Education Opinion

Fixing Tenure

By Peter Greene — December 31, 2014 6 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Conversations over the holiday break have reminded me that to the regular civilians, the removal of bad teachers remains a real policy issue. There is no way to argue against that as a policy issue-- “I didn’t have a single bad teacher in all my years of school,” said no person ever. Arguing against a system for removing incompetence from the classroom is like arguing against the heliocentric model of the solar system; it can be done, but you’ll look like a dope.

But we aren’t any closer to fixing whatever is supposedly wrong with tenure than we werer a few years ago. Why not? Because there are certain obstacles to the brighter bad-teacher-firing future that some dream of.


In most districts there is a perfectly good mechanism in place to fire bad teachers. But to use it, adminstrators have to do work and fill out forms and, you know, just all this stuff. So if you’re an administrator, it’s much easier to shrug and say, “Boy, I wish I could do something about Mr. McSlugteach, but you know that tenure.”

A natural reluctance is understandable. In many districts, the administrator who would do the firing would be the same one who did the hiring, and who wants to say, “Yeah, I totally failed in the Hiring Good People part of my job.”

Yes, there are large urban districts where the firing process is a convoluted, expensive, time-wasting mess. But that process was negotiated at contract time; school leaders signed off on it. Could a better version be negotiated? I don’t know, but I’ll bet no teacher facing those kind of charges thinks, “Boy, I hope this process that’s going to decide my career is going to be long and drawn out.”

We know that administrators can move quickly when they want to. When a teacher has done something that smells like parent lawsuit material, many administrators have no trouble leaping right over that tenure obstacle.

All of which tells us that most administrators have the tools to get rid of incompetent teachers. They just lack either the knowledge or the will. So there’s our first obstacle.

Metrics vs Quality

We don’t have a valid, reliable tool for measuring teacher quality. There can’t be a serious grown-up left in this country who believes that VAM actually works, and that’s all we’ve got. The Holy Grail of evaluation system is one that can’t be tilted by a principal’s personal judgment, except that would be a system where a good principal’s good judgment would also be blocked, and that seems wrong, too. We need to allow local discretion except when we don’t.

I have a whole system blocked out and I’m just waiting for a call to start my consulting career. The downside for national scalability fans is that my system would be customized to the local district, making it impossible to stack rank teachers across the country.

And even my system is challenged by the personal quality involved. I can have every graduate of my high school list their three best and worst teachers, and they can probably all do it-- but their lists won’t match. Bad teaching is like pornography-- we know it when we see it. But we don’t all see it the same way. Identifying how we know bad teaching is a huge challenge, as yet unsurmounted.

Metrics vs Time

But that hurdle is just about identifying who’s doing a good or bad job right now. There’s another question that also needs to be answered-- with support, will this teacher be better in the future?

Once we’ve spotted someone who’s not doing well, can we make a projection about her prospects? I’ve known many teachers who started out kind of meh in the classroom, but got steadily better over the course of their careers (include me in that group). I’ve known several teachers who hit a bad patch in mid-career and slumped for a while before pulling things back together.

If I ask graduates from over two decades to list best and worst teachers, that will provide even more variety in the lists. So how do we decide whether someone is just done, or that some support and improvement will yield better results that trying to start from scratch with a new person.

Hiring replacements

Any system that facilitates removing bad teachers must also reckon with replacing them. In fact, if we were good at hiring in the first place, we’d have less need to fire.

For all the attention and money and lawyering thrown at tenure, precious little attention has been paid to where high-quality replacements are supposed to come from. Instead, we’ve got the feds preparing to “evaluate” ed programs with the same VAM that serious grown-ups know is not good for evaluating teachers.

But the lack of suitable replacements has to be part of the serious calculus of firing decisions. Beefing up the teacher pool must be part of the tenure discussion.

Holding onto quality

The constant gush, gush, gush of teachers abandoning the profession is also a factor. If I’ve just had two or three good teachers quit a department in the last year, I’m less inclined to fire the ones I have left (who at least already know the bell schedule and the detention procedures). There are many ways to address this, including many that don’t cost all that much money. But if you are going to remove a feature of teaching that has always made it attractive-- job security-- you need to replace it with something.

This is why holding onto a few less-awesome teachers is better than firing some good ones-- you do not attract teachers by saying, “You might lose your job at any time for completely random reasons.”

If you can’t hold onto your better people, your school will be a scene of constant churn and instability, which will go a long way toward turning your okay teachers into bad teachers.

The virtues of FILO

I know, I know. Just go to the comments and leave your story of some awewsome young teacher who lost her job while some grizzled hag got to stay on. First In, Last Out may be much-hated, but it has the folowing virtues.

1) It is completely predictable. You don’t have to wonder whether or not your job is on the line. The school trades a handful of young staffers with job worries for the rest of the staff having job security.

2) It’s a ladder. As a nervous young staffer, you know that if things work out, you’ll earn that job security soon enough.

3) Youth. Young teachers at the beginning of their careers are best able to bounce back from losing a job. Being fired is least likely to be a career-ender for the newbs.

But in private industry--

Don’t care. Schools are not conbat troops, hospitals, or private corporations. I’ll save the full argument for another day, but the short argument is this-- schools are not private industry, and there’s no good reason to expect them to run like private industry.

Whose judgment

At the end of the day, any tenure and firing system is going to depend on somebody’s judgment. When we use something like Danielson rubric or even a God-forsaken cup of VAM sauce, we are simply substituting the judgment of the person who created the system for the judgment of the people who actually work with the teacher.

True story. In a nearby district a few years ago, the teachers were called to a meeting, and as they entered the meeting, they pulled numbers out of a hat. Then as the meeting started they were told what the numbers meant-- certain numbers would have a job the next year, other numbers would not, and the last group were maybe’s.

That’s what an employment system that uses no personal judgment looks like, and it satisfies the needs of absolutely none of the stakeholders. What we need is a system that uses the best available judgment in the best possible way. But it will have to address all the issues above, or we’re just back to numbers in a hat.

The opinions expressed in View From the Cheap Seats are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.