Thursday, July 5, 2012

Tenure and Self-Esteem--Part 1

Teacher tenure has been a hot issue in New Jersey since Chris Christie became governor. Now, a bill that would make it much easier to fire "bad" teachers--including weakening seniority rules--is nearing passage. The NJ Star-Ledger editorializes in Endgame on Tenure:

   The laws of New Jersey are likely to force Anderson to fire teachers who everyone agrees are doing excellent work, and to keep those who are doing poorly.It is obscene that the rules of this game are rigged to protect adults, rather than children. And it is heartbreaking that the damage lands squarely on the urban districts, where real reform is needed most.


   [A bill that] Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D) has been working for more than two years ... is now nearing the finish line ... could dramatically improve public schools.
   It gives school districts the power to fire teachers who perform poorly for two consecutive years. It bases that judgment on evidence of student progress. And it sweeps away the bureaucratic obstacles that can make firing a single bad teachers an ordeal costing $200,000 and taking years of effort.

I left the following comments on June 11, 2012 at 9:47AM under my S/L screen name zemack 

There is no question that tenure must go. But the cure may be worse than the disease.
The dark side of this new plan is the evaluation process. Teachers will be at the mercy of an arbitrary process—one that includes the highly dubious student tests—that essentially cuts out the most important evaluator—the persons who know their children best—the parents. Instead, central planners will have total power to decide who gets fired, a process that has always been rife with cronyism.
The only objective and fair evaluation process—one that protects the individual rights of all—is the market. But for a market to work, all of its participants—teachers, administrators, and most importantly the parents--must be free to act upon their own judgment. This means instituting free market reforms like a robust universal, tax credit based parental choice program. (Christie is on record supporting the basic concept, but the ultimate goal should be to establish a fully free market.)
With free market education, parents are free to move their children when they become unhappy with the teacher or school. At the same time, no teacher or school is ever placed at the mercy of any single parental decision. Any party is of course free to voluntarily call upon third-party education experts to assist in evaluations, but the ultimate final decision would rest with the customers—the parents. Only a free market provides protection for all parties against arbitriness. As long as teachers educate in a way that satisfies enough parents, they’ll have jobs and school administrators will have every incentive to keep them and pay them well enough to hold them. All of the incentives would be on the side of weeding out bad teachers (and schools) and rewarding the good ones.
Only a free market can establish fair and proper pay and competency standards.

A fellow free marketeer replied:

Mtown_Quaker June 11, 2012 at 5:44PM   @Z...Let me ask this. In this instance, are you making the perfect (free market) the enemy of incremental movement in that direction (tenure reform)? Now I completely agree - in a truly free market system, education will improve because parents will vote with their dollars. I am with you there.
   That said, should we not 'take what we can get' now, and then be sure to come back for more later? I would be the first to say that it is an imperfect tradeoff of practicality and philosophy.

I answered:

Mtown: I’m all for incrementalism, but only if it is an unequivocal move toward a free market. What I’m saying is that tenure reform—or, preferably, elimination—must not be viewed in isolation. An arbitrary formula for evaluating teacher performance administered by central planners is not a free market reform, and could be worse than what we have now. I believe it is simply unfair to both teachers and parents.
Now is the time to take a broader view, and push for genuine market reforms such as those I laid out in this article:
I don’t believe there is any trade-off between practicality and the right philosophy.  

Another correspondent feared the following:

bergen32 June 11, 2012 at 10:07AM   Tenure needs reform, not elimination. Moreover, we have to think about all the reasons why parents might have issues with teachers. There are many parents who will take issue with teachers who challenge their children and who won't give their child the grade they think their child deserves (read: A+), even if the child did none of the work. Removing tenure will cause us a state to graduate a ton of A students who are not qualified for the next level...  
I responded:

What about parents who demand that their children be challenged and earn their grades? What about teachers with the integrity to refuse to sacrifice high standards to irrational, irresponsible parents? Should they be tied to a coercive tenure system that entrenches mediocrity and stifles freedom of choice and innovation? I think not. Education shouldn’t be shackled by fear of bad parents and bad teachers. It should be liberated so good teachers and good parents—and their children—can flourish.

And this is exactly why we need genuine free market reforms to accompany tenure “reform.” When children are no longer forced into an assigned school; forced into an assigned classroom; and parents forced to pay for it all; the problem of tenure reform becomes moot. When a dissatisfied parent is free to seek other educational options, then the pressure to agitate for teacher firings subsides.
Besides, why should any teacher be insulated from the concerns of parents and other taxpayers? The idea that bad parents would have a stranglehold over teachers’ jobs is a red herring. Teachers should be accountable to the parents of the children they’re entrusted with. 
My debate partner continued:
bergen32 June 11, 2012 at 2:31PM 
   I agree the system needs reform in order to deal with -to paraphrase - the entrenched mediocrity.
   But there are too many parents out there who aren't doing their jobs and too many kids who think they are "God's gift" (they're not) and look to blame everyone else (teachers for example) for their own shortcomings. The tenure process should be about due process and not be used an excuse for an incompetent teacher to hang on indefinitely. But a teacher should not have to worry about losing his/her job for giving a student the grade that student deserves.
   But to me the alternative of no tenure is much, much worse. Parents all over the state will look to get teachers fired because their little Johnny or Susie (who is soooooo perfect) did not get the grade they felt they were entitled to. High school coaches will be fired if little Johnny doesn't get as much playing time as he feels he deserves.

This idea that teachers would be at the mercy of parents is a consequence of  the government school virtual monopoly. To expand on what I alluded to above--"no teacher or school is ever placed at the mercy of any single parental decision"--a free market leaves educators free to offer their services; to experiment; to innovate; to educate the market on educational ideals the educator believes in; to seek out willing parents who like the offering. A free market is not just about the parents freedom to choose the educational course for their children. It's not just about parents shaping the market. The opposite is true as well. Free markets liberate the educators as much as the parents.

This last comment by bergen32 is partial. It included an interesting and important widening of the debate. That will be the subject of an upcoming post.


Teacher Accountability Follows From Genuine Market Activity

The Problem With DC Schools...and the Solution

DC Schools--Continued

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