A week ago, a court in California ruled that state's tenure laws – which require public school districts to grant tenure to teachers after just two years – violated the principles of equal protection. It's undisputed that the quality of instruction in a classroom can make a difference in student outcomes. But it's too hard to fire a terrible teacher in California if the teacher is tenured, the court reasoned, and since terrible teachers tend to be concentrated in poor and minority communities, those students' civil rights are being violated.
Let me say off the bat that two years seems too early to grant tenure. Thinking about my own teaching career, I know my first year was awful, my second was bad, and it took until my fourth or fifth year until I really had my stuff together.
As it turns out, I followed the pattern most teachers follow. Research tells us that most teachers steadily improve over the first four or five years of their career before generally – but not always – plateauing. One of my favorite things to do as a veteran teacher is work with student teachers or other pre-service education majors. It's really true that novice teachers haven't mastered the kind of plate-spinning a teacher has to do in the classroom or the art of short- and long-term curriculum planning.
An aside: It is interesting – or, depending on your perspective, utterly disheartening – that many of the most popular "reform" efforts seek to take these two key skills out of the hands of teachers. By scripting classes according to strict pacing guides, or by sitting kids in front of computers for hours at a stretch, "reformers" don't let new teachers develop the planning and management skills they need. And veteran teachers, who have those skills, feel hamstrung and frustrated because they can't use them in "reform" settings.
But back to tenure. I am not a lawyer, so I have no opinion on the legal merits of the judge's ruling or the chances of the ruling holding up on appeal (Eugene Volokh is a lawyer – and he happens to dislike teacher tenure – and he thinks the case will not survive appeal). But I do have some thoughts on tenure, and why attacking teacher tenure is not just a poor way to pursue "reform," but likely counter-productive.
Teacher tenure developed not as a way to protect bad teachers and pad union rolls, as some say. Indeed, tenure rules developed before the American Federation of Teachers was even founded and back when the National Education Association was more of a professional organization, not a strong union.
As Dana Goldstein points out in an excellent analysis of the California case, tenure "prevented teaching jobs from being given out as favors by political bosses. If it was legally difficult to fire a good teacher, she couldn't be replaced by the alderman's unqualified sister-in-law." If you've ever seen one of those old-fashioned "rules for teachers" things on Facebook or elsewhere, you know that prior to tenure, teachers could be fired for completely frivolous reasons.
Tenure in the modern sense is not about saving teachers who get pregnant or who occasionally drink alcohol, but rather about acknowledging a teacher's competence and protecting professionals from potentially vindictive administrators (I've had a few of those over the years, including one who targeted me because of my union activism in spite my positive evaluations).
In urban districts, in particular, tenure is critical because teacher turnover noticeably depresses student outcomes, and anything that can stabilize staff in those schools is a good thing. In the California case, the judge pointed out repeatedly that urban schools suffered more from ineffective teachers (using data that was, it turns out, quite literally "pulled ... out of the air"). But his ruling, if upheld, could potentially inflict greater harm on those districts.
Moreover, eliminating tenure does not address the real reasons why students in urban districts have lower achievement than suburban peers or why urban teachers are often seen as – or actually are – more ineffective than their suburban colleagues. Education policy expert Richard D. Kahlenberg wrote in Slate last week what I have pointed out here before: This country's history (and present) of segregation is more to blame for low student achievement.
"Racial segregation continues to bedevil American society and is closely coupled with rising income segregation," he says. "Concentrations of poverty have much more to do with why poor and minority students often end up with the worst teachers than do tenure laws."
Noting that working conditions for teachers in segregated and poor districts are terrible – discipline problems, larger class sizes, less responsive parents, too much focus on test-prep – Kahlenberg says it's no wonder good teachers often leave for greener grass, and quality young teachers don't even apply. "Reformers" who oppose teacher tenure rarely, if ever, speak out about segregation or inequality.
Once teachers are in urban schools and they plateau – or fail to make the kind of growth you'd expect to see in the first years of teaching – the teachers themselves are often not to blame; making it easier to fire them won't make them get better any faster, either. Teacher educator Jack Schneider wrote after the ruling, "Teachers stall out not because they stop caring but because they lack guidance and support. Engaged in difficult and demanding work, even gifted teachers need relevant, robust and continuous professional development opportunities. But very few get it, particularly in schools serving high-needs students. As a result, most teachers realize only a fraction of their full potential." Districts and schools strapped for cash can't provide the kind of mentoring and support young or ineffective teachers need, and rather than solve that problem, "reformers" try to "solve" teachers by firing them.
This is the thing that has always rankled me about the "reform" movement: They seem absolutely convinced the quality teachers will flock to the most difficult assignments as soon as they slash pay and job protections. Such a pool of teachers simply does not exist.
Dana Goldstein, among others writing about the ruling last week, reminded us that recently the federal government tested this idea by offering $20,000 bonuses for effective urban teachers to transfer to low-performing schools. She writes, "In the world of public education, $20,000 is a major financial incentive. ... Yet less than a quarter of the eligible teachers chose to apply for the bonuses. Most did not want to teach in the schools that were the most deeply segregated by race and class and faced major pressure to raise test scores."
And you'd think that states with low pay and poor teacher protections – the paradise the "reformers" seem to want to replicate nationwide – would have the best educational outcomes. Yet state rankings of educational quality consistently rank strong union (and high-salary) states like Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York with the highest achievement scores. States with low pay and low protections, like Mississippi, Georgia and Nevada, rank lower in student achievement.
That's reality. Teacher tenure is not the cause of poor student achievement, and trying to "reform" it will do nothing to improve educational outcomes for the students who most need our help. Indeed, they will suffer as any last protections or incentives for good teachers to stay are "reformed" right out of existence.