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Bruno: The Case Against Tenure Seems Weak

6085534723_e383e3cf43One of the upshots of the #Vergara trial is that it seems to be pushing commentators to more starkly articulate their views on education reform.

It's often too easy to talk about, say, teacher tenure protections in terms of generalities and platitudes, but when those ideas are on trial people seem to feel additional pressure to be a bit more specific.

So, for example, last week Dan Weisberg took to the TNTP blog to argue that the Vergara plaintiffs are obviously correct to challenge California's tenure rules because those rules force "administrators to grant or deny permanent employment to teachers after just 18 months in the classroom".

In Weisberg's view, this is a problem because a year-and-a-half is "well before school leaders have time to meaningfully assess a teacher’s influence on student learning". If he thinks the argument warrants further elaboration, he doesn't provide it.

With the argument laid out so clearly it's possible to evaluate it.  

Below the fold, I'll explain why at least two of Weisberg's assumptions seem questionable.

First, while the norms and narratives in education might be unusual in this regard, in most other contexts we would probably consider 18 months a very long time for managers to remain agnostic about employee quality.

It's actually not obvious why Weisberg thinks a year-and-a-half is inadequate for meaningful employee evaluations. He provides no elaboration on that point, nor does he explain why the granting of tenure necessarily precludes additional meaningful evaluations in the future.

But even if we assume that Weisberg is right and that administrators need more than 500 calendar days - including more than 250 work days - to get a feel for whether their teachers are any good, why would we frame that as a problem with tenure?

If a teacher can spend 18 months on the job without being meaningfully evaluated, we should probably think of that primarily either as an administrator quality (or workload) problem or as a symptom of a poor collective understanding of what good teaching looks like.

In other words, it's not clear that Weisberg has identified a real problem and even if he has he seems to have misdiagnosed it.

 Second, while it's true in a technical sense to say that California's tenure rules "force" administrators to make tenure decisions after 18 months, this is a misleading way of thinking about the way the rules play out in practice.

In reality, administrators mostly seem not to want to dismiss newer teachers anyway. This suggests that California's tenure rules aren't restricting principals to a very large degree.

If administrators mostly want their teachers to return the following year, "permanent status" (i.e., tenure) is something principals can offer them as an incentive.

So if we "fix" tenure by mandating longer probationary periods for teachers what we're really doing is tying principals' hands, preventing them from offering tenure to teachers they'd like to keep. 

None of which is to say tenure arrangements couldn't be improved in various ways. My understanding, for example, is that even in some California districts contracts allow principals to recommend extensions of the probationary period for individual teachers, a reform that may be sensible.

Reformers, however, seem to have a very simplistic view of "the problem" (such as it is) and this is likely to lead to to many "fixes" that are unlikely to work as intended.

- PB (@MrPABruno) (image source)


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