Nov 25, 2008
A war on teacher tenure is about to break out.
Doug Ross, Superintendant of the high-functioning Detroit charter school, University Preparatory Academy, has said getting rid of tenure is one of two necessary steps to effective education reform, as we reported in The Next Step. Michelle Rhee, the hard-driving chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public schools, and an alumna of the forward-looking Teach for America program, has put her money (obtained from private foundations) where her mouth is, suggesting she will offer teachers pay raises as high as $40,0001 if they will give up their tenure rights.
There probably isn’t a public school principal in the nation who couldn’t point to one or more tenured members of their staff they would fire in a New York minute if they could. In fact, most people involved in public schools—students, other teachers, staff, and paraprofessionals—know who these bad apples are, typically teachers who have been around forever, have long ago lost their taste for children and teaching, and are just coasting along on decades-old lesson plans, or no plan at all.
The problem is that public schools are public and, as such, are inextricably a part of the political process. Teachers’ unions fought long and hard for tenure as a means of protecting their membership against arbitrary and politically or financially based firings that had little or nothing to do with performance. Additionally, classroom performance is devilishly difficult to assess in an ongoing, comprehensive, and objective manner.
Inarguably, our schools—and our children—are in deep trouble. Graduation rates below 50% plague inner-city schools, and the national graduation rate of around 68.6% (2006)2 is nothing to brag about when most decent-paying employment requires more than a high school education. Today’s children are the first generation in America less likely to graduate from high school than their parents,3 and school systems around the world are beating our pants off, particularly in the vital areas of science and math.
Were tenure to disappear tomorrow, we would be no closer to solving these problems. It will take a full-court press on the failures of the public school system—cultural, societal, parental, and political, as well as professional failures—to bring American schools closer to the standards set today in Asian and some European systems.
The Seed School model, which removes inner-city children from their blighted environment, may be what is required on a massive scale to save many of our children. For others the intensive attention paid to students in schools such as Ross’s noted above or the schools DuFour, et al., write about in Whatever It Takes: How Professional Learning Communities Respond When Kids Don’t Learn may be what is required. Certainly, we must recruit and retain the highest level of professionals to staff our systems, and we must pay Michelle Rhee-like salaries to do so.
Title II is a federal program that allocates $3 billion annually to promoting teacher and principal quality. The Education Sector, in its recent report, Title 2.0: Revamping the Federal Role in Education Human Capital (.pdf), recommends a reallocation of those funds to bring, in some cases, revolutionary reform to teacher recruitment, retention, and compensation.
Finally, however, we must confront the failure of the 150-year-old public school model itself—the custodial, plant-based, hierarchical, curriculum-centered (rather than student-centered), technologically backward model that is no longer sustainable in, or relevant to, a 21st century world.
1 A School Chief Takes on Tenure, Stirring a Fight, by Sam Dillon, from the New York Times, November 12, 2008 (Accessed November 21, 2008)
2 Public High School Graduation Rates, from the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (Accessed November 21, 2008)
3 Counting on Graduation (.pdf), by Anna Habash, from the Education Trust, quoting OECD, Education at a Glance 2007: OECD Indicators, Indicate A1, Table A1.2a (Accessed October 29, 2008)
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