Much to my delight, education reform has once again taken the national stage over the course of last year. Due to the publicly hyped Race to the Top program, the documentary Waiting for Superman, and the release of the latest Programme for International Student Assessment report, which yet again placed the U.S. in the middle of the pack in education, the public is demanding changes to our education system. Terms like merit-based pay, teacher tenure, and high-stakes testing have become more and more pervasive in American conversations over the last year. Yet even after a year of talk, public opinion has yet to converge on what should be done.
Although there are many pieces to this puzzle, teacher effectiveness is certainly a key component. It is also one of the most difficult things to ensure, due to a variety of methodological and political obstacles. First, how should teacher effectiveness be tested? Should it be tied to improvements in student test scores? Classroom observations? Student surveys? Second, how can teacher effectiveness then be ensured when so many practices today care only about experience?
In regards to gauging teacher effectiveness, more research should be done to establish what weight each measure holds. While the students of an effective teacher should certainly do well on standardized tests, that cannot be the only metric by which a teacher is judged. Classroom management skills, student interaction, and other areas of effectiveness do not appear on standardized tests. Effective teachers often fall into the category of “you know it when you see it.” Everyone can think back and easily recall the most effective teachers and least effective teachers they had. Consequently, the role of the principal should include observing teachers and ensuring they are up to par. This, combined with more traditional standardized measurements, should be used in evaluating whether a teacher is effective.
But even after effective teacher evaluation is accomplished, how can an ineffective teacher be fired after failing to improve? The practices widely in place today only consider how long one has been teaching. I recently spoke to a teacher who epitomized this belief, complaining that some of his classes had been given to other teachers despite the fact that he had been teaching longer than all of them. Nowhere did he ever contend that he was a better teacher; he believed that simply having taught longer entitled him to more privileges. In other words, he had claimed, without saying it, that experience was the same exact thing as effectiveness.
Seniority and tenure reinforce this belief. The rule of seniority is that when layoffs unfortunately take place, most school districts let go the newest teachers, regardless of their effectiveness. Too often, there is not enough evaluation, process, or analysis — the people in charge simply consult a spreadsheet, checking who has been there the shortest time and hand them a pink slip. Not only is this practice unfair, illogical, and harmful to students, but it also discourages young people from entering the teaching profession in harsh economic times.
Tenure is similar. Institutionalized around World War I, it was meant to prevent arbitrary firings based on favoritism, race, political party, etc. Yet today, it virtually guarantees that teachers cannot be fired. The teachers unions debate this claim, and, in theory, it is certainly possible to fire a bad teacher. But in practice, it requires huge sums of money and time (largely in costs associated with legal proceedings) that most districts cannot afford, especially in this economy. Like seniority, teacher tenure is often based on experience, as measured by time. In many cases, tenure is essentially automatically earned after teaching for a certain number of years. And it’s not a long time either; in New York, for example, teachers need to teach for only three years before being able to get tenure. And the fact that 89 percent of teachers in New York receive tenure shows that effectiveness is of little importance.
While teachers unions are certainly not the entire problem, their powerful nature bears much of the blame. Indeed, perhaps the one of the greatest problems facing education today is that the process is not about the students. Unions claim that bad teachers should be fired if they consistently fail to improve, yet in practice, only one out of every 1,000 teachers in major cities is fired annually, regardless of the toll this takes on the students.
If there was one reform that I would like to see in public education, it would be that teachers be no longer be exempt from the common sense principle that governs the rest of the world. If we want education reform, we need policies that make it easier to keep the good teachers and get rid of the bad ones. Tenure should be awarded on the basis of teacher effectiveness. When layoffs come around, it would seem to me to be common sense to keep the best ones you have and use it as an opportunity to let the not-so-good ones go. These new policies would create fairness in the system that no longer discourages young people from becoming teachers. To further encourage entry into the profession, public education should adopt yet another principle from the rest of the world: the better you do, the more you get paid. Pay teachers who are more effective more money, instead of basing salary on how long one has been teaching. Although the public education system in this country has defied common sense for generations, it is my fervent hope that as more public and political pressure is placed on this sector, it will adopt these obvious changes. At the very least, they will end the backwardness of education and perhaps, one day, make education about the students.