by Les Schreiber
Governor Bob has joined a large number of politicians calling for reforms in K through 12 education by placing all teachers on one-year contracts, thus eliminating tenure. Under the current system in Virginia, after a monitored period of three years, teachers are given a continuing contract making it more difficult for them to be terminated. It is possible to fire a tenured teacher, but there are bureaucratic impediments. However, the Virginia system is not as rigidly protective of teachers as the system in states such as Illinois and New York.
Tenure is a term usually associated with university faculties. It is a protection given to faculty to write and discuss controversial and unpopular ideas without fear of retribution from an administration. It does have some applicability to secondary school teachers.
As a former A.P. Government teacher, I know controversial topics are part of the curriculum. The three most important Supreme Court decisions involving abortion are discussed as part of the course. Global warming and evolution are considered in both science and government classes. No matter how much care is taken to present controversial issues in a neutral manner, some parents will complain to principals that the teacher is trying to promote his or her political agenda. Will the principal be able to stand up to this type of pressure knowing the political leanings of many voters in Virginia?
I taught a course in A.P. Comparative Government. The course was an examination of the internal politics of the U.K., France. Russia, China, and Mexico. These are topics not usually extensively covered in the local Richmond media. At a “back-to-school” night, I was asked by a parent what suggestion I might have to make his child to become more conversant with these topics. I replied that the New York Times and the Washington Post might be good sources to follow the politics of these countries. In response, one parent piped up, claiming that I was a “liberal New York Jew” who was trying to pollute his son’s mind. To my mind, this parent did not pursue his anti-semitic agenda but it did raise the issue of academic freedom to me and reinforced my opinion that teaching school was not worth the hassle.
Teachers are often not appropriately supplied with the materials that they need to perform their jobs. For example, the Advanced Placement organization sometimes changes the curriculum several years before these modifications are reflected in the test. I was informed the year before a curriculum change was to be included in the test, replacing France with Iran, but that the school would not supply new texts because the date of the change in curriculum was not congruent with the school’s text adoption policy. In effect, I was to teach the course without a text for 20% of the material. The school employed an administrator with the title Director of Curriculum whose job should have been to be aware of such changes and to be certain that appropriate materials were available for classroom. Competence tests should be required for administrators, too. I went ahead and puchased some books and materials on my own.
Personalties and politics are brutal in schools. Inter and intra-departmental politics can border on the destructive. In 2006, two colleagues and myself who taught A.P. Comparative and United States Government were able to post the best test scores in the United States. In the “real world,” top producers would be encouraged to keep up the good work and be strongly supported. In Eduland, one of those former colleagues is no longer able to teach the course in which he or she excelled because of a personality conflict with a supervisor.
If tenure is abolished the rules for evaluation must be clear and unbiased. Charlotte Davidson is an economist who became interested in education. Her work has been praised by both teachers and administrators, and according to the New York Times, a recent study at the University of Chicago gave her system a rave review. Her work attempts to rid the evaluation system of bias. Check it out at the Danielsgroup.org website.
Standardized testing will be part of any new evaluation system for teachers. Most proposals are similar to that introduced by Michelle Rhee in Washington, D.C. when she was Schools’ Chief. All students who take a course are tested at the beginning and end of the year on the same material. Over a period of 3 years, this plan assumes that it is possible to determine which teachers provide the greatest Value Added. The best are given a bonus and the worst are terminated. This system is very similar to that Jack Welsh employed when he was C.E.O. of General Electric. Although there may be problems with testing, it is one way around personality conflicts and bias.
Everyone wants higher performing schools and teachers. One of the best ways to achieve this is to be sure each student is in class each day. There should be no leaving for Model United Nations trips, track meets, Battle of the Brains Tournaments, or any other such extra-curricular rubbish. I would suggest as part of legislation to abolish tenure that any absence from class (excepting personal reasons) in any school, for any reason, must be approved by a vote of 100% of the faculty of that school. Extracurriculars are the biggest negative externality in education. I can not imagine any successful private-sector enterprise that would allow such a barrier to the productivity of its employees.
Increasing student achievement by holding teachers accountable is a worthy goal. It is just not as simple as it might appear.