The system of teacher tenure has suffered a blow that could spread to other parts of the country.
Washington D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee has fired 241 teachers for poor performance, are more are on notice. This is in a school system where, according to Wall Street Journal reporting, “Ms. Rhee said Friday she took over a system in 2007 where 95% of teachers were rated excellent and none terminated for poor performance. Yet, students posted dismal test scores.”
The system of teacher tenure in K through 12 education deserves examination, and if we believe that schools exist for the benefit of schoolchildren, it should be eliminated.
Defenders of tenure say it doesn’t prevent lousy teachers from being fired. Instead, tenure simply guarantees them due process rights. But the problem is that the process is so difficult for school administrators to pursue that some school districts — New York City, famously — create “rubber rooms.” These are rooms where the truly bad teachers report every workday to sit and while away the several years that their cases can take to work their way through the system. In 2007 the New York Times reported that 760 New York City schoolteachers were doing this in 12 “reassignment centers.”
(By the way, the “work hours” for the rubber rooms was 8:00 am to 2:50 pm. Teachers could leave for lunch.)
Since the rubber rooms are an embarrassment for all involved, the Times has reported that the past school year was the last for the rooms. Now, the worst teachers will perform administrative duties or be sent home.
Advocates of tenure also argue that it is necessary to protect teachers from the arbitrary decisions of school administrators. There might actually be some validity to this argument, but tenure is the wrong response to the problem.
It is said that school administrators — in a system without tenure — would practice “crony” hiring and promotion practices. They would reward their friends and family and punish their enemies or those they simply don’t like.
These things happen in a system insulated from market competition, and institutions don’t suffer when they do. In the private sector, when a manager makes staffing decisions based on cronyism — instead of hiring and retaining the best possible employees — the profitability of the company suffers. If managers’ compensation is tied to profitability, they suffer when making staffing decisions based on cronyism. Even if they don’t suffer pay-wise, these managers will not perform well on their own evaluations.
A system of market competition, however, forces each institution — schools, too — to be the best they can possibly be. When schools compete for students and funding, principals might learn to like their very best teachers, even if they don’t care for them personally.
They also might learn how to evaluate and recognize the best teachers. That’s important, as it is becoming apparent that the personal characteristics of teachers are far more important to student success than the things that schools presently use to reward teachers — credentials, additional education, and longevity.
The characteristics of teachers are also far more important than class size, which is another factor the education establishment focuses on. Eric Hanushek has estimated that students of the worst teachers will learn just one-half a year’s material in a year, while students with the best teachers will learn one and one-half year’s material in a year. This difference is far greater than the weak effect that school class size studies have found, and even those small findings are suspect.
Presently some states are considering using student test scores as a way to evaluate and reward teachers. Student test scores are viewed as an objective way to evaluate teachers, one that is removed from the subjective evaluations of school administrators who, as shown above, don’t have a very strong incentive to hire and retain the best teachers.
Any meaningful reform is strongly opposed by the teachers union and the education establishment. This makes Washington D.C. schools chancellor Rhee’s accomplishment all the more remarkable.
How did Rhee accomplish this breakthrough? Earlier reporting in the Wall Street Journal mentioned the political support of Washington’s mayor, Adrian Fenty, and the fact that the Washington schools were just terrible. Her challenge lies ahead, as the Journal noted: “Ms. Rhee’s challenge now is to use the new rules forcefully enough to drive improvements because the unions will assume they can wait her out.” The union will probably sue over these firings.
The education bureaucracy and the system is working against Rhee too: “Unfortunately, most school chancellors are careerists who don’t want to upset the unions because they are always looking for their next job. One example: Clifford Janey, whom Ms. Rhee replaced in D.C., went on to become the superintendent in Newark, N.J., whose schools may be worse than D.C.’s. Ms. Rhee, by contrast, came to her job as an outsider willing to endure the considerable abuse that the unions and their political backers threw at her.”
As seen in Kansas by the example of Kansas School Board Member Walt Chappell, if you’re not a team player, you’re going to suffer abuse from the education bureaucracy.
Giving Lousy Teachers the Boot
Michelle Rhee does the once unthinkable in Washington.
By William McGurn
Donald Trump is not the only one who knows how to get attention with the words, “You’re fired.” Michelle Rhee, chancellor for the District of Columbia schools, has just done a pretty nifty job of it herself.
On Friday, Ms. Rhee fired 241 teachers — roughly 6% of the total — mostly for scoring too low on a teacher evaluation that measures their performance against student achievement. Another 737 teachers and other school-based staff were put on notice that they had been rated “minimally effective.” Unless these people improve, they too face the boot.
The mass dismissals follow a landmark agreement Ms. Rhee negotiated with the Washington Teachers Union (WTU) at the end of June. The quid pro quo was this: Good teachers would get more money (including a 21.6% pay increase through 2012 and opportunities for merit pay). In exchange, bad teachers could be shown the door.
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