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by Peter Moskos

August 2, 2011

In Defense of Tenure

Three cheers for actor Matt Damon!

You know, Matt and I have a lot in common.

Both our mothers are retired school teachers.

Both of us went to school in Cambridge, Mass.

And both of us are devilishly good looking!

But seriously, both of us know that the answer to bad teaching is not job insecurity.

You go, Matt! While you're watching the video, I'm going to be "assessing" papers from other people's classes according to a "grading rubric" in which I must judge each paper on 1) Responsiveness to instructions, 2) Use of terms and concepts, 3) Organization, 4) Integration of different sources, 5) Using appropriate reference and citation, and 6) Conclusion. This is the type of shit teachers do during their so-called "vacation" time.

I don't mention this to complain. I mention this to say that if you want me to teach well, let me teach. But pile on administrative B.S.? Give teachers make-work hoops to jump through? Take away time that could spend researching, writing, preparing for class, and grading papers? Analyze, assess, and prod me one too many times... and you'll get what what pay for. But no more.

I didn't go into this racket for the money. But without tenure, I never would have gone into teaching. Given my education, I could have made much more money as a consultant or investment banker or even a professor at a private university. But don't we want more overqualified teachers at public schools? Besides, I like my job.

Some want teachers to exchange job security for "incentive-based" pay. Well I don't know how you would "incentivise" me in my senior seminar. Some say pay should be based on student evaluations. Not a good idea. Granted I'd do OK because I get very good student evaluations. But it's still a bad idea. I do believe that bad evaluations are a sign of a bad teacher, I'm not so certain about the opposite. I like to think I get good student evaluations because I'm a good teacher. But I could also get good evaluations simply by being easy.

Pay me a fair wage (I make $74,000 a year in case you were wondering) and give me job security and enough time off, and I'll put my heart into the job. Make teaching a game--especially a game refereed by administrators and other non-teachers--and I'll play it like a game. Oh yes, I'd win that game! But my students wouldn't.

Trying to weed out bad teachers is like trying to weed out corruption. It's a noble goal and needs to be done, but you have to make sure the cure isn't worse than the disease. When you place rules and regulations on everybody in order to catch a few, you make things worse for everybody.

Teacher unions aren't perfect. But for teachers and students alike, they're more good than bad. They're also fighting on the front line against those who want to destroy unions and public education on ideological grounds.

Bad teachers need to be let go before they get tenure. And that would be easier if more good teachers were attracted to the profession. And that would be easier if there were not such teacher burnout, especially in schools most in need. Making the job less appealing is not the answer.

Matt Damon is right: Job insecurity would not make me work harder and MBA-style thinking is not the answer. A teacher wants to teach.


Dana King said...

As s a former teacher myself, I couldn't agree more.

Kenny said...

So teachers are different than every other professional? I don't think the problem is weeding out bad teachers. The problem is that people aren't happy with what students in public schools are learning (or, rather, not learning). I'm not really interested in the details about tenure, because I'm on of those "who want to destroy public education on ideological grounds.". I believe that people should be allowed to not pay for services they don't want. As-is, changing public schools usually requires moving to another neighborhood and even if parents opt to send their kids to private schools, they're still forced to pay for the public schooling of everyone else's kids (and of course, those without kids are still paying for public schools too). It seems like the only incentive teachers have to do a good job is personal motivation. That doesn't seem to be working so well.

PCM said...

I may be wrong, but from my public-school education experience, both as a student and a professor, I don't see a problem with teacher motivation.

Teaching is different from a lot of professions. Just as policing is. Just as waiting tables is. Just as is, probably, being a CEO of a multi-national corporation (not that I would know).

What works for one job may not work for others. I don't think it would be a good idea to have teachers paid through students' tips.

Some jobs are simply work. If you're punching holes in widgets all day long in a factory, I doubt you're motivated by love of your work. It's a job. You get paid. You go home. Indeed teaching is different. Or at least it should be different.

If you want to destroy public education, that's your right. And it's good you're upfront about it. Because then we can debate the real issue -- the value of public education -- and not get caught up in red-herrings like teachers' unions and tenure.

The "public" part of public anything means that everybody pays, no matter if you use the services or not. Just like police, fire, roads, and the library.

I think public education is good for the nation. I take it you do not. I think public education could be better, but that would involves more commitment from the public, not less. I agree there should be more choice in public education. But of course it's the richer better districts that fight this choice. Real choice would involve funding schools entirely at a state or national level. That's not going to happen in tea-party America.

The reason I think public education is so important goes back to the history of public education in this country. Schools were designed to (among other things) assimilate and create a national identity. The roots of public education was very paternalistic. Rich people didn't want poor immigrants to revolt and not show up for work.

But regardless of intentions, an educated populace, I would go so far as to say a commonly educated populace, is necessary for any rich, modern, 1st-world nation.

On a more practical level, we are going to pay for the education of the poor no matter what. At least as we long as we mandate education for poor children. So than we, the non-poor, need to ask what what is best for them and for us. It is in our own selfish interests to have good schools for everybody. And since we're going to pay for these schools, we might as well make them good enough so we can send our own children.

Schools are also cheaper than prison.

Mrs Gotti Rules said...

Amen! You couldn't have made a better argument for us public school teachers. I actually had one parent say to me that he had decided to send his child to private school because "You get what you pay for." No exaggeration, those were his exact words. He of course said this to me after I had worked all year helping his child with the child's learning disability and fighting for his child to get a 504 plan. Jerk!

P.S. Can't wait to see you soon at the crab feast!

PCM said...

And he'll now vote for lower taxes to bust your union and pay you less since after all, why should he pay for public education when he doesn't use it?

Interestingly a lot of rich people with severely learning-disabled kids send their children to New York City public schools because it has a very good and very expensive program for such children.

Sometimes you get more than you pay for.

Private schools, naturally, don't want to spend extra money on such children because it costs too much.

Robert said...

There is a major difference between tenure for professors at colleges and universities and for teachers at the elementary and secondary level. I can choose to go to a different college or university; I cannot choose a different public elementary or secondary school without significant additional costs.

I never understood why testing or holding teachers to certain standards is so egregious. Should we not expect good quality from our teachers? How will we know we have good quality if we do not set minimum standards and continue to hold the teachers to those standards? I know I have to have minimum standards to obtain my current position and then am expected to achieve certain standards year upon year to retain my position. I may not be let go for failing to achieve those standards in one year but am expected to make progress and improvement year upon year. Why not the same standards and transparency for teachers? Especially if teaching is such a vital role in our society as we are routinely reminded.

Saying that we cannot take an “MBA approach” to teaching is a false argument. Yes you can, you just cannot take a manufacturing management approach, you need to identify the right metrics and appropriate methods to measure those metrics. Student performance might be a good metric, teacher competence would be another.

For every "teacher that wants to teach" there is also teachers who want to play the game and hide behind union work rules. Teachers are no more or less altruistic than any other profession. They are normals humans like every one else.

PCM said...

There may be major differences between tenure for me and tenure for an elementary school teacher. "Academic freedom" is a real issue for a publishing professor like me. I'm not certain how that concept plays into the work-life of a 3rd-grade teacher. But I still believe that good teachers wouldn't teach as well without job security.

And most of my students cannot afford to go to a different university. At a state school (though there are other state schools, I guess), you're kind of stuck because of the (lesser) money involved.

We should expect good quality from teachers. But I do not see how these quantitative quality-indicating "metrics" are possible. You say, "Yes you can." I say, "no you can't." This is not a minor quibble. I do not think these metrics can be identified or measured. Nor do I think you can measure student performance without major problems (see cheating scandals). And do we measure improvement or grades? And measuring "competence"? What does that mean?

Bad metrics are worse than no metrics.

I am not saying this to be difficult. I am saying this because I believe these problems represent methodological flaws that are so serious that any attempt to quantify performance will 1) fail, and 2) actually worsen performance.

As to teachers being more or less altruistic... I wouldn't say we're more altruistic people. But absolutely we're more altruistic with regards to our work (and no, not every teacher, but on average).

Every other job I had, even jobs I loved, even policing, was a simple transaction-based contract. You pay me and I give hours of labor. I work more, you pay me more. And even jobs where I didn't work by the hour, I clearly felt that my labor was going to be repaid in money.

You know many times in all the other jobs I've ever had where I offered to work more for free? Zero.

And yet do you have any ideas how many times I've agreed -- even offered -- to spend hours helping students with their writing or something else? Countless. My paycheck doesn't change. These are hours during which I could have simply gone home and watched baseball. But I choose to work more and help students (and these are not always students in my class) for no personal gain. Why do I do this? I don't know. (I don't mean this to make me sound holy). But that's altruism, right? And it's common.

Now granted I'm talking here about good teachers and not bad ones. But there are more good teachers than bad teachers. And here's the risk: if you make policy designed to get rid of bad teachers and piss me off or take away my job security, I'm telling you (and as they say... this isn't a treat; it's a promise) I'm going to do what I have to, take my $950/week paycheck, and go home.

If you can figure out a way to rid the system of the few bad teachers without getting all up in my business, I'm all ears.

But if you try and quantify my performance, if you take away my feeling of being a somewhat independent professional, you're going to make me and most in my professor to a worse job. You're also going to create another expensive layer of administrative bureaucracy.

Robert said...

Well there is dilemma, you say you are a good teacher and further say that it is your belief that there are “more good teachers than bad” and altruism in teaching is “common”, I say prove it. You are right, this is no small quibble. I think you are bright and clearly are an accomplished person, but that does not necessarily make you a good or even average teacher. You tell me you are but you offer no proof other than you are willing to spend extra time for no extra money. This would make your altruistic but not necessarily good.

As a taxpayer, I am obligated to part with my hard earned money to support a system that despite ever increases in spending results in no improvement in outcomes. I would like to see even an attempt at measuring performance of one of the vital components of the education system, the teachers. I recognize that poor metric are not necessarily better than no metrics but does that mean since it is hard to measure something we should not attempt to? And with the complete obstructionist stand point of the teacher’s unions to implement even basic measurements it leaves me to wonder why teachers do not want to be measured? What are they afraid of? If teachers are afraid of bad metrics, come with what would be good metrics and why these are good metrics compared to what I propose. If you just say trust me, that is not good enough.

I work in health care. Too often other clinicians used to say you cannot measure how good of a job they do, they just get results and their patient’s love them. That is not true; you can measure how good of a job they do and compare their performance to their colleagues. There are performance metrics that you can use to measure the performance of the clinicians despite the fact that not every outcome will be ideal or not every patient has the resources to achieve the optimal outcome. I was/am always suspicious when I here my colleagues tell me their performance cannot be measured. I will extend that same benefit to all other professions.

PCM said...

Agreed. You don't know I'm a good teacher. I don't know I'm a good teacher (but I like to think I am). But I was just trying to show that I am an altruistic teacher, and it is common in teaching, unlike other professions.

And here's sign of a good teacher: I write about and discuss these issues (I could be doing something else right now). I like pedagogical discussions. I'm not writing this to convince you (I doubt I will). I'm engaging in this conversation because it makes *me* think. I do this because I care about teaching. And I doubt there are too many bad teachers who actually care. I also get excellent student evaluations. So with that as an quantified indicator, you might think I'm a good teacher.

But one could get mixed evaluations and still be an excellent teacher for some of your students. What if 1/4 of the class doesn't like you, but you inspire another 1/4 beyond measure? Is that better or worse than making the whole class happy? I don't know.

You mention these other ways to measure... Let's hear them. I don't think they exist. I'd say it's easier to measure performance in the medical world because there are clearly quantifiable indicators (including but not limited to death). For many subjects in education, especially at a college level, there are no clear benchmark statistics.

I also strongly disagree with the statement that increases in spending result in no improvement in outcomes. There are clear and quantifiable standards that school performance is correlated with spending. This is why rich districts choose to spend more on schools than poor districts. Either these rich people think they're getting something for their money or they're stupid. I suspect the former.

You know what I think the real issue is that nobody wants to talk about? Bad student. Not bad students as in Johnie can't read. Bad as in I just mugged somebody before class and will slug anybody who stares at me. Bad as in I'm 13 and my dad is in prison and my mom is a trick-turning junkie. My home has no electricity, bedbugs, rats, and more abuse than love.

I'm thinking of kids I saw in the Eastern District.

If I had kids, I wouldn't want them to go to school with such children. Nor do most other parents. That's why those that can afford to move out of the area or send their kids to Catholic school do so.

So what do we do with those messed-up children with bad parents? Where do they go to school? I don't think this is a school-solvable problem. And yet teachers get blamed.

Spending more money may not solve the problem, but spending more money will have to be part of the solution.

PCM said...

Maybe it comes down to this: You don't know if I'm a good teacher. You never will know. And you may not like that fact because you're paying my salary. But tough. You'll have to live with it.

Option A, given that uncertainty as to my quality, is to make a battery of tests that may or may not test my competence. Such tests would piss off competent teachers and maybe identify problem teachers. It might also identify good teachers as problems.

Option B, since I have tenure and am not going away, would be to spend time and money to make me a better teacher. If not a great teacher, at least the best teacher I can be. If not even a good teacher, at least better than bad.

Wouldn't that be a more productive use of our time and money than trying to quantify my performance to nobody's satisfaction and perhaps making me a worse teacher in the process? And maybe, after all that time and effort, finding out that I was an OK teacher after all.

The *main* problem with education is not that there are a few bad teachers.

And the best way to improve teaching is indeed to attract better people into the teaching profession. That takes money, commitment, and respect... not busting unions, teacher testing, and getting rid of tenure.

Anonymous said...

"And the best way to improve teaching is indeed to attract better people into the teaching profession. That takes money, commitment, and respect... not busting unions, teacher testing, and getting rid of tenure."

This is a thesis, not a conclusion.

I think we should look at testing this in the real world. Some schools/districts should try the lower security, pay-for-performance model, and we could see what we get.
We might find that higher reward/lower security attracts a better fit for the job. We might not...