Bruno: The Trade-offs of Tenure (Possibly Good & Bad Outcomes)
Since the Vergara decision was handed down in California reactions have been predictably partisan and extreme. Reformers are ecstatic over what they believe if a "huge win" and their critics are equally confident that the decision was "anti-teacher" and "exactly backwards".
It's not really surprising that the reactions would shake out this way. Education debates are often highly-polarized, and there are political reasons for activists to exaggerate the stakes.
In reality, the most reasonable position to take about the consequences of Vergara is agnosticism. Even if the decision survives appeal it will be many years before schools feel its effects, and then it is likely that the overall impact will be quite modest.
This case may still spend years winding its way through the legal system, and its ultimate fate in the judiciary is not at all obvious. If the ruling eventually remains intact, the California legislature could potentially satisfy its requirements without making major changes to the statutes in question.
More than that, it's not clear why we should be confident that changing the rules governing teacher tenure or seniority privileges will have major, easily-predictable consequences.
On the contrary, the effects of those rules are complex and often cut in opposite directions. Below the fold, I'll consider the trade-offs involved in tenure reform specifically and try to show why it's hard to know whether the benefits will outweigh the costs.
Even if we limit ourselves to the effects of tenure reform on student achievement, the world very quickly reveals itself to be complicated. Making tenure more difficult for teachers to obtain would have many effects, some good and some bad.
The (Possibly) Good
1. Tenure reform makes it easier to fire bad teachers. This seems to be the main supposed benefit of relaxing tenure rules.
2. Tenure reform may disproportionately push below-average teachers to voluntarily leave the classroom. A 'tougher' evaluation regime may be more onerous for the least-effective teachers, and make teaching less appealing for them. The may also 'see the writing on the wall' and preempt dismissal by resigning.
3. Making tenure harder to acquire may make teaching seem more meritocratic, improving its prestige and attractiveness.
4. Tenure reform may promote teacher growth through feedback from evaluations. Tenure is often accompanied by reductions in evaluation frequency for teachers. More evaluations may mean more growth opportunities for teachers.
The (Possibly) Bad
1. Tenure reform makes it easier to fire good teachers. Principals can misjudge teacher quality. Relaxed tenure protections may also allow more principals to remove good teachers they do not like personally.
2. Tenure reform may disproportionately push above-average teachers to voluntarily leave the classroom. A tougher evaluation regime may be more onerous for all teachers, and better teachers may have better employment prospects in other fields.
3. Tenure reform may reduce the quality of the teacher labor supply by making teaching a less attractive profession. A reduction in job security - whether real or merely perceived - may make teaching less appealing, all else equal, especially if teachers do not know in advance whether they will be 'good enough'.
4. Tenure reform may make teacher evaluation more onerous and time consuming for already-busy administrators. If principals have to spend more time evaluating teachers, that is less time for them to spend on other useful activities. It is not always clear that evaluations improve teaching, and they may be even less useful if evaluators have less time to spend on each one.
5. Tenure reform may increase teacher turnover. Turnover seems to have negative effects on student achievement.
This list is almost certainly not exhaustive - feel free to add to it in the comments - but it hopefully illustrates that changing tenure will by necessity involve trade-offs.
There will probably be some good effects and some bad effects of tenure reform, and much depends exactly on how the tenure rules are changed and how the state, districts, and schools respond. For example, will districts raise salaries in response to limitations on tenure? Will administrators find work-arounds to reduce energy spent on evaluations?
As a result, it's hard to know which effects, if any, will dominate in the long-term. They may largely cancel each other out.
So we should be deeply suspicious of claims - from either side - that the Vergara decision has major, obvious implications for students and schools.
In their eagerness to score political points - and even in their good-faith enthusiasm for improving public education - many commentators are much too quick to predict the future and so these complicating trade-offs are often overlooked. - PB (@MrPABruno)(image source)