COMMENTARY | Many Americans will likely be unhappy with teachers in a few weeks when report cards start appearing in mailboxes (if they haven’t already gotten the grades online, which is a sign of our digital times). Our little angels’ grades may have dropped and we want answers. Who is to blame? Obviously, our little angels will quickly point the finger at the teacher(s). “They hate me,” “they don’t teach good,” “I didn’t understand,” “they go too fast,” and “they wouldn’t help me” are common refrains during the heated arguments after the report card is read.
As a teacher of high school seniors, I’ve got over a dozen teens who are currently not passing my class. They have until 3:55 PM today to get their missing work turned in. Sound draconian? Perhaps. But then again, I have explained, cajoled, begged, e-mailed, and phone called about those grades and missing assignments for weeks. One thing they never talk about when discussing teacher performance and evaluations is that some kids just don’t want to get with the program.
One young man was pulled from class yesterday to go to A+, the remedial education program that controversially lets students get credit by doing packets and programs on a computer…only 48 hours before his slated final exam. Another young man has not been in my room for two weeks, apparently doing a “supplemental” that will also allow him to make up for his abysmal grades. A third young man is supposed to be catching up on his work in night school, for which I have generously provided everything he needs, but has not been attending.
Should I be assessed based on the performance of this trio?
According to NBC, the Education Commission of the States has just released a report detailing the recent increases in use of student test scores in determining tenure for K-12 teachers. Sixteen states now use the controversial practice, up from eleven only a few years ago, and three states have done away with teacher tenure altogether…with more states looking to join their ranks. I realized that some popular misconceptions may be fueling the criticism of teacher tenure and, by extension, teachers themselves.
First, K-12 teacher tenure is not the same as college tenure. The term “tenure” brings to mind college tenure, which often means that a professor cannot be fired without gross violations of conduct or performance. College tenure is the type of tenure people are thinking about when they say “tenure means you can do whatever you want.” This type of tenure was created to protect professors from being arbitrarily fired when teaching controversial subjects that often caused political rankling, thus ensuring academic freedom.
K-12 teacher tenure, by contrast, simply means that the teacher must be fired for cause, which means they did something wrong. This tenure guarantees a modicum of due process and says that teachers must have a fair hearing. In no way does it let K-12 teachers “do whatever they want” or “protect bad teachers.” In fact, as a high school teacher I have seen nothing that reinforces the misconception that “bad” teachers are “protected.” At my high school, administrators are proactive about monitoring and assessing teacher performance and do not shy away from informing about what improvements need to be made. The negative stereotype of tenured teachers being able to laze about is certainly not my experience!
Another misconception is that good teachers need not fear lack of tenure. Governor Rick Scott of Florida suggested that tenure was not needed for good teachers, with only the “bad” teachers needing to worry about losing their jobs. Unfortunately, teachers’ jobs can be threatened by budget concerns, with less scrupulous school administrators perhaps being willing to fire older, more experienced, and higher-paid teachers for rookies who make minimum pay. Tenure is needed to prevent arbitrary removal of experienced teachers in order to “trim the budget.”
Additionally, the new focus on test scores and graduation rates makes older, stricter teachers vulnerable without tenure. In their zeal to boost graduation rates, administrators might want to replace teachers who are willing to hold students accountable with terrified newbies who will pass everybody, regardless of performance. Tenure protects teachers who do the right thing and refuse to play political games. K-12 tenure is actually protecting good teachers, the ones we need to keep in the classroom!
Finally, the argument that teacher tenure, or lack thereof, is either beneficial or harmful to students is a moot point. As a teacher, it annoys me that every argument about teacher evaluation policy somehow becomes about “what is best for children.” Teachers are professionals. We are educated, trained, certified, and we are not mere babysitters. Stop throwing in “for children” to every argument! Not all teachers need to be gushy, sappy, child-hugging softies.
Tenure must be discussed as a professional issue, based on morals, ethics, and merits, not on some kindergarten notion of nurturing. I want my professional skills and abilities regarded as such.