5 Facts to Remember in the Teacher Tenure Debate

old teacherThe issue of tenure never used to come up in conversation between my teachers friends and me.  Since the North Carolina General Assembly acted on the growing movement among conservative legislatures and began to eradicate the practice, however, it is all that we seem to talk about.  And since the Vergara ruling in California earlier this month, it seems the Internet is similarly obsessed.

As is my tendency, I tried to absorb as many facts and as much opinion as I could find (on both sides of the issue) before writing about how I feel.  Here’s a sampling of writing by some really knowledgeable folks:

  • Tom Whitby writes here about why he feels that the Vergara ruling is potentially devastating to the profession.  In particular, Whitby makes the point that poverty trumps teacher effectiveness in their effect on student learning.
  • Peter Greene, like several others, points the finger at teacher evaluation.
  • The always-awesome Valerie Strauss does a fantastic job summarizing the conversation and clarifying what exactly tenure is.

After reading those posts and many others, as well as tracking down some references on the subject, here are five important things that educators and legislators alike need to keep in mind about the issue of teacher tenure:

  1. Tenured teachers can be fired.  Tenure is simply a commitment to follow due process before terminating a teacher.  Many other professions have similar due process that isn’t call tenure, leading to the erroneous belief that teacher tenure is something particularly special or unique.
  2. Many teachers, especially in the states in which tenure is being argued vehemently, are evaluated based on student test scores.  This should only be acceptable to you if you believe that these test scores actually measure the learning that we want students to have AND you trust the faulty VAM statistics to tell us whether individual teachers increase scores.
  3. Firing the least effective teachers is one of the least effective (and efficient) ways to improve public education.  It may seem a lot cheaper to simply fire the teachers who are not doing a good job, but you still need to train more teachers to take their place.  It has been proven that providing high-quality professional development results in a more effective teaching force.
  4. With or without tenure, teacher job protections vary greatly between union and “Right To Work” states.  In North Carolina, for example, recent moves to phase out teacher tenure by the General Assembly may have little effect on job security.  But in  states like New York and California, unions have negotiated strong protections that have (in the past) led to situations like the infamous “rubber rooms“.  Ironically, tenure is often toted as compensation for otherwise inadequate pay, yet the states with the highest pay also have the strongest tenure provisions.
  5. Tenure is the only reason veteran teachers can compete with new teachers who earn much less money.  On the contrary, research has shown again and again that it costs less to keep and train veteran teachers than to equip new teachers.  And, the research is similarly clear about the greater impact that veteran teachers have on student learning.

I’m still a bit undecided about whether tenure harbors unfit teachers or protects academic freedom.  What I know for sure is that in a world in which student success and teacher effectiveness are measured using high-stakes standardized tests scores, it’s hard to tell which teachers are truly mastering their craft.

Unless, you know, you actually watch them teach.  Duh.  #sarcasticbuttrue

Promoting Teacher Leadership Through Year-Long Sabbaticals [CROSS-POST]

The following post was originally published on the SeizeTheLearningData.com blog that I also write for.  It summarizes much of what I’ve learned from the out-of-the-classroom job that I have had since October.   medium_2389416107As my 9-month stint as Program Manager for NCCAT‘s Data Literacy Program wraps up later this month, it’s a great time for me to reflect on the experience and the value that similar ones might have for other educators. Many in education have lamented recently the lack of career advancement opportunities for classroom teachers, myself included.  As they become master teachers, experienced educators have very few options outside of school administration.  This lack of a differentiated ladder of employment drives many teachers out of the classroom once they achieve a certain level of skill and experience. Research and new initiatives have begun to appear that show promise as oases in this “career desert”.  Barnett Berry has written about the idea of “Teacherpreneurs” who expand their influence while staying in the classroom.  Programs like Opportunity Culture create tiered roles for teachers that come with additional responsibilities and pay.  There is no doubt that keeping our most talented educators in the classroom needs to be a national goal, and hybrid teaching positions are one way to get there. Continue reading

We need to learn how to embrace critique, especially when it concerns our most marginalized students. We do ourselves no favors by insisting on disregarding racism within our schools, in our conferences, and in our institutions.”

Jose Vilson from a recent piece, “Michelle Obama and Why Teachers Need to Embrace Critique” that really made me think.  White teachers need to be (at the very least) more aware of the culture that we promote and reinforce.

The Four Things that I’m Changing in My Classroom This Year

Old Way, New WayIn my mind, I often categorize educators into two camps: those who have mastered their craft and those who seek constant improvement.   The first group is living in a fantasy world in which they have reached the crest of some mountain and can now relax and enjoy the view.  The second group is running on a treadmill, well aware that to stand still is to lose ground.

It’s in this vein that I have been spending a lot of time thinking about my plans for this upcoming school year.  Having spent the past seven months out of the classroom, it almost feels like I’m starting over again.  It can be overwhelming to try to remember all of the things that I need to consider and prepare before my year starts on July 7.  But it is simultaneously invigorating.

I’ve decided not to let this fresh start go by without acting on it.  I’m going to keep the best of what I have done in my classroom over the past few years yet make some big changes, as well.  Here are the four most important decisions that I’ve made:

  1. Get Out Of The Way.  Student-centered learning is going to be a centerpiece of my classroom this year.  Whenever possible (and that is pretty frequently) I am going to put my ego in a box and put my students in the driver’s seat.  I am going to guide them and provide them with opportunities and resources.  But, the goal is for them to find and capture the information that they will need.
  2. Start From The End.  In every unit this coming year, I plan to identify learning targets and create summative assessments before I plan a single lesson.  That’s powerful stuff, huh?  It’s the only way to ensure that you’re sticking to your standards and it teaches your students that we’re on a journey together and the destination is clear from the beginning.
  3. Help Student Learn About Their Learning.  Metacognition is the key to turning lazy adolescents into lifelong learners.  I plan to work daily on the task of helping students recognize their own strengths and weaknesses and discovering how best to help themselves.
  4. Be A Better Teammate.  This one has less to do with my own classroom as it does my school.  I’ve developed into a bit of a rogue actor over the past few years.  I try lots of new things, but I tend to resist sharing my techniques.  It’s not about ego or selfishness (really!), but it’s more about doubting that what I do will work for others with different kids and different teaching styles.  This year, however, I plan to work more closely with my interdisciplinary team and my grade level science PLC to share my skills and learning from others.

What will YOU do differently this year?

Hitting on the same points as my previous post, Rick Wormeli wrote recently in Larry Ferlazzo’s Education Week Teacher column,

“Grades are first and foremost communication; they are information, nothing more. The moment we make them something more, we corrupt their constructive use.”


“The grade is NOT the reward, nor can it ever be considered such. Once a grade becomes a bartering tool, its power to inform stake-holders and be used to make instructional decisions or document progress accurately is impugned.”

Wormeli goes on to list “non-negotiable elements” of grading systems.  This is seriously worth a read.