by Conor Friedersdorf
Reihan weighs in:
I do wish that someone would connect the dots and make the obvious yet important point that Rick Hess has been making for ages: shrinking class sizes over the last forty years has diluted the teacher talent pool. Had we stayed at the teacher-student ratios of the 1970s, we'd have 2.2 million public school teachers rather than 3.2 million. Know what else happened over the last 40 years? Labor market discrimination against women and African Americans declined, giving talented female and African American workers who had once gravitated to the teaching profession other options. Allowing effective teachers to take on larger classes in exchange for more pay could have a powerful positive effect. With the same compensation bill, we could pay far higher salaries.
Below the fold, a long note from a reader:
The real cost of teacher tenure is that it makes our public schools unmanageable. I don't think that aspect of tenure has been adequately examined. The category of "bad" teachers has to be expanded to include more than just those who are incompetent or cruel to children; it has to include those who refuse to be team players, who insist on their independence and autonomy, who prevent school administrators from implementing improvements and reforms because they disagree with them or would be personally inconvenienced by them. Such teachers truly have nothing to fear, no reason to budge from their positions and try something new that their "bosses" propose. Tenured teachers who are decent and competent have no bosses; they do as they wish. As long as they manage their classrooms properly and prepare good lessons, they have the freedom and right to challenge, repudiate, and sabotage any administrative directive that might come down the pipeline--even "directives" that are the result of collaboration between teachers and administration. This is the reality of teacher tenure; this is a principle reason why public school reform is so tortuously slow and incremental.
I've been an educator for 30 years--25 years in the classroom. For all of that time I've been a passionate advocate of school reform, and have worked myself to death trying to improve my school. I have very little to show for my efforts; the public high school where I have loyally taught and struggled for the past twenty-three years is only marginally better than it was when I first surfaced as a teacher advocate of reform. There are of course many reasons for this failure (including, most assuredly, my own immaturity, narrow-mindedness, lack of charisma, etc.) but I believe the chief obstacle is a teacher culture that is ferociously self-defensive and combative, that has an enormous and legally justified sense of its rights and entitlements, that will not improve itself because it simply doesn't have to.
After five years in administration, my dreams of reform have come down to this: that someday I may be given the power to fire a "good" teacher. I know exactly how pathetic that sounds. Nevertheless, I dream of someday being able to say to a teacher something along these lines: "Susan, you are a great teacher; I love to see the way you interact with students, and you are pedagogically as sound as anyone on the staff. But you have to stop mocking and opposing our school's efforts to implement XXX (fill in whatever: standards-based grading, block scheduling, project-based learning, professional learning communities, data-driven decision-making, etc. etc. etc.). This is the direction our school has decided to take; we've made the research and the rationale for going in that direction clear. You must support us, you must do your best in this regard, and cease your outright opposition to what we're attempting to do. If you don't, I'm not going to be able to renew your contract next year."
For what it's worth, this is the sort of teacher I'd do everything in my power not to fire if I were a principal. Maybe the reader is right, and I am wrong. But one goal of mine as a principal would be to minimize the amount of time that good teachers had to spend in meetings and changing up what's working to meet school wide directives. Again, perhaps I'd think differently about this if I knew more!