News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Ending tenure and continuing contracts for teachers

New York City has reduced the number of teachers for whom it grants tenure from 97 percent in 2006 to 55 percent in 2012.

While this measure may satisfy to some degree the rage against teaching, public education in general, and the notion that it is unfair for an occupational group to have the employment protections of tenure,  there is no indication that being more selective in granting tenure will do anything to improve teaching and raise the outcomes of education.  

A New York Times article points out:

Tenure does not afford any advantages in pay or job assignments, or guarantee permanent employment. Its most important benefit is to grant teachers certain protections against dismissal without justification, including the right to a hearing before an arbitrator. Teachers and their unions embrace tenure as an important defense against indiscriminate or politically tinged hiring and firing.

Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, the city teacher’s union, said that he had always supported a “rigorous but fair” process of granting tenure. But, he said, large numbers of teachers were quitting the profession early in their careers, a sign that the city had not yet figured out how to help them succeed.
According to the union, of the 5,231 teachers hired in the 2008-9 school year, nearly 30 percent had quit by the end of their third years. There are roughly 75,000 teachers in New York City schools, the nation’s largest public school system.
“If New York City hopes to have a great school system, it will need to come up with better methods of helping teachers develop, not only at the beginning but throughout their careers,” Mr. Mulgrew said.

Mr. Polakow-Suransky [the city's chief academic officer] said it was not uncommon in the United States for teachers to leave the profession in the first few years, when things are the toughest. Every new teacher in New York receives mentoring in the first year, as a “support system,” he said. “But if someone is not making it, and not happy, or the principal says, ‘You are not cut out for this,’ it is likely that they move on to something else, and that is not a bad thing,” he said.
The teachers' perspective is quite different:

One special education teacher in Queens who was given a second one-year extension this year said that school officials cited improvements she needed to make but were short on details of what criticisms her principal had. “No specifics were ever given,” said the teacher, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.

Also, she said, the new tenure evaluations were dividing teachers and lowering morale, with some newer teachers feeling punished for the smattering of more experienced ones they saw as using tenure as a “safety net,” but putting forth less effort in the profession.“The bigger picture is that they are trying to end tenure,” the teacher said. 

In South Dakota, a shortage of students going into education had a pronounced effect on the matters of staffing and teacher training. Low salaries and onerous working conditions begin to take their toll on education programs in higher education in the late 80s.  At NSU, the education majors were consistently among the best performing students.  However, as salaries lagged, but more significantly as the public discussion demeaned the profession, bright students chose other professions and other institutions to attend.  As a shortage of qualified teachers became apparent in some subject areas,  many school districts hired uncertified teachers and gave them provisional certification.  Colleges of education began to alter the standards for entering and staying in teacher education, and the abilities of people going into education clearly were on the decline.  

In one graduate program for teaching which provided advanced study in subject areas, the oral examination required a component on advanced courses in education.  One of my colleagues sat on a number of such oral examinations with me, and examined the candidates on educational history and theory.  Many of his questions dealt with common areas of knowledge that were covered in the introductory education courses and were developed in nearly all subsequent courses.  My colleague often was very frustrated and disappointed because many of the candidates could not answer the questions without being coached by him.  Some could not come up with answers even after the coaching.  Some, however, responded thoroughly and impressively, and we knew they were applying everything they had learned about education and were integrating it with the more concentrated knowledge they were acquiring in their discipline area.  

At one time, NSU supplied the majority of teachers throughout the state and its education majors were heavily recruited from districts throughout the nation.   Many factors involving declining salaries, political denigrations of teachers,  decisions by regents and administrations, and a pronounced shift in education that required teachers to expend more effort on classroom management and discipline than on subject matter had their effect on teacher education.  It got to the point where some of us thought that the graduation ceremony should borrow a part of the marriage ceremony which would ask the audience before each person received a diploma whether anyone knew any reason why the student should not.  We joked that in some cases, involving education majors, the faculty would rise to its feet and shout yes, hell yes.  

A factor in this is that colleges and universities went through some periods of severe retrenchment during the 70s, 80s, and 90s.  In the desperation for money, they stopped being selective about admissions and enrolled every warm body they could find.  This, in turn, required instruction to be altered to meet the needs of the poorly prepared, the untalented, and the uninterested.  We noticed that the talent level of people going into education was markedly lower than what we had witnessed in the past.  That is not to say that very talented and capable people were not going into education,  but they were overshadowed by a growing number with lesser talent and interest.

Teachers are under siege, and a New York Times columnist notes the problem and writes of a new movie which addresses the problems in education from a perspective that further demeans teachers and public education.  

At one point in my journalistic career, I was assigned to the education beat.  The newspaper had twelve school districts in its immediate circulation area, and I spent many evenings a week covering school board meetings and teacher-parent forums.  

As I have noted many times, one of the biggest changes in education has been in the relationship of school boards and school administrations.  At one time, the administrators and teachers initiated the programs and changes in curriculum and the policies which were presented to the school boards for critique and approval.  Now school boards considered themselves in the same role as a corporate board of directors; they no longer consider themselves the conduit of information between the public and the professional staffs.  The administrators they hire are not experienced, highly credentialed educators, but executives expected to carry out board policies and wishes. 

Rather than work out curriculum and policies with those who know the subject matter to be taught and the always-changing circumstances of the study body, school boards impose their notions on the system with little regard for what teachers know and deal with in classrooms.  The constant cliche is that schools must be run like  a business has become the guiding principle and teachers are merely employees who are regarded like the "teams" at Walmart and Target and the hamburger flippers at McDonald's.   No Child Left Behind is based upon the concept that successful education can be tallied like factory piece work and made the basis for employment policies.

The result is that school boards hire administrators who are executives charged with carrying out employment policies.  Few administrators have credentials as successful teachers in the classrooms.  At one time the term "principal" designated a person who had accumulated successful experience in the job of teacher and became the "principal teacher" because of proven success in the classroom.  Today principals are more like shop foreman whose job it is to keep the laborers producing, not senior teachers  whose job it is to help others hone their skills in instructing students.

Some school and district administrations are dreadful bureaucracies.   They apply the corporate-inspired policies of managing the workforce, but they have little or no knowledge of the processes of education  and the factors that affect it.    The administrators in such bureaucracies have no qualifications earned by successful experience in the classroom.  They have little actual knowledge of the skills needed to create learning and growth, and their assessments of their teachers are based upon a kind of occupational profiling.

During the 20 years I was a director of the Dakota Writing Project, which was part of one of the most successful academic improvement programs in the nation, I worked with many school administrations.  When some administrators were asked to supply recommendations for teachers to be admitted into the Project,  they told the teachers to write their own recommendations and would sign them.  They had no notion of what the teachers knew or practiced so that they could benefit from the program.  When it came time for teachers to apply the knowledge and skills presented by the Project,  one of which was developing the processes through which teachers taught and became resources for each other, they administrations could not and would not arranged time for teachers to plan together and consult with other to improve student performance in writing.

All the animosity and denigration of teachers and American public education is a distraction from the real source of America's education problems.  No one, so far, has addressed the performance of school boards and administrations.  Until we confront how bad many of them are,  teachers will not be given the kind of support and coordination needed to make education work.  

Tenure, continuing contracts, and teachers' unions are not the problem in education.  The incompetence is concentrated on the school boards and in the administrations.

There are boards and administrations that do a fine job in working with teachers and students to deliver effective and relevant education.  Until the nation makes a distinction between these districts and those mired down in corporate-style bureaucracies,  education will not improve. 

1 comment:

John said...

"Emerging economic powers China and India are heavily investing in educating the world’s future workers while we squabble about punishing teachers and coddling children."

Mr. Blow's analysis of yet another in a long string of indictments in what once was the best education system and envy of the world, should be enough to electrify change. But alas, it won't. (Hey, the NFL began its pre-season. . . .)

We must have no patience and show no quarter for our local apologists who claim either the SD education system is "fine" or is delivering good results but needs more funding while retaining its status quo features. There is a global economy and competition for workers and jobs. We need systemic changes in primary and secondary education. We need year-round school with 220-240 full contact days. It's long past the time to relegate extra-curricular activities to private clubs off school grounds so schools focus on scholarly achievements. It's long past the time to drastically reduce the administrivia overhead in schools, districts, and state education government.

Blog Archive

About Me

My photo
Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States