Laura mentioned the NYT article on Michelle Rhee, which gives me an excuse to post some thoughts that have been swirling around lately.
Michelle Rhee wants to abolish teacher tenure. Bad idea. Actually, I could possibly see arguments for abolishing tenure in the very long-term, but what bothers me is that a lot of people seem to think of abolishing tenure as some kind of quick fix to the problems in education, and it is not.
Rhee claims that tenure makes it hard for her to fire incompetent teachers. But the problem is not tenure in and of itself. The problem is that tenure is sometimes given to incompetent teachers. Competent teachers do not become incompetent teachers. Incompetent teachers were always incompetent. They just either hid it well or the people who gave them tenure didn't care then that they were incompetent.
I can see abolishing tenure as a long-term plan. However, as it stands now, abolishing tenure would just lead to more chaos in the schools and fewer competent teachers. The problem is that we don't know how to assess student learning effectively. And that is because we have so many stakeholders, few of whom agree on what the outcomes for student learning should be.
Today's Inside Higher Ed has a column titled Stuck on Student Learning. It deals with the issue of assessment in higher education, but a commenter to the article raised an interesting point:
those most likely to exert pressure on the system (parents who pay for schools including public higher education) simply do not care all that much about what and how much assessment occurs at their son’s or daughter’s school. The most recent PDK/Gallup poll of America’s K-12 schools revealed that most parents think there is too much emphasis on testing. Only 1 in 10 respondents felt there was too little."
We're caught in some sort of Escher painting here. We're climbing up stairs that we don't realize are going nowhere until we pull ourselves back and look at the big picture. We think taxpayers/parents want accountability, so we assess students in order to prove that we are holding ourselves accountable, but the parents don't seem to care about test results. Honestly, I think parents distrust test results. They make you "feel" good but they don't tell you anything useful. Knowing that students at your kids' schools scored 90% proficient in reading in statewide testing doesn't explain why your kid hates to read and won't do his or her homework.
What do they care about? That their kids will get into good colleges and get good jobs. That their college-bound students will be able to get financial aid and that they won't fail out of school (i.e., waste money) because they weren't prepared for college.
So one of the huge problems I am seeing is that K-12 education is not sufficiently linked to college education and to an understanding of what constitutes workforce readiness.
OK, back to tenure. The question is: how is a teacher's incompetence determined? What makes a teacher incompetent? How do we know a teacher is incompetent? Can we really measure whether students learn by looking at grades? As a teacher, my father always felt a little bit of pressure not to fail too many students. Wasn't a high failure rate that a sign that he wasn't doing his job?
We can't hold students to high standards unless we're willing to fail them for not meeting those standards, but current emphasis on "assessment" and accountability doesn't encourage teachers to do so. And parents certainly don't want their children to fail.
But I think we need more failure. The surefire way to prevent failure is to never take risks. And cautious a person as I can be, I still think it's important to take risks, to try the harder courses or the more challenging project because you'll learn more from it instead of taking the "safe way" and getting the A.
Furthermore, teachers cannot be the only ones telling children/students that their work doesn't meet standards. Right now, the only people who seem to be held responsible for students' failures are teachers. Parents, family, friends, the surrounding community, television/pop culture, even our own (current) president - all seem to suggest that learning is not important. We excuse bad grammar and lack of historical knowledge. We think politicians who are ignorant are charming "real" people. I've never heard of anyone who was fired for poor writing skills. Yet schools are criticized because they're not producing graduates who can write.
The entire community has to figure out what the hell we want high school graduates to learn, then we need to *all* be responsible, and then we have to understand that the teacher's teaching is only one of many factors. We cannot evaluate teachers solely by their students' success.