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Time Magazine Tackles Tenure

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Today is Election Day...the day that, regardless of how important the elections themselves may be, we remind ourselves that we are a democracy. Our officials are elected and each of us has constitutional rights. So, why not, on this day, have Time Magazine exercise its freedom? Why not have the debate that democracy allows? It has been raging on social media for a week or more already.

The cover of Time Magazine today announces its article about teacher tenure with a rotting apple. The article, The War on Teacher Tenure, has raised the ire of teachers and supporters across the nation. Others say the article isn't such an outrage; it is the centuries old symbol of the apple that raises the ante. Early American school children brought apples for their teachers. Who hasn't heard about an apple for the teacher? The apple has ancient, if not biblical, association with knowledge. Bing Crosby even sang about it. But, there is another side to the story about apples. Who doesn't know that bad apples, even a few, can spoil a whole bushel?  So, the visual image is powerful, it offends and hurts. Minimally, it has stirred the tenure pot which was already boiling. It was meant to do that.

For those who have been consumed with Halloween and football this past weekend...Time's lead article deals with Silicon Valley tech millionaires and billionaires taking on the challenge of fixing public education. Whether it is Bill Gates or David Welch, the man behind Vergara v. California case, they are making change in public education their business. In Vergara, reform successfully became an issue of equity, a civil rights issue, with teacher tenure at its core. Hence, again, the apple image appeals.

The Facts
Let's begin with an acknowledgement of facts. There are bad teachers who have the protection of tenure. Years of documentation and loads of money are required to terminate a bad teacher. Both those discourage schools and leaders from going down that path. Let's acknowledge also that in all professions, some are stronger than others. Ah, the opponents cry, exactly the point. In other fields, there is no job protection; rather, there is completion and there is no tax money funding the system. OK, our argument is set in context. But, parents, fundamentally, like their community schools and most teachers are doing a really good job under challenging conditions.

We All Want a More Agile, Accountable, and Successful System
One might wonder why these tech giants aren't focusing their efforts on things like hacking and credit card fraud. It seems like that's more along their business acumen lines. In fact, the businessmen should know best that simple solutions often do not fix complex problems. We're actually not sure if these players see a fix or simply want to take the action that will break the system out of its complacency and away from the status quo. They want public education to become more agile, more accountable and more successful. On these three points, we agree.

There are educational leaders who argue that the system needs to be free of tenure. Yet, we don't hear them coming forward to offer their jobs up and assure that student test results will go up if teacher tenure goes away. There are too many variables. The quality of the education students receive in a school rests largely on the teachers in it. The achievement of the students in schools, however, depends on a vast array of factors that all in education know and can easily list.  Poverty, disability, language, health, mental health, life situation, parents, the leaders, all play a role in how far teachers can bring their students forward. So to look at one factor is both misleading and most importantly, potentially destructive, even if data exist to support the importance of good teachers.

As educational leaders ourselves, we understand why unionized teachers want job protection. We know how readily a change in principal or board majority can jeopardize a really good teacher's livelihood and professional future. We know how parental pressure from the influential in a community can force teachers into political and compromised professional dilemmas. We know the degree of preparation that goes into every great lesson. We know how easy a great teacher makes this difficult job look. We also know teachers get tenure through our decisions and actions. How can that not be part of the conversation? Some leader or several of them determine a teacher to be worthy of tenure. Are we making that judgment with the highest standards and with the greatest amount of data?  We cannot assume that all leaders are equally prepared to make that judgment call by skill level or by temperament. Denial of tenure to a popular teacher is one of the most controversial events in a school community. Once tenure is obtained, then the leaders participate in the annual evaluation cycles that recognize strengths and identify areas for growth. It is in this process that the collective will of the leader and of the system converge to determine whether tenure is job protection or job security. Here the time, data and dollars matter. Teachers do need to be protected from unjust or unwarranted dismissals, but tenure wasn't meant to result in jobs for life, regardless of performance.

Local Control
Union leaders and teachers are not without professional conscience.They know there are those few bad teachers who ought not be in a classroom.  But let's not make the few become the face of the profession. Let funds flow to those public schools who want to pilot alternatives to tenure. Create the dialogue about options to the present system. Let the tycoons see what happens when the local control of education is threatened. Common core is an election issue in many places.  When states or the federal government intrude on what gets taught and by whom, the other American value emerges. We want schools that are locally controlled. Each locality determines how good or bad they want to their schools to be, how high they want their children to dream, and how much sacrifice will support those dreams. Has the day arrived when we are so interconnected and interdependent that this no longer can be maintained? Are the discrepancies so large that change must come?

Resources Are Needed
In the business world, innovation generates excitement and astute leaders create companies that make them millions. How ironic that Welch decided to enter educational reform at the workforce place rather than at the funding place. Any business person knows money matters. Districts need resources not just to tackle ridding the system of its few bad apples but to level the playing field. Where are those who will step into this battle? Or, is it too treacherous even for our mighty ones? Is that why they fund charter schools instead of leading reform in existing schools? Or is it because we, as leaders, of the system have not convinced them that we want to lead change? Do they question our courage or our motives? No teachers and no leaders who are complacent or overwhelmed will make the difference needed. But, let the dollars flow to those few local leaders and communities who want to reinvent public schools. Find some we can trust and fund them to become the think tank leaders, the innovators to "fix the problem."

We Need Conversations that End in an Improved Result
Have there been teachers granted tenure who should not have, yes.  Are there teachers who are not performing their jobs as everyone would want them to, yes.  Are most tenured teachers valuable community resources, yes. Is a good teacher with one student population a good teacher with another? Not always.

In all things, we are looking for conversations that end in an improved result.  If this push to redefine or end tenure continues without a deeper understanding of the challenges that education faces, we will become more broken. Maybe that needs to happen but we hope not. We do need to find ways to negate the impact of poverty, disability, language barriers, and mental health within student results.  But we also need to look at how schools are structured and how they can be made more responsive to the educational needs of students.  And we should welcome rich partners in the journey to do so. 

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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