Notes From Babel

Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

Teachers’ Tenure and Due Process: When Is Too Early, How Much Is Enough?

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E.D. Kain’s recent piece on “firing teachers with due process” contains so much spin and sleight of hand that I, even with no particular knowledge of or interest in education policy, could not let it go unremarked upon.  To begin, here’s Kain explaining why it should be hard to fire teachers:

First, this chart only applies to tenured teachers. Bad teachers can be weeded out much quicker before gaining tenure. School officials need to use this time window appropriately.

Second, the point of tenure is to protect teachers from arbitrarily being fired. Teachers need protection from over-zealous bosses and ideological politicians. This is the same thinking behind seniority rules, which protect more expensive teachers (i.e. veterans) from being laid off due to budget cuts. Teaching is not a high-paying job compared to jobs in the private sector, and one of the benefits is some job security. Occasionally this means bad teachers take longer to fire.

So many questions.  First, the typical “window” before teachers gain tenure is just three years—in many states it is just two years, and in Nevada, Hawaii, and Mississippi, teachers are granted tenured after only a single year on the job.  Compare this with the average five year tenure-track in most universities.  This gives administrators a very small dataset from which to make a decision on teachers’ ability.  And it’s a short enough period that even bad teachers can fake it long enough to get tenure.  Thus, Kain’s suggestion that administrators have all the tools they reasonably need to weed out bad teachers before they get tenure is unpersuasive.

Second, tenure is a misnomer when applied to K-12 educators.  The academic tenure system was designed to promote a policy of freedom in academic research among university faculties.  According to the Wikipedia entry on tenure:

Academic tenure is primarily intended to guarantee the right to academic freedom: it protects teachers and researchers when they dissent from prevailing opinion, openly disagree with authorities of any sort, or spend time on unfashionable topics. Thus academic tenure is similar to the lifetime tenure that protects some judges from external pressure. Without job security, the scholarly community as a whole might favor "safe" lines of inquiry. The intent of tenure is to allow original ideas to be more likely to arise, by giving scholars the intellectual autonomy to investigate the problems and solutions about which they are most passionate, and to report their honest conclusions. In economies where higher education is provided by the private sector, tenure also has the effect of helping to ensure the integrity of the grading system. Without tenure, professors could be pressured by administrators to issue higher grades for attracting and keeping a greater number of students.

For this reason, “[a] junior professor will not be promoted to such a tenured position without demonstrating a strong record of published research, teaching, and administrative service.”  Think of it this way:  Tenure is essentially a status in which the burden of proof in justifying termination is shifted from the employee to the employer.  Pre-tenure, a university may terminate for no reason, and it would be up to the professor to demonstrate the termination violated the law.  This state of affairs is essential to universities in maintaining an effective, top-notch faculties that not only provide competent instruction, but perform significant academic research to advance the reputation of the institution.  A professor can flip this burden only by meeting a burden of his own by providing quality instruction, and publishing important and novel research. Once the professor achieves tenure, to justify a termination, the university bears the burden of proving the professor violated the law or some documented rule of conduct.

Bearing in mind what tenure actually is, consider now the “tenure” track of most K-12 educators.  What sort of “strong record” must they demonstrate?  What sort of important academic research must they perform?  What role does intellectual autonomy play in kindergarten and grade school as compared to university?  Quite simply, none of the reasons underlying tenure in the university system apply to K-12, and teachers need not demonstrate anything like the body of research and academic excellence that professors do to earn tenure.  Instead, as long as K-12 teachers stay under the radar, they’re awarded tenure.  Not only that, K-12 teachers earn tenure in roughly half the time as professors—i.e., between one and three years, versus five years in most universities.

So, if “the point of tenure is to protect teachers from arbitrarily being fired,” this is a goal that unilaterally advances the interests of teachers’ unions, not the public.  If it is the case that over-firing teachers is a real problem such that it is chilling participation of qualified educators in that profession, I’d love to see some persuasive evidence of it.  At the very least, a school voucher system would seem to present a nice solution:  If it’s true that “over-zealous bosses and ideological politicians” are creating a glut of qualified unemployed educators, this translates to a ready hiring pool for charter schools.  This would be a more elegant and self-executing way of disincentivizing public school administrators from casually firing gads of qualified teachers—if indeed we are convinced that is a truer picture of what’s happening than this is.

I also disagree with Kain when he suggests that teaching is such “a very difficult job” that it would be impossible to attract enough qualified educators to the profession unless they were given Kevlar-grade job security in addition to their already generous compensation packages.  No doubt the job has its challenges.  But it’s rewarding, too, and comes with lots of flexibility and perks.  But at the end of the day, it’s a job.  It cannot be too much to ask that employees—even public employees—work to impress their employers if they want to keep their jobs. 

I also sense Kain and I might be living in two very different worlds when it comes to what constitutes a “high-paying job.”  In a previous post, Kain groans that the average $90,000 teachers make in Wisconsin is too little compensation for nine-months’ work.  Even were teachers merely considered “babysitters,” Kain argues, they ought to earn at least $108,000 for the same period.  That’s $144,000 for a full year.  Adjusting for cost of living where I live in Orange County, California, Kain’s methodology suggests that $192,932 a year is still not enough compensation for a K-12 teacher.  If that is the mentality represented by teachers unions, it is no wonder that bilateral reform has proved unsuccessful.

Would if I could end this post and go about with my Sunday.  But Kain insists on overblowing the concept of “due process”:

Third, the chart claims that it take 2-5 years to fire a bad teacher. This is true, but also misleading. The process requires one year of remediation. Is anyone suggesting that a remedial period is unwarranted? Many private sector jobs require similar remedial steps for ‘unsatisfactory’ employees. These steps take longer and are more complicated as the job in question becomes more difficult to assess. Successful teaching is very difficult to assess.

Then there are a series of hearings. This is the due process period put in place to ensure that the actual reasons behind firing the teacher are legitimate. Is the Tribune suggesting that there should be no hearing process at all? Even then, the hearings only take place if the teacher requests them. Many teachers will not put up this much of a fight, but some do.

Here’s the chart Kain is referring to.  Here’s an even better one describing New York City’s process.  Even before getting to them, however, note how Kain shifts the discussion away from firing teachers with disciplinary problems, excessive absences, and other misconduct, and instead to the firing of instructors simply because they are not “successful,” noting that “successful teaching is very difficult to assess.”  The threshold question is not whether administrators can fire otherwise competent teachers who, to the bewilderment of everyone, are just not getting great scores from their students.  The question is why can’t administrators fire teachers who exhibit chronic misconduct.  This is the sort of sleight of hand that labor supporters engage in to avoid talking about the issues.  Rather than sitting at the same table with reformers and talking about things mainstream Americans care about, they set up their own table and invite reformers to sit down and talk about nominal problems that no one cares about.

But to answer Kain’s question, no, no one is “suggesting that there should be no hearing process at all.”  What folks are suggesting is that there should not be so many hearings that all put the burden on the administration while the allegedly offending teacher—against whom there must be multiple disciplinary write-ups to begin with—continues to teach with full pay.  That is, there must be a preliminary determination that the teacher is unsatisfactory, and that determination is subject to confirmation and appeal by different reviewing bodies.  Only then can termination proceedings be initiated.  At that point, the teacher is entitled to special evidentiary and discovery rules, including not having to provide certain documents even if they might lead to the discovery of relevant evidence against the teacher.  Usually, the teacher continues to receive full compensation pending the outcome of the hearing.  Remember that all of this “due process” is in addition to the teacher’s right to file a regular civil lawsuit once the termination is upheld.

Administrative procedures are important in providing employees a more informal, less expensive adjudicative process as an alternative to expensive civil litigation.  On the other hand, however, these “savings” to the employee are shifted to the employer, who is disincentivized from making prudent employment decisions that benefit the school and its students unless and until the teacher is so bad as to warrant the heightened expenses and burdens placed on the school.  Given that tenure is a misnomer to begin with when applied to K-12 educators, it ought to be clear there is such a thing as too much process, particularly where that process so impedes the normal operations of the public employer that it is unable to effectively serve its public function.


On closing under-performing public schools

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This article laments the idea:

A study of the closing schools by the city’s independent budget office found that these schools have disproportionate numbers of the city’s neediest students. One begins to get the sense that students who are homeless, who don’t speak English, who receive special education, or who have other high needs, are bounced around from school to school.

. . . .

I oppose the closing of public schools (except for under-enrollment) for a simple reason. Public schools are not chain stores. They are not shoe stores that can be closed when they don’t turn a profit and be relocated elsewhere. They are a public service, a public good. It is the obligation of public officials to provide good public schools in every neighborhood, not to privatize them or to act as an umpire whose role is to judge them defective and shut them down. If those who are in charge can’t help struggling schools, shame on them. (Charter schools are a different matter, as they sign a contract and agree to meet certain goals or close.)

Every time a public school is closed, it should be considered a failure of the central administration. The leaders who close the most public schools are the biggest failures. They should be held accountable for their incompetence. Good leadership in education means taking responsibility for making things better, rather than sitting back and monitoring how schools perform. Good leaders should be recognized for the schools they improve. Bad leaders close schools because they are incapable of helping them.

I generally share the lament of shutting schools down. It suggests the thinking behind public schools is that they’re merely a politically-necessary nuisance and we ought to avail any political opportunity we can to shut them down and save those costs. I hope that’s not the thinking. The real problem, though, is the thinking that all students have a right to be treated like uniform receptacles of information rather than individuals with different interests, aptitudes, and skills. If a school is failing, I suspect the reason is because it’s not giving the kids the kind of training they’re suited for.

But this is a problem that is only addressed at the very top of our education policy-making, not with “bad leaders” of our schools.

Written by Tim Kowal

February 11, 2011 at 8:35 am

The College Education Lie

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A little while back, Professor Mondo recommended Robert Weissman’s Bad Students, Not Bad Schools.  As it was back-ordered, I checked out Charles Murray’s Real Education instead.  Yesterday, Reason referred to a Harvard study echoing the same simple, common-sense, yet politically incorrect truth that prodding and cajoling millions of kids into schools where they’re not suited saddles generation after generation with ruinous debt and spirit-crushing expectations.  Not to mention, it artificially increases demand, and thus the price, of higher education, while diminishing the quality of the education provided to those who actually do want to be there.

Distilled for consumption on a Saturday is this 4 1/2 minute video from Reason:

Written by Tim Kowal

February 5, 2011 at 11:49 am

Posted in Education

How hard is it to spot bad teachers?

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Kevin Drum acknowledges there might be something to the argument that getting rid of bad teachers might be a good idea.  But he laments that there seems to be no way of knowing who the bad teachers are expect by “dedicating large sums of money to a massive social experiment in teacher selection and retention.”

This strikes me as desperate posturing:  Liberals won’t dare risk sounding so out of touch as to suggest there aren’t bad teachers, or that bad teachers aren’t the major cause of our public education problem.  Instead, they engage in an “aw, shucks” act by asking, as Drum does, “how do we decide who the good teachers are?” and suggesting there’s no possible way to do so without prohibitively expensive social experimentation.  Seems to me we could get make some pretty good headway by listening to parents’ complaints and kids’ test scores.  We might be able to drill down into the minutiae and get some more scientifically robust evidence later, but for now, it will suffice simply to get rid of the onerous union obstacles to firing teachers.  The “let’s wait until the results come back from the lab” approach to dealing with the teachers union problem strikes me as a bit thin.

Written by Tim Kowal

December 26, 2010 at 1:48 pm

L.A. Teacher Union Means Business

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From today’s L.A. Times:

“For the first time we’re trying to show that we can, as teacher-educators, build a school that will benefit our children because we know our children best,” said Hillcrest first-grade teacher Josephine Miller. “That’s what makes this exciting.”

She speaks the truth:  if teacher unions benefited children, it would indeed be the first time.

Written by Tim Kowal

January 2, 2010 at 3:42 pm

Posted in Education

Is There Any Correllation Between Education and Funding?

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Here’s a chart worth sharing with those “won’t somebody please think about the children” folks who say we need to keep throwing dumptrucks of money down the education rat hole:

Source.  H/T Jason Kuznicki at Positive Liberty.

Written by Tim Kowal

October 1, 2009 at 10:20 pm

Posted in Education