Dear Governor Cuomo,
Please don’t take away our good teachers.
As Governor and head of the new NY Education Reform Commission, you have the power to make sure that the New York public education system “puts students first,” a phrase you have coined as your main priority for several months now.
We have one request: keep the good teachers. Use this new commission as an opportunity to promote lasting educational reform. Start by addressing the “last in, first out” policy, which makes tenure the sole determinant of teacher layoffs. As applied in our public school system, this policy has proven to be inherently flawed—often allowing weak teachers to keep their jobs, and getting rid of effective teachers.
When budget cuts are necessary, firing good teachers and keeping bad ones is nothing short of a crime. We admit that it is hard to define a “good teacher” in a system as heterogeneous as our own, but we need to start developing standards for measuring the effectiveness of teachers that are more indicative of performance than simply how long a teacher has been in the system.
In New York, tenure is granted to almost all teachers who have fulfilled the required three years of teaching, with 97 percent of eligible teachers being granted tenure since 2007. This term, which represents having achieved “permanent status” within the DOE, proves nothing about a teacher’s capabilities, according to a 2008 study by the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education. It reports that “the first two to three years of teaching do not predict anything about post-tenure performance,” because teachers don’t have to earn tenure, as they do in colleges, through the publication of academic materials. Instead, it is handed to them free of effort.
So, if “having tenure” doesn’t mean a teacher has achieved any tangible measurement of success, this arbitrary standard should not outweigh merit in determining which teachers stay and which are cut.
Teacher tenure is not popular among educators, or the general public. Thomas Kirsten’s 2006 study found that 91 percent of school board presidents either agreed or strongly agreed that tenure impedes the dismissal of underperforming teachers. Sixty percent also believed that tenure does not promote fair evaluations. Steve Farkas and Ann Duffett, in their groundbreaking article “Cracks in the Ivory Tower?,” found that 86 percent of education professors support “making it easier to terminate unmotivated or incompetent teachers—even if they are tenured.” Finally, the American public supports abolishing teacher tenure by a ratio of 5:2 according to an April 2011 study. Only teachers (the vast majority of whom are already tenured), support maintaining tenure laws—and polls show that this is only by a margin of 53 to 32 percent.
According to Public Agenda President Deborah Wadsworth, teacher tenure policies most severely harm low-income students because senior teachers prefer to work in high-income communities, where they face fewer students with behavioral issues, while younger teachers are more willing to accept the challenge of working with low-income students and students of color in order to help them succeed. Effectively, we are booting the teachers who are in highest demand. The result, she argues, is “a distribution of talent that is flawed and inequitable.”
Instead of using tenure as the basis for layoffs, we should have a system that uses performance as the primary factor in determining teacher layoffs.
Proposals for such a system already exist—most of which include a combination of standardized test scores, classroom observations, and degrees earned. (Let’s also note that while 600 districts in the state have signed off on such a proposal, New York City has not.) It’s a good start—but student evaluations, rarely taken into account, should also play a role in measuring teacher performance.
While critics of student evaluations claim that young children are not capable of assessing their own teachers, students, more so than any other observer, have an accurate portrayal of a teacher’s effectiveness and behavior in the classroom. We can avoid bias with targeted questions that ask students to evaluate their teachers under very specific standards. Harvard senior lecturer Ronald Ferguson found that when asked such targeted, specific questions “students provide accurate, helpful information on their teachers’ performance.” In fact, Ferguson demonstrated that these surveys were even more reliable than supervisors’ classroom observations.
That being said, eliminating tenure should not be an excuse for laying off older teachers simply because their salaries are more expensive for the state. In some cases, where teachers have performed equally well in their evaluations, tenure can be used as a differentiating factor. The point is hiring and maintaining quality teachers based on their merits as educators.
We don’t want to attack our teachers. We understand what an integral role they play in preparing us for our futures, but, the fact that only two teachers have been fired for incompetence in the last three years in the entire New York City system, that the city still refuses to implement statewide evaluation systems, and that teachers are not held accountable for performance, are damning facts the need to be addressed.
Keep your promise, Governor. Put the students first.