In my consideration of the use of student test scores in teacher evaluation, I have yet to touch on a contentious issue: granting tenure to public school teachers. In most states, teachers, after a certain number of years, are granted job protection. In many cases, this means that the teacher cannot be fired without due cause. In Wisconsin at least, teachers without tenure can be fired for any reason without cause; in other words, teachers have no job protection, other than various laws protecting them from being fired because of age, race, gender, etc. This particular policy is a challenge to the use of teacher test scores in evaluation. A teacher with job protection cannot be summarily fired after producing students with low test scores. Instead, school administrators must carefully document their efforts to help the teacher succeed and show a consistent pattern of failure before they can dismiss that teacher.
To critics of tenure, this is unacceptable. They would argue that a teacher with job protection loses the desire to continue doing well. Instead, the teacher is free to embrace teaching that requires the least amount of effort, given that the teacher no longer needs to worry that his job is at risk. Furthermore, this policy limits the ability of school administrators to hire the best teachers available. A mediocre teacher with tenure cannot be dismissed, even if a better candidate is waiting to take that job. Thus abolishing tenure is often mentioned in the same education overhaul plans that call for using student test scores to evaluate teachers.
There are numerous ways to rebut those who claim tenure produces failing teachers. For example, it is easy to find evidence that the most effective teachers are not those who are new to the classroom; rather, just like almost all professions, teachers get better with experience. I won’t turn to these claims in attempting to argue in favor of tenure systems. Instead, let’s consider a different goal that so-called education reformers support: innovation in the classroom.
Anyone who supports the use of test scores in evaluating teachers and the abolishment of tenure must necessarily believe that these things will fundamentally improve education. Contingent upon this belief is a perspective that, in many cases, schools are failing to properly educate children. After all, if schools were doing a fantastic job, then there would be no reason to change the current system. And thus, in the same justifications for the use of test scores and the abolishment of tenure, these critics also support innovation in education, the use of new educational techniques to help children learn. Newer teachers will be more likely to use these techniques, and thus getting rid of old, failing teachers is paramount.
Within this logic lies a dangerous competing goal. First, we desire teachers who are successful. Second, we desire teachers who are innovative. Yet innovation is highly correlated with failure. Many innovative ideas will turn into failing classroom policies. Of course, some will succeed and can spread from school to school, improving education overall. But others will not help those children taught in innovative ways, and some will actually hurt student learning. We must be prepared for this outcome if we are to encourage innovation in the classroom.
This puts teachers in a very precarious position. On the one hand, they know that their careers depend on producing students with high test scores. This requires a careful adherence to those items that the test measures; in other words, it makes teachers “teach to the test.” On the other hand, they know that they must continually demonstrate new ways of thinking and strive to be on the cutting edge of educational technique. If they do not, then they will look like they are stuck in the past and not working to improve education. Yet this has the potential outcome of students doing worse as many new techniques will not be successful.
What can be done to help teachers achieve both goals? What if we took experienced teachers, with proven classroom abilities, and gave them the freedom to innovate, perhaps by promising a reduction in how much of their evaluation is based on test scores? This should take the best teachers and allow them to try new things without fear of failure. Furthermore, because these are experienced teachers, they should be able to adapt more readily and correct poor learning caused by a new technique. This helps give teachers job security, encourage innovation, and help students. What should we call this system? As you’ve figured out by now, it already has a name: tenure.
Tenure is nothing more than a grant of freedom to experienced, proven teachers to try new things in the classroom without fear that their job is at risk because of the potential for failure. We don’t grant this freedom to inexperienced teachers because we aren’t certain that we want them trying to innovate. But we trust experienced teachers to be able to innovate and still produce good results. Some failures are likely, but overall, we can expect that students will suffer less when an experienced teacher fails compared to a new teacher and that the outcome in some key cases will be new techniques that improve learning.
Critics might respond by asking about all the failing, tenured teachers that populate our public school. I am not certain that there are so many of these teachers; note two things about critics: they fail to define “good” or “bad” teachers and they fail to produce solid numbers on how frequently teachers are “bad”. But nevertheless, we might now consider how schools can encourage innovation from their experienced teachers. I have no interest in producing suggestions for how to do this, but I will note that research on creativity suggests that people produce more creative outcomes when they are instructed to be creative. If we tell our teachers to innovate in the classroom, and stress that experienced teachers should not fear the possibility of failure, then we should find a real increase in creativity, thanks in part to the protections granted by tenure.
The tenure system does not work perfectly, and critics will always be able to find anecdotal evidence to support their claims that abolishing tenure will improve education. But if innovation in the classroom is necessary, and if teachers are judged from test scores, then tenure offers an ideal solution to help encourage innovation while protecting teachers. It achieves what critics are after, even if they themselves can’t figure that out.