anything other than no meaningful evaluations. Nobody wants to be told they aren’t doing a good job. But ultimately if nobody is telling you where you can be doing better how can you improve? There is no question that administrators and districts must do a better job of creating buy-in for new evaluation systems and show a little empathy and understanding for people who have spent the last twenty years receiving excellent evaluations. But teachers need to be prepared to give a little too and acknowledge that criticism doesn’t have to be a negative experience. Without both sides coming to the table with realistic expectations there are only two outcomes: teachers feeling like they are being attacked and having something done to them or no meaningful evaluations taking place at all.

Lastly, in a world where teachers are the valued, successful professionals, whose great benefit comes from their ability to educate children both as part of a team and individually, tenure isn’t necessary. In the end, effective teachers should always be employable individuals even if they run into a school or school leader that wasn’t the right fit. So if we are to really treat teachers as high-status grown-ups with professional skills and individual talent and not replaceable cogs then abolishing tenure is the way to go. Or at the very least make it an honor won after years of successful service.

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