Lots of very nice well meaning people were approached by a person standing outside their grocery store or library in the last several months and asked to sign a petition to get rid of teacher tenure so we could “finally get rid of the really bad teachers who were making our school system so awful.” I’ll bet these well intentioned folks probably took all of 8 seconds to agree that the teachers were the source of our educational woes. Recollections of the infamous New York rubber rooms where teachers who had done terrible things to students were being housed because the school system couldn’t fire them likely sprang to mind. Mainstream media headlines of America falling behind in international rankings may have made it to their subconscious. Maybe they even remembered a teacher they didn’t like because they were not very helpful to their child and they couldn’t understand how the district kept that person on the payroll. How great would it be to get rid of these people and all they had to do was sign a petition? Two hundred and seventy five thousand of such proactive education supporters did sign the petition which is now in the Secretary of States office for validation to put a measure on the statewide ballot in November eliminating teacher tenure. But what will we get for this measure?
The petition says all public school districts would need to adopt evaluation standards that rely on “quantifiable student performance data” to guide decisions on promoting, demoting, firing and paying personnel. Ooooh, we like data. It sounds so objective. Make it quantifiable and we magically have a nice easy system to identify who the good guys and the bad guys are. Draw a line in the data. Everyone above this mark stays. Everyone below it goes. Where will this quantifiable data come from? From the standardized tests we give students every year. It sounds so good, why didn’t we think of this before?
To understand, first you have to understand exactly what standardized testing really is. Standardized tests take a snap shot of a students mental retrieval system on things that some centralized provider has decided are important. It does not care if children get anxious about performing on command. It is not even a good indicator of a curriculum’s effectiveness. That is why the vendors of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) state in their literature that “policy makers should not use results either to indict or commend education systems. Furthermore, they should not use the results to make important policy decisions.” So an international test developer says these types of test should not be used to make policy, decisions, but Teach Great says they are ideal for “requiring teachers to be dismissed, retained, demoted, promoted, and paid.”
Christopher Tienken does not believe that standardized tests are a valid measure of student’s abilities in a country as demographically diverse as America. He does not believe that our country values, at its core, the uniformity and conformity imposed by such tests. At the 3 minute mark Tieknen says, “Parents students and educators are being forced to comply with a broken system that has no evidence to support it; professional judgement, local expertise, scientific evidence, moral responsibility and ethical behavior have been subjugated at the alter of centralization and standardization brought on by an ever expanding relationship between America’s corporate education complex and policymakers.”
Certainly sounds like what Rex Sinquefield is doing. Basically Teach Great is asking folks to buy the standardized tests and their results to influence local district personnel policy for teachers. They float the false belief that districts policies for last-in-first-out (which don’t exist in many districts) is the reason that good teachers are let go. They want you to agree up front that newer teachers are inherently good and older teachers are inherently bad. They want to mandate your local policy to limit contracts to less than three years, “so that their performance can be re-evaluated as it would be in any other profession.” Again they float the false assumption that, once a teacher has a contract and tenure, they are never evaluated again.
I’ll keep repeating it until everyone remembers; tenure only guarantees due process in the event of potential dismissal from the job, it is NOT a lifetime guarantee of employment. That due process requirement confirms that a district must be doing a performance evaluation upon which they would have to base a retention decision, so tenure is the mechanism by which districts are already forced to do at least periodic performance reviews. Otherwise your principal suddenly deciding to do a performance review would be a major clue that they are preparing to fire you.
Teach Great wants, at best, to simplify that performance review by making it heavily based on student performance on standardized tests. Tienken says, “The results of standardized tests can be predicted with a high level of accuracy in part by student and community demographic factors; factors that schools [and teachers] don’t control. In fact, community demographic factors account for between 40-60% of the results on a state wide standardized test… Like it or not, poverty, life experience and the conditions in which a child grows up matter greatly on the results of a standardized test.” So by all means lets have the corporatists telling us to let a teacher go based on whether they teach in a wealthy or poor community. Lets create the fastest revolving door for teachers on our schools in the poorest communities which need teachers with the most classroom experience upon which to draw for ideas on how to best meet the needs of their students.
Then there are the unintended consequences of this focus on testing. It will rob your child or grandchild of the opportunity for a good education that meets them at their developmental level, by forcing them to keep pace with the nationally defined norm. Your child’s teachers will be forced to push this pace in their classrooms, even if it goes against their professional judgement, because you have just put their job on the line if they don’t.
Think about the teachers that will survive this policy to be around teaching 5-10 years from now. Will they be innovators? Will they be worried about meeting the individual needs of their students? Or will they more likely readily accept whatever scripted curriculum is offered them that has demonstrated the most success with impacting student scores, even if that impact is barely measurable? In a system that clearly does not value their broad professional expertise, how many truly good professionals are going to choose to stay in the classroom? The National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future estimates that one-third of all new teachers leave after 3 years, and 46% are gone within 5 years. Typically they leave due to dissatisfaction with the job. They are not pushed out out of the job. They want better pay, better working conditions and an end to the obsession with focusing on standardized tests.
Did you also know that the state has promoted a teacher evaluation program that utilizes a student survey created by Network for Educator Effectiveness (NEE out of University of Missouri) that asks students to rate their teachers? So now, in addition to students’ performance on a standardized test, over which they have total control and no accountability, we have also given students the ability to impact whether a teacher stays or goes by making THIRTY PERCENT of a teacher’s evaluation based on these ratings. That puts kids in charge of about 80% of the decision of whether or not a teacher gets to keep his/her job. Does anyone else think that is the ultimate definition of the inmates running the asylum?
To understand the causes of our education system failures is going to take a little more than 8-15 seconds outside a store. You can bet that Sinquefield’s money is going to pay for a lot of advertising and mailers to promote this issue statewide. You can also bet that there will be a lot of false assumptions pedaled in that promotion. We must educate each other on the real causes of education failure and make sure people are informed voters in November and don’t end up voter’s remorse.