Teacher Tenure

There was a recent lower court ruling against so-called “Teacher Tenure” here in California. I am really not sure about the extent of the ruling, but the general verdict was that “tenure” was unfair to providing an equal education for all students as called for by the State Constitution.

I believe the reading was faulty for a broad range of reasons. First of all, teachers in California do not actually have tenure, at least not in the sense that professors get tenure.

When a professor has tenure they can be fired only for some gross negligence or breaking of the law. Poor teaching, doing a shoddy job, or poor research cannot lead to loss of position under most university tenure rules. Of course, it takes much longer (typically 7 years) and a much more difficult process for professors to get that protection than for k-12 teachers to get their “tenure.”

americas-corporate-headquarters-comicAs for k-12 teachers in California, my understanding is that what we received was “Permanent Status.” In a teacher’s first two years (or more if they do not have a permanent position contract) there is no due process—we can be rehired or not for the following year completely at the will and whim of the district. No reason need be given, and typically no reason is given. After the probationary period, we receive “Permanent Status” within that district. If you move to a new district the process starts all over. But, by law, all teachers are evaluated by their principal or supervisor at least every 2 years. The law does not prevent teachers from being evaluated more frequently (though occasionally local contracts my stipulate limits). If a teacher receives an unsatisfactory rating—a rating that is up to the principal or supervisor—then that automatically means they are in danger of losing their job. They are given the opportunity to show improvement, so there is a process. However, that improvement is evaluated by the same principal or supervisor as gave the original evaluation. If ther supervisor deems they did not show imporvement, then the district can fire the teacher. “Tenure,” for k-12 teachers in California, does not in any way shape or form mean they cannot be fired for poor teaching. The fact that poor teachers are not let go is completely a lack of principals and supervisors doing their job. Often the reason they don’t is their own lack of training and support and that they are often feeling overwhelmed themselves by an impossible job. In this area some principals work in elementary schools of up to 900 students with no assistant principal due to cutbacks.

Many states do not allow teachers to have the protection of due process (e.g. “tenure”). Charter schools, for the most part, do not give teachers such protections. Yet, there is no evidence that they get better outcomes for students. Charter schools do not outperform schools serving like students here in California or anywhere else. Nor do states without tenure outperform states that have tenure. Without even a correlation, much less cause-effect relationship shown between teachers with or without  “tenure” or and student outcomes, to take away such protections claiming it is for the sake of student equity makes no sense at all.

What “tenure” protects is teachers being arbitrarily fired, or as is more often the case, fired for their views or for being outspoken. “Tenure” is a form of due process. It just says the district must show cause in order to fire someone. I lost my first teaching job, for instance, while still in the probationary period, even though I had all excellent teaching evaluations. What I did that was not so smart was openly express disagreement with some of the district policies. As I was still probationary all they had to do was say, we are not asking you back for next year. Even with the protection of due process, I have much more often seen principals and districts go after teachers for being “trouble makers” (i.e. expressing dissent as to school or district policies) than for poor teaching.

The solution to poor teachers is really four fold (at least). One is to attract better teachers. That means making the field more attractive not less. Lack of job security does not help attract people to the profession. Another is to continue to support teachers once in the field, something we do a poor job of. No teacher wants to be a bad teacher. And good teaching can be learned. Also many teachers teach under horrendous conditions. With proper support both in terms of teaching conditions and ongoing professional development, there would be very little poor teaching. We also need to support principals more in the process of both helping weak teachers, and helping them get rid of the bad ones. Lastly, and I do mean lastly, there probably does need to be a better system for figuring out what to do with those very few teachers who either are not cut out for teaching but somehow did get “tenure” or who have burned out and are no longer up to it, but cannot leave teaching because there are no other options for them economically.

The real agenda of the attack on teacher job security is really to reduce the power of teacher unions and an attack on public school teachers in general. Teacher unions are seen as a threat to the almost unrivaled power of the multibillionaires and corporate money in the American political arena. As it is they easily outspend unions 10-1, and seem to control the public discourse about most political issues are framed. Can you imagine their power once they completely decimate what little there is left of the unionized base in this country?

Early Childhood Education

I just got an email asking me to sign a petition to better fund early childhood education. I have to admit, though, that talk of early childhood education always raises mixed emotions with me. On the one hand, how could I not want to give disadvantaged youth the opportunity for quality early childhood education. And there is good research on the both how it can make a difference and on the real lack of it for many children.

But there is the rub. What is quality early childhood education? Over the past decade we have seen kindergarten turn into first grade. A place of worksheets and formal direct instruction.  A place where children quickly learn whether they are “good” or “poor” students. Where they are put in the “fast” or the “slow” group.

Yes research study after research study, as well as comparisons to other countries have shown that earlier is not better. Countries that start formal teaching of literacy later tend to actually do better at literacy over the years. Comparative studies of developmental early education versus formal instruction has shown similar results–developmental forms that do not stress formal teaching leads to better lasting results.

But when I hear of expanded early education, I see that in this country what that likely may mean is early formal instruction, early sorting kids into those who are seen as good at school and those who are not, creating a self-fulfilling prophesy, and taking away a time that should be for children to explore their world, and learn to socialize, and play.

If early childhood education means a time when kids received supported opportunities to be involved in play, in exploration of materials, exposure to wonderful stories and print, to interact with playmates in a safe and supportive environment, I am all for it.

If it means starting “first grade” at 3 or 4, then might we doing more harm then good?

So it is with such fears that I hear talk of expanded early childhood education.

If I Were in Charge Part 2

People sometimes ask me what I think needs to be done with the schools. This is really a two part question for me. One part is the policy side—what should or should or should not be required. The other part of the question is what are my ideas of what a good school and good teaching look like, which does not imply I believe in mandating those ideas even if I could. In my previous blog, I addressed the first part of the question. Now I will briefly tackle the second part.

A good test of schooling is whether one would send one’s own children there. Those who have read my other blogs entries know I favor progressive/constructivist pedagogy. That means that students have to be engaged in activities that matter to them in order to learn. The more those activities are connected authentically to the kinds of activities one engages in outside of school, the more likely what they learn can and will be used beyond school. There is both the need for students to be able follow their own personal interests and abilities, and expanding those interests.

One also needs to think bout how the experience of school shapes both what a student learns about, and what kind of climate and culture they learn it in. As psychologists such as Vygotsky, Bandura, Wenger and many others have shown, we learn more indirectly from how we experience the world, and watching how the adults in our world act and interact, than we do from any explicit instruction. Therefore, as much as possible the school should recreate the kind of culture, society we want our students to learn to be part of.

There is a built in tension in a democracy, between individual rights and pursuits, while recognizing that we are also part of a larger society. Fascist and totalitarian states focus on the state over the individual, and so schools in such a culture would teach students to obey and focus on obedience to higher authority. In an anarchist or libertarian state it would focus on the rights and liberties of the individual (would such a system even have public schooling, much less compulsory schooling?).

In my school students work not just individually, but also with others, others who are both alike and different than themselves. That in itself is one of the most important skills that I see any citizen needs. Most of what we do in life is in collaboration with others, in both the work and civic spheres. Humans are, by nature, social animals. The way a school and its curriculum is organized takes that into account. It means assessments that are part of the learning process and that mimic or are actual real life products or performances for the most part.

Long term projects would be at the center of most learning activities, activities that require students to integrate a variety of skills and abilities across disciplines. This mimics the kinds of activities and work people engage in for the most part outside of school. Real learning takes place when we work at real tasks that matter. The more in-depth the project is, the deeper the learning will be, and the more likely it will stay with us. Such learning takes time.

Students would sty with the same teacher for a minimum of two years. Deep learning takes deep relationships, and when teachers and students only work together for one year, those deep relationships are hard to build, with the family as much as with the student. If you are changing whom you work with too often, it gets hard to put in the investment in the relationship.

The school would be run collaboratively among the faculty. While it is important for all members of the school community to have a say, how much say would vary depending on the kinds of decision. Major curricular decisions would be the purview of the teaching faculty.

Another aspect is school size. Most of the above ideas are hard to implement in a large school. The larger the numbers of people the more such institutions must make decisions based on expediency and the smooth running of the institution rather on the educational needs of the students. Also, the number of people needs to be small enough so that the school can be a community where all members actually can get to know each other over time.

Some people claim such schooling is only appropriate for the gifted, or is not practical, and could not work in the real world. However, as I have documented in earlier blogs, the evidence is quite strong that it does work, and that actually such practices are probably more important for the disadvantaged than the advantaged, since the advantaged get so many of these advantages outside of school.

If I were in charge…

People sometimes ask me what I think needs to be done with the schools. This is really a two part question for me. One part is the policy side—what should or should or should not be required. The other part of the question is what are my ideas of what a good school and good teaching look like, which does not imply I believe in mandating those ideas even if I could. For this blog I will look at the former, and discuss the latter in my following blog.

miketest4What I would change is the mandating of curriculum (so called Standards). The mandating of standards for education in a democracy can only be justified in the case of an overwhelming consensus on such standards. There is no evidence for such a consensus, and lots of evidence that these is considerable controversy over both what such a curriculum should look like and whether there should be one at all. While I have my views on what I think all children should learn, I do not see it as my, or anyone else’s place to impose those beliefs on others, much less an entire nation.

Along with that is we need to get rid of high stakes mandated standardized testing. Standardized tests have so many problems, not the least of which is that they impose a standardized curriculum. If a certain test is required , and there are high stakes for how one does on that test, then teachers must teach to it, and students must gear themselves to it as well. That means standardized curriculum. Standardized tests are also, by definition, culturally biased—they have to be normed, which means an automatic bias to the dominant group. That is just a fact of psychometrics. And, as the test makers have admitted, their reliability for individuals is not all that great, and yet they are used to judge individual students. I also do not accept their validity for much more than a test taking skills, schools skills, and one’s zip code.

What I do support is a strong public school system. One thing such a system needs is at the very least equalized funding, and really more funding is need for those who live in poverty and have other strikes against them in life to at least begin to equalize some of the built in advantages those that are well to do and of the dominant culture can give easily to their kids without schools.

I also would not allow schools supported with public funds to select students. The only selection that can be justified is to balance in terms of demographics to more equally represent the community. Such balances do matter. It does matter that we are raised and schooled with those that represent the larger society. Schools of choice are great if the choice is the choice of the students and the parents and not of the schools. One way charter schools often get around this is counseling students out with such phrases as “Your child would/does not fit here.” I would ask of anyone stating that, “Do you have a better school for my child than this one?” If they cannot honestly find a better fit for that child, one that all parties agree to, then they have no place making such statements.

I would give local schools and localities autonomy over what and how to teach. But they would have to publicly justify their decisions, allow for public input and make their results public. What kind of results would vary, but again, they need to justify why they think the results they have used demonstrate a well educated democratic citizen. There would need to be some sort of democratic governance, but that can look different in different places.

These are the main things I see that are justifiable at the national or state level. Others you can think of?

The second part of the question is what do I think good teaching and schooling look like, which I will explore in my next blog.