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Thursday, June 3, 2010

Pack Your Hefties

Education is in the news with ferocious frequency lately, and the coverage is usually not to highlight the great things going on in classrooms. The local newspaper does a nice job of recognizing individual classes or singular school efforts, but the print can't beat back or mitigate the top of the hour stories on how many teachers’ are being lost to budget induced layoffs.

Recently, during the last week of school I helped two talented, motivated, forward thinking teachers pack up the character of their classroom in advance of their last day. The two first year teachers were informed by inter-office mail of the final decision of their layoff during the last instructional week. They didn't say as much, but I think that both of their plans were to get the room strip completed so that they hit the road as soon as the last contract day ended. The district walked away from them and they were leaving as soon the students left for vacation. Garbage bags were filled, copy paper boxes were taped up, and poster stickum peeled from the walls. Spouses, friends and parents were enlisted to help clear the walls and cabinets. In my former career, we'd call it "Vanilla Boxing" - take it down to nothing; in hiking - "leave no trace".

If they were trying to avoid tears, it didn't work, as there were plenty to go around. Peers, parents, and students couldn't believe that these teachers had to leave. One student astutely stated that their teacher "just got here". Some administration and union representatives refer to the situation as "Last in - First out", and the situation must to change if the education of your ‘YourKids' is going to improve.

Using seniority or tenure as a sole determinant for teacher staffing decisions is not new, history has helped to help entrench the practice. Starting in New Jersey and later adopted in part or whole by a number of other states, tenure sought to mitigate the effects of political networks and cronyism from taking undue control of school staffing decisions. For a long time it has worked. The system stabilized schools, helped to allow teachers to teach without fear of administrator whim and helped teachers become more effective over time. Tenure had a place and purpose for the time period in which the system was created. However, it is time for teaching tenure to be eliminated.

There are several problems with the current teacher tenure system:
  1. Tenure does not allow an administrator to consistently upgrade their organization. Senior teachers are automatically retained without regard to community/student impact, effectiveness, or professional conduct. Egregious examples aside, child molestation, physical harm, and inappropriate conduct, tenured teachers almost never have to pack their hefties and get out. The principals are effectively powerless to remove a poorly performing teacher. One tenured teacher once bragged to me that they never planned any lessons, just daily “agendas” and threw together whatever they could to fill the instructional time. “Thank God for specials,” (gym, art, music) because he/she didn’t “have to teach” during those times. The class was lifeless, dead, unengaged. The teacher's next evaluation would take place in two years.
  2. Tenure casts experience in a bad light. Teaching experience is a good thing and should be valued highly, but when teacher retention is based solely on when they punched in, it diminishes outstanding efforts. The shine is taken off the bell, if you will. A longstanding teacher should be recognized for their excellence, not simply longevity.
  3. It does not help to ensure that protected teachers invest in themselves to try and improve. Bad teachers (I'm not going to define in this post) that have tenure will still continue to get paid, while good teachers don't get paid enough. Too much servant in public servant. If motivation to become a better teacher is not intrinsic, a guaranteed job won't help. If someone knows that they have to improve and contribute or they might lose their job, that extrinsic motivation might make up for the omission.
  4. It raises the barrier of entry significantly higher and reduces the ability to recruit talented teachers from outside the education sector. The old saying goes "Good Teachers will always teach. True, but you can't rely on that any longer. The barriers to entry and corollary sacrifices for becoming a teacher are already high. Teaching license requirements, high tuition, student teaching (volunteer labor), costly continuing education requirements, and low starting pay are all factors that may prevent recruitment of the best and brightest. If a prospective candidate figures out that the career has limited continuity, regardless of ability, quality, or impact, what are the chances students will ever see them in their classroom? Why would they make the sacrifices? Would the best and brightest stick around waiting in a frozen timeline of uncertainty, waiting for their service time to get above the cut line?
  5. Nationally, the five year retention rate for teachers is about 50%. In other words, 50% of teachers leave the profession within five years. Turnover is costly, not only negatively impacting budgets, but also in terms of human capital. I would not be surprised if a majority of those that left the profession, left in frustration over the inevitable annual stress of the "do I have enough seniority" dance. Once a teacher leaves, so does the district/school's investment made to that point.
  6. Finally, the bar is not high enough for a teacher to be given tenure. You shouldn't be given what is essentially a lifetime position until you can demonstrate that you are good at your job (also another topic for another day). Mentoring program completion, substantive evaluations, parental and student surveys, test scores, and metrics for community impact need to be part of why a teacher’s is allowed to stand in front of kids. Education is a process not a product, but can you think of any other field as important where time in the chair counts for so much?
Clowns don't work for solely for grins and giggles and no one pays the bills with hugs. Neither should teachers. If education wants to recruit the types of people that will help change the lives of children for the long term, the antiquated guarantee of lifelong employment must be eliminated. Too much talent will continue to be lost if mediocrity is continually retained. It is time to clear the trail.

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  1. Well-written post. In our state the legislature/governor legislated that the "last-in/first-out" model was not to be used in teacher retention -(theoretically speaking). Who knows if or how it will translate to practice.

  2. Very well explained the pain of Teachers who have to leave without their consent. Like you said about the "Last in - First out" model for Teachers, I believe this should not applied on the teaching profiles. After all teachers are the ones after Parents who shape the future of next generation. Being a Full-Time teacher is a much better opportunity to be consistent in this field. The school administration should carefully form the rules for Teaching tenures so that students and parents should remain connected to teachers for a longer period of time.