Another Simple Truth

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While the national debate rages over public schools, it is increasingly clear that our students will continue to suffer if educational leaders cannot find the courage and good sense to keep only the best and most qualified teachers in the nation's classrooms: teachers who know their subjects, love children, are versatile, and from whom children are able to learn things that matter.

Scarce funds, declining enrollments, forced reductions in staff, and the reported caliber of those now entering teaching are forcing a showdown on this issue. The simple truth is that students' minds and lives are too important to be entrusted to any but the most qualified teachers. On the other hand, it is a painful truth that selecting the most qualified teachers is virtually impossible because of collective-bargaining agreements.

Necessary changes in many existing contracts can be made, but such action requires firm determination at the bargaining table. Those who support the status quo advance the insidious argument that if there were no contractual constraints on management during times of reduction of staff, management would practice favoritism, deceit, arbitrariness, and capriciousness.

I am tired of the claim that there is no valid method of identifying the most qualified and best teachers and that seniority should therefore be the only factor considered. It is true that seniority is the cleanest, fastest, and least troublesome way to make reductions in staff. But it also contributes to the possibility that our students are cheated of the finest adult models, the finest minds, and the most versatile teachers.

Of course our best teachers can be identified! Why not? Serious students can tell you who they are in a second. Colleagues aren't deceived. Most parents and school-board members know very well which teachers are most effective with children. Student achievement scores and post-graduate questionnaires can also provide useful information. And any competent administrator who is worth anything also knows who the best teachers are, both from formal classroom evaluations and from the serendipitous information that comes from talking to students, parents, and other teachers.

I am simply not convinced that only collective-bargaining agreements protect teachers from the alleged nefarious and ulterior motives of our administrators. The conflict of interest on the part of those who make such claims is obvious. The fact is that most administrators seek only good for our schools. I am convinced that administrators would, given the opportunity, select the best teachers. The rare administrator who practices favoritism and continuously makes wrong judgments should be warned, then fired.

The job of teaching our children is so vital that we must reject any argument that would have in practice the effect of making it harder to provide our children with excellent teaching. We must face the fact that there are teachers with years of service who have "lost it." They must not be kept just because of their seniority or years of loyalty. For the future of our country, our primary loyalty must be to our children. On the other hand, there are many teaching veterans who "still have it," want to stay in the classroom, and should.

We must get serious about deciding who the best teachers are. We must bear in mind that we are dealing with our children's minds and with our country's future, not with loaves of bread on an assembly line. As John Silber, president of Boston University, said, "It is our moral obligation to place in the classrooms only those individuals who are worthy mentors of our children."

Of course, teachers who are failing in their responsibilities should be told so, worked with, and given opportunities for improvement. But at the time of a reduction in staff, the primary question must be: "Who is the best teacher?"

When contracts with teachers are next subject to renewal, I believe that school boards should insist on including a reduction-in-force (RIF) clause that states: "The Board shall have sole responsibility and authority for the selection of the most qualified teachers to be retained, based on program needs, provided that its selection is not arbitrary or capricious."

We must face up to the simple truth that in many classrooms our students are being cheated. Because of mindless RIF clauses, former physical-education teachers are now teaching history, former teachers of general science are now teaching physics, and ineffective (or worse) teachers are being retained while willing and more qualified teachers are being let go. We can stop this if we are determined to do so. But if we do not, we can stop debating what is wrong with our schools. And we should just admit that fine teachers will never be paid the salaries they deserve and will never have the recognition they deserve.

Unless we are willing to accept the responsibility for selecting and rewarding only the very best teachers, we can sit back and watch the inevitable destruction of the American system of public-school education and with it, the decline of public support and sympathy.

Vol. 01, Issue 36, Page 24

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