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Teacher Tenure

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Tenure is a surprisingly difficult subject to write about. As with much of education policy, it is the subject of intense debate, sweeping generalizations, and surprisingly little direct evidence. The complication lies in the fact that teacher tenure in and of itself does very little. As with much of personnel policy, it is the indirect effects of teacher tenure that have attracted attention, but because it is a conditioning factor (rather than direct factor) it is difficult to identify how tenure might advance or retard educational progress. In that respect teacher tenure is emblematic of what’s gone wrong with the educational debate in this country. We are making dramatic changes with very little idea of what the consequences will be – which is very close to the definition of recklessness.

Let me first try to sum up the neoliberal argument about tenure. As I’ve written previously, there is a stream of literature that highlights the importance of teacher quality in driving educational outcomes. There is also a perceived consensus that the effects of teacher experience tend to decay after only a few years. According to some researchers, there are big improvements in teacher quality in the first few years, but these gains flatten out within the first five years or so. However, because of the salary schedule, rewards to teachers are based on seniority, not effects on students, so that strapped school districts are paying large sums to pay for teachers who are not contributing any more than their more junior colleagues. Furthermore, tenure protections result in the firing of younger, equally high-quality teachers during budget crunches; incorporate due process protections that make it unnecessarily difficult to remove incompetent teachers (see the discussion of “bad teachers” in the last post). In addition, tenure is granted as a matter of routine and so early in a person’s career that all incentives for improvement are removed.

As I hinted at the beginning, there isn’t a substantial research base to back up the claim that tenure policies hurt student achievement. I spent a week searching through the literature and found very few studies that focused specifically on the effects of tenure. Aaronson et al (2007) suggested that tenure policies had no effect on student achievement. Studies by Hansen (2009) in North Carolina and Jacob (2010) in Chicago found that teachers with tenure were more likely to be absent from school. Jacob also found very limited evidence that making dismissals easier improved student achievement.

To be fair, Hanushek (2008) and other could argue that dismissal policies per se aren’t the problem, but rather that there isn’t enough evidence that teacher experience in later years is worth the cost. There a substantial body of work suggesting that teacher experience is important, but that it peaks relatively early (Rivkin et al (2005), Boyd et al (2008a), Croninger et al 2006, Kane et al 2006, Rockoff 2004). This is not an uncontested perspective though. Clotfelter et al (2006, 2007) found evidence for incremental productivity gains in elementary school, and a working paper by Papay & Kraft (unpublished) raises questions about the most commonly used models. Other caveats include the potential positive spillover effects to having experienced teachers at a school (Jackson & Breugmann 2009), and that we might need to focus on teacher experience at a particular grade level rather than generically (Huang & Moon 2009).

For the sake of argument, however, I’ll concede that the preponderance of the evidence suggests that teacher experience isn’t a major contributor for all but rookies. My question would be – what does this have to do with tenure? One of the strongest arguments for tenure is that without it school superintendents would have a tremendous incentive to fire expensive, experienced teachers. The implicit position of neoliberals is that they should, or at least flatten out salaries based on proven performance. I’ll get to the problem of pay-for-performance (or merit pay) another time, but I want to point out that the gist seems to be that we should de-professionalize teaching; that we should treat it as a short-term job rather than as a career. The neoliberal push for things like Teach for America, Troops for Teachers, and alternative certification certainly seems to point in this direction.

Now I ask you, can you name another field other than athletics that benefits from having a junior, disposal, ill-trained workforce? And even if this isn’t the intent, what effects do these proposals have on people considering a career in teaching?

"You, A+ student, how about a 20K a year job with no benefits in which you will be evaluated on the result of standardized tests. Interested? No? Huh, I can’t imagine why.”

This brings us to questions like teacher recruitment and attrition, which are worthy of posts of their own, but in the meantime I want to leave you with one more consideration. Right now neoliberals complain that teacher tenure is not warranted because there is no statistical evidence that it improves student achievement, and is therefore an unnecessary expense. But isn’t it possible that tenure is a substitute for pay and benefits? Without the prospect of tenure, won’t districts have to offer higher pay if they wish to attract teachers? Pay perhaps commensurate with what teachers make in other countries, or workers with similar levels of education here in the states? I haven’t found any research to support this contention, so I will leave it as a hypothesis. I just wish that neoliberals would do the same when it came with attacking tenure – another in a long list of policies where “reformers” are going off half-cocked.

Posted by Arbitrista @ 6:48 AM
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