Friday, September 7, 2012

Tenure Reform's Dubious Promise

As the school year starts, our politicians herald the hard fought tenure reform law now in place. Although I am not opposed to tenure reform, I really feel that the money, time, and resources consumed by this law would have been better spent requiring a clinical supervisor on site for maybe every 50 teachers. If you truly want improvement in teacher performance, having a clinician to provide collaborative or directed supervision is a far more effective means.

While the tenure reform law might seem benign in the area of removing tenure or firing teachers deemed “not proficient,” listening to Governor Christie and other policy makers gives clear indication that a collateral purpose of the legislation is to allow school districts to layoff veteran teachers with seniority rather than younger teachers, assuming all else being equal I would presume.

If I were an older teacher, I would feel justifiably threatened by this law. Teaching is a funny profession in that, unlike physicians, lawyers, or other professions where experience is considered an important quality, older experienced teachers are seen as far more expendable. This is incredible to me. Teaching is the ultimate “learn what works on the job” profession, and experience is inextricably linked to quality. Granted, personality and attention to changes in technology and learning strategies are also needed for experienced and inexperienced teachers alike, but I am convinced that most school districts will be motivated by cost savings and the “prevailing wisdom” that somehow younger teachers are better able to connect to students and provide superior performance. I strenuously disagree.

I am also concerned because experienced teachers are also more likely to be the most vocal among the faculty, willing to express their feelings about discipline, curriculum, policy, and other issues of consequence at the school. This outspokenness almost never goes well with administrators, especially principals, who seem a somewhat insecure lot and who take criticism or critiques of “their” school to be an unacceptable challenge to their authority. I have NO DOUBT that many principals will see this law as an opportunity to move or remove faculty members whose personality they conflict with or whose beliefs are contrary to their own beliefs, policy, or conception of the proper “culture” of the school.  In 21 years of teaching, I found only one administrator that was entirely comfortable as a leader and who did not hold grudges or express judgment against faculty members.

I am not against tenure reform, in fact I believe it is an important step towards performance pay or the creation of performance tiers. I would prefer having clinical supervisors employed throughout the state, but “it is what it is.” But what is important is that there be some in district “counterweight” against the arbitrary and capricious behavior of administrators, a way of impartially reviewing their decisions well before reaching the stage of arbitration. Mandating this oversight should be an important policy priority of the NJEA. I’m sure their files are full of horror stories confirming my contention. Legislative should be drafted and put before education committees. If our legislatures are sincere that their only goal is providing a faculty of exemplary teachers, they should have no trouble supporting legislation protecting experienced teachers, or just wait for that day when the first age discrimination lawsuit is filed.

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