Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Why are there bad teachers........with tenure?

This is going to be an unpopular post, perhaps not with my friends and colleagues, but with the mainstream, certainly.  I think the analysis of Secretary Duncan, Representative Johnston, and Frank Bruni who authored the piece linked below, is flawed in some serious ways which are not acknowledged here.  If those flaws were examined, perhaps we'd get to something sensible.

First, let me construct the mindset of this piece, written from the perspective of a new principal who has come to a school that is not functioning well.  There are some teachers who seem engaged, enthusiastic, and effective.  There are other teachers who appear uncaring, pessimistic, and who teach poorly.  The principal would like to get rid of this latter group and replace them with younger teachers who are in the former group.  That would both improve performance of the students and do better on the bottom line as well.  You see, the bad teachers tend to have a lot of seniority and are therefore paid more.  If one bad apple can spoil the whole barrel then it seems reasonable to get rid of them as they emerge.  What is wrong with that?

Now let us ask why are there bad teachers with seniority?  Below are three possible answers.

  • These teachers were bad from the get go. But they nevertheless got through the screening process that grants tenure.  
  • These teachers were good and enthusiastic when they started.  Over time, however, they got burned out on the job.  The burn out resulted because the system itself is not very supportive of teachers, or because they hadn't planned on making teaching a lifetime avocation and when they found other alternatives dry up they became disenchanted with the job, or because there was insufficient professional development for experienced teachers and they felt isolated from their peers.  
  • These are actually good teachers who are being labeled as bad.  These teachers reject the teach to the test mindset that has permeated the culture and continue to teach their students in a broad manner.  The students are, in fact, learning.  It is just that given the external measures that are in place those outside this classroom can't tell.  
Note that one can make each of these answers a good deal more complex.  So, for example, with the bad teacher from the get go, the teacher might do things to mask this.  Once tenure has been granted, however, the mask is then removed.  It has no purpose any longer.

I don't want to rule out the complexity, nor do I want to assert that there are only three possible explanations.   And among the three I don't know which is the most likely explanation.  For what I have to say next, it doesn't matter.

Each of these explanations has implicit in them that the system is failing.  It doesn't identify the good and bad teachers very well (the first and third explanations) or it seems to encourage those who are good teachers when they are more junior to become bad teachers as they gain seniority.  If that is true, why would a talented person want to become a teacher?

Just as much of the point, why blame individual bad teachers and not discuss the systemic issues with teaching (of which I'm sure there are a boatload)?  Until that happens, we'll continue to get this myopic and flawed discussion of what's at issue.

Representative Johnston was a principal.  But he didn't stick with that work.  Why not?  Teach for America, which on the one hand is noble and on the other hand wrong headed, encourages a Peace Corps like approach to education but once the teachers have gotten their fingers dirty they then move on to other careers.  What will it take to get talented and dedicated people to stay as teachers for their entire careers?   That question needs a serious answer.

I normally like Frank Bruni's columns, but he has got it wrong on this issue.  And that he quotes Whoopi Goldberg in the piece shows there is something amiss.  She is a funny lady and certainly has a lot of name recognition.  But does she have expertise on this matter?  If not, why does her name appear here?

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