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Bruno: The Trade-offs of Tenure (Possibly Good & Bad Outcomes)

430890004_98639b3bb7_nSince 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)

Comments

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Paul, what do you think of the fact that several of the plaintiffs, including the Vergara sisters, attend schools where the teachers do not have tenure at all?

Frankly, I hadn't followed the case that closely. Where were the plaintiffs going to school such that they weren't subject to tenure statutes? Charters? I thought (maybe just assumed) they were in district schools.

I appreciate your desire to insert a measure of balance into this debate. I’d like to address some of your points if I may.

Regarding your take on “The (Possibly) Good”:
#3 - “Making tenure harder to acquire may make teaching seem more meritocratic, improving its prestige and attractiveness.” This is key. When we look at successful education models in other nations we find that the teaching profession is held in high regard, is difficult to attain, and is a mark of prestige. In the US the profession operates as a net, catching those who’ve failed in other professions or those who could not otherwise find application for their academic expertise (or lack thereof). Improving the prestige and attractiveness of the teaching profession is fundamental to improving our educational model.
#4 - “Tenure reform may promote teacher growth through feedback from evaluations... More evaluations may mean more growth opportunities for teachers.” I’ll wager that the majority of teachers and administrators are well aware that teacher evals are mostly a sham. If this is the system by which admin chooses to determine who stays and who goes, it needs an overhaul.

Regarding your take on “The (Possibly) Bad”:
#1 - “Tenure reform makes it easier to fire good teachers. Principals can misjudge teacher quality.” Hiring principals that we can trust to make sound decisions is critical. But once we have, we must grant them this freedom to lead.
#2 - “Tenure reform may disproportionately push above-average teachers to voluntarily leave the classroom.” Let ‘em go. Weed out the less dedicated, the “on the fence-ers.”. Our profession needs people who are committed. Teaching is too important a job to entertain hesitancy and lack of conviction. The dedicated shall prevail.
#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…” If lack of job security makes a job so unappealing that the candidate may not apply, then no great loss. Teaching is not for the faint of heart. It’s hard as hell. It demands an incredibly thick skin and a more than sturdy sense of self. If job security is what brought you in, you shouldn’t be here.
#4 - “Tenure reform may make teacher evaluation more onerous and time consuming for already-busy administrators.” The teacher evaluation system is in dire need of an overhaul. In a typical school there is a profound disconnect between the principal and the teaching staff. If we expect a principal to be effective in hiring/retaining staff (and in effectively running a school) that principal need to change the nature of his/her relationship with staff and students. Time consuming? As if choosing and retaining the most effective teachers is NOT the most important part of running a school?
#5 - “Tenure reform may increase teacher turnover. Turnover seems to have negative effects on student achievement.” Teacher turnover will settle. So will the students. Any change is hard on youngsters, but they adapt. That is their area of expertise. The initial response will be one of disruption. But in the world of education, that word, disruption, is beginning to take on positive connotations.

Change, of course, is inevitable. We have a chance to characterize that change with the actions we choose to take. Let’s think this one through...

I'd also add one to the (possibly) good: tenure reform may attract -- or more likely retain -- talented teachers by changing the culture of public schooling.

This is similar but I think distinct to your third pro-tenure reform point, Paul. I have spoken to effective teachers in Washington DC who described the positive impact that, er, IMPACT had on their school culture because the good teachers knew that their ineffective colleagues could no longer completely hide. It wasn't so much about "making everything a meritocracy" as it was making effort relevant.

Liekwise, having worked in the public sector myself (the CA Dept of Justice), I found that the major harmful effect of civil-service protection was the cultural byproduct of a system where accountability was mysterious and haphazard. I found it dispiriting to walk into work and see a legal secretary openly and happily knitting at her desk with no work to do for days on end. I also discovered that, with the expectations bar lowered, I didn't really need to push myself hard to impress people. Some people loved (and love) this aspect of civil service, but I found it pretty stifling to any spirit of professional innovation.

And thanks for linking to my Vergara piece.

@Ben - That's definitely another possibility.

FWIW, that is not at all my (limited) experience with the public sector, at least as a teacher. My experience as a teacher is one of more-or-less constant pressure to 'carry your weight' as a colleague, and the only coworker I ever had who struck me as clearly ineffective was aggressively engaged by the administration.

That said, I do often hear stories about obviously ineffective teachers who don't feel any external pressure to perform, so I'm sure they're out there.

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