Tenure Deconstructed

, Brittany Fortier, Leave a comment

A system can truly be considered broken when evaluators of hiring decisions are the ones that need to be evaluated. A panel hosted by the Center for American Progress on June 25, 2009, discussed why the American educational system has struggled in keeping itself accountable to students and parents, while at the same time creating a tenure system that critics claim gives teachers jobs for life.

Many critics say that evaluation systems for teachers have been a huge reason for this discrepancy. Morgaen Donaldson, Assistant Professor at the Neag School of Education at the University of Connecticut, argued that “many evaluation instruments are quite inadequate” because “they often reflect what’s measurable, not exactly what matters.”

Donaldson said that teacher evaluation systems are “a work in progress.” Her report on the state of teacher evaluations, So Long Lake Wobegone, explained why current evaluation instruments are unable to “accurately and meaningfully assess teacher performance.”

Some of these reasons include “external constraints” on evaluations. “District policy often specifies the procedures and timelines related to teacher evaluation, but does not give evaluators much guidance on how to do it,” Donaldson said. Evaluators are given “very little time to work with” in completing their evaluations, which prevents a teacher from receiving effective feedback, she argues.

Donaldson also cited “internal constraints” within the school itself, such as not enough training to evaluate the quality of a particular teacher. She said that there are “very few incentives” for school administrators to do an accurate and critical evaluation because of a “norm of non-interference” with a teacher doing their job.

Many principals are not convinced that a “replacement teacher would be an improvement over the current teacher,” Donaldson added. Principals usually do not have significant influence in deciding who the replacement teacher will be. Critics argue that this creates an indifference to the process, discouraging schools from being proactive in critically evaluating teachers.

Kate Walsh, President of the National Council on Teacher Quality, considered “student learning” to be the sole criteria that should be considered in evaluating a teacher. When asked what progress she has seen in the area of teacher evaluations, she said, “If there is progress, I’m certainly missing it.”

“I was talking to [a developer] of one of most well-used instruments in the country, and she expressed a good deal of dismay … over teachers earning a very high rating in school that is failing,” Walsh said. “If kids are failing, adults don’t pass.”

Joan Baratz-Snowden, President of the Education Study Center, called Walsh’s criteria a “facile solution,” arguing that “just because we don’t get the outcomes we want that the people who are serious about trying to help us get to those outcomes aren’t doing their job.”

“If you accept that premise that there are complicating factors that get in the way of being able to hold teachers accountable for results, then you ultimately have no reason to hold anyone accountable for anything,” Walsh said.

“What we need to look at is holding principals accountable for results,” she said, arguing that a “system of third party evaluators” would be more beneficial because “even instruments that are very highly regarded do not necessarily correlate well with the student achievement results.”

Walsh added that awarding tenure is a “very significant decision,” and argued that it should be “meaningful” rather than an automatic entitlement when the teacher has worked for a certain amount of time. “It should not take two years to fire an ineffective teacher,” she said.

“We can mandate changes to tenure, we can mandate changes to evaluation systems, but what we really need to do … [is] address the causes [rather than the symptoms],” said Donaldson. “If we really want to make tenure matter, if we really want evaluation to matter, we need to address the issue of instructional improvement, making that the focus …”

Donaldson also noted that there are significant “shifts in the workforce,” and new school employees may be more open to merit-based evaluations. She also noted that “increased competition” from charter schools, vouchers and home schooling is making these changes all the more necessary.

Reforming America’s educational system will not be easy. The status quo is clearly not working. The correlation between teacher accountability and student performance has been the key to a successful system, but critics argue that America’s schools have abandoned this principle for an inefficient bureaucracy. Real change in the system can only happen when the hard work and effort is done to evaluate teachers effectively. Students deserve no less than the best chance possible to succeed.

Brittany Fortier is an intern at the American Journalism Center, a training program run by Accuracy in Media and Accuracy in Academia.