February 12, 2010
Op-Ed: A Higher Bar for Teachers, Finally
Nothing in our schools matters more to students' success than teachers. Anyone who's ever stood in front of a classroom can tell you that, and research confirms it. A few years with great teachers can put even a struggling student on the path to college. A few years with ineffective teachers can deal a student nearly insurmountable setbacks.
This stark reality means that teacher tenure decisions carry high stakes. A tenured teacher, after all, earns virtually ironclad job security and may shape thousands of students' lives over the course of a career. It would seem obvious that tenure should be granted only when there is strong evidence that teachers are effective in the classroom.
Unfortunately, in most school districts - including New York's, where teachers are eligible for tenure after just three years, and about 55,000 of the 80,000 teachers are tenured - what should be a major milestone is essentially meaningless.
We studied tenure decisions in 12 districts for our recent report on teacher evaluation policies, "The Widget Effect." We found that many of those districts granted tenure to an astounding 99% of eligible teachers each year.
The problem has gone unaddressed for generations. A New York Times article from 1936 lamented that an average of only three teachers a year failed to earn tenure in city schools even then.
Things have gotten better these past eight years - but even still, in 2009, fully 93% of eligible New York City teachers earned tenure, including a majority of teachers who had previously received an unsatisfactory performance rating. This kind of carelessness creates a culture of low standards, demeans hardworking teachers and leaves the education of students to chance.
Now the good news. New York City is finally on the verge of making some progress toward a more rigorous tenure process.
Yesterday, to their great credit, Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein made an announcement that could finally begin to change the fundamentals. Teachers in New York City will begin earning tenure based on a far more rigorous and professional review of their impact on student learning, as measured by multiple sources of data, including students' year-to-year improvement on standardized tests.
This promises to reverse decades of bad practice by requiring principals to treat every tenure decision with the seriousness it deserves and by looking for ways to make tenure a real honor.
Making student test scores one of many factors in the tenure decision is certain to draw sharp criticism from people who claim the measurement oversimplifies the complex craft of teaching. But no parent wants her child in a classroom where students fall further and further behind each year.
While test scores don't tell the whole story, the trends they show from year to year certainly tell us something significant. And the stakes for students are simply too high for these data not to be considered along with classroom observations and other sources of information about a teacher's impact.
Other cities should follow New York City's lead by making tenure what it was meant to be: an opportunity to set a high bar for all teachers, to celebrate the best teachers and to part ways with those who are not meeting expectations after several years in the classroom. A serious tenure policy will go a long way toward the goal of providing all students with excellent teachers and a world-class education.
Daly is president of The New Teacher Project, a nonprofit organization that contracts with school districts nationwide, including the New York City Department of Education. He is a former public schoolteacher in Baltimore, MD.