On the 100th anniversary of the publication of Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken," a discussion about why the poem and poet are well-loved but misunderstood.
Last week in California, a judge ruled the state’s teacher tenure laws unconstitutional, arguing the current system discriminates against children from low- income families. The decision is the latest battle in a movement to weaken teacher tenure laws across the country and it’s a battle that often pits school reform advocates from both parties against teachers’ unions. Since 2009, two-thirds of states have toughened tenure standards. The California ruling is the first time the issue has been decided in the courts and observers say it has national implications. Guest host Tom Gjelten and a panel of experts discuss teacher tenure and the quality of a public school education.
- Greg Toppo education reporter, USA Today
- Michael Feuer dean, Graduate School of Education and Human Development and Professor of Education at George Washington University
- Dana Goldstein staff writer, The Marshall Project and author of the upcoming book "The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession"
- Andrew Rotherham co-founder of Bellwether Education, executive editor at RealClearEducation, and blogger at Eduwonk.com
MR. TOM GJELTENThanks for joining us. I'm Tom Gjelten of NPR, and I'm sitting in today for Diane Rehm. Teacher tenure laws for public school educators have been around since the early 1900s. In the last few years, however, states have rolled back some of those job protections. The most striking example came last week when a California judge said the state's teacher tenure laws are unconstitutional.
MR. TOM GJELTENTo discuss the California ruling and what it means for the debate over teacher tenure and school quality, I'm joined here in the studio by Greg Toppo of USA Today, Michael Feuer of George Washington University. And joining us by phone from Arlington, Va., Andrew Rotherham of Bellwether Education. And finally, joining us from NPR studios in New York, Dana Goldstein of The Marshall Project. Thank you all for being here.
MR. GREG TOPPOThank you.
MS. DANA GOLDSTEINThanks.
MR. ANDREW ROTHERHAMThank you.
GJELTENAnd we welcome your thoughts and questions on this important issue. Should administrators have more power to get rid of teachers they consider ineffective? Our phone number is 1-800-433-8850. Our email is email@example.com. Of course, you can send us your thoughts on our Facebook page. You can reach us via Twitter. So, Greg Toppo, let's start with you. Give us a quick summary of this California ruling, what it does do, and what it doesn't do.
TOPPOSure. Well, this is from a lawsuit filed two years ago, as you said, in California, on behalf of nine students. The lead plaintiff was a young girl named Beatriz Vergara. And what these students were saying was basically that, like a lot of the cases we've seen surrounding schools, whether it's Brown vs. Board of Education or others, that there were things in the way of them getting a good education. So in the case of Brown, obviously it was segregation. In the case of other cases, it was, you know, inadequate funding or substandard materials.
TOPPOAnd the argument they were making was that a small percentage of very bad teachers were getting in the way of them getting a good education. And we had testimony in this case earlier this year for a couple of weeks. And as you said, just last week, the judge in the case sided with the students and said that the evidence, the testimonies showed that there was about 1 to 3 percent -- and that's a number we'll debate, I think, here on this show -- 1 to 3 percent of these kids' teachers were grossly ineffective and that the law -- actually, the five California laws keeping these folks in their jobs were unconstitutional.
GJELTENAnd the judge actually had very strong language in agreeing with these students. The argument that he made, he actually compared their challenge to the challenge of black students in the segregation days.
TOPPOYeah. Yeah. He -- I mean, the ruling used, you know, the language of Brown. And one of the things the judge said was that, you know, the evidence of the damage this could cause kids' -- he -- the quote was -- that everybody used in their stories the next day was that the evidence is compelling.
TOPPOIndeed it shocks the conscience.
GJELTENShocks, right. Michael Feuer, what's your assessment of the evidence? So the argument here, which the judge found compelling, is that ineffective teachers are handicapping these students' education. Did you look at that evidence that they -- that the plaintiffs presented? And how compelling was it in your judgment?
MR. MICHAEL FEUERI didn't look at the specific evidence that they presented. But there is a growing amount of evidence about the relationship of teacher quality to student performance. And I think this is part of the broader context in which this case in the decision sits and why it's becoming such an important matter of public policy now. The funny thing about the evidence on teacher quality is that there is now a preponderance of agreement in the research and policy communities that teacher characteristics matter.
MR. MICHAEL FEUERIt's just that we don't know exactly how. And so using any particular measure of teacher quality as a basis for something as important as a promotion or a retention or a firing decision is very problematic. And this is partly why this is likely to become a case that will, you know, generate a great deal of continued discussion as to what to do about it.
GJELTENSo are you saying it's not that easy to distinguish between an effective teacher and an ineffective teacher?
FEUERWell, we've all been in classrooms where we say, uh huh, now that's a great teacher.
GJELTENMm hmm. (unintelligible).
FEUERGetting more methodical about it and actually coming up with a set of criteria that systematically and legitimately and legally, I suppose, could be the basis for making these kinds of termination decisions is much more complex. This came up in the case, by the way, that was this argument that something like between 1 and 3 percent of the teachers in California were ineffective.
FEUERIt's not clear exactly what that kind of data is based on. And it's not clear, even if it's true that 1 to 3 percent are ineffective, whether that would justify undoing a system of professional organization of teachers that's been in place for a long time and that may, on balance, have other benefits that would be ignored.
GJELTENAndy Rotherham, what's your view on this issue of how easy it is to identify ineffective teachers, one? And would you agree with the plaintiffs' argument that poor kids are more likely to have ineffective teachers?
ROTHERHAMYes. So let's start with the second point. Yeah. I mean, the data there, as Michael said, it's very well established. A couple of things that are generally agreed upon in the research literature, one, teachers are the most important in-school factor affecting student achievement -- they matter a great deal, there's disagreements about exactly how much of a great deal, but everybody agrees a great deal -- and then, second, that the distribution of them is inequitable. Low income students, minority students are much less likely to get effective teachers.
ROTHERHAMThat's --you know, that was an issue that, during the Clinton administration, was being raised by civil rights groups. No Child Left Behind tried to tackle it. Now the Obama administration is trying to tackle it with the Race to the Top and their push on teacher evaluation and so forth. So that's well established. This issue of how do you identify low performing teachers is much more challenging. I mean, the answer in California, nobody knows. So there was an estimate -- it was a defense witness who said, maybe it's 1 to 3 percent, which, considering there's 275,000 teachers in California, you're talking about a lot of teachers.
ROTHERHAMBut the answer is nobody can tell you because California doesn't have a good teacher evaluation system. The school districts don't. They're not attentive to issues like this. And it is difficult. We're getting better at -- and we've known for a long time -- how to identify teachers who are observably bad at their job. And there thankfully aren't that many of them. The larger problem is teachers who are unobservably struggling and either through help could get better or should be doing something else for a line of work.
ROTHERHAMWe're not yet there. There's been a big push the last few years to develop tools and metrics and so forth, but school administrators don't get trained on this. The culture in schools is not one focused on evaluation. So until recently, everybody basically got high grades. So we've gone from basically not paying attention to this and evaluating nobody to, in a few years, trying to evaluate everybody. And there's still an awful lot to learn about how to do that.
GJELTENWell, Dana Goldstein, you have a book coming out soon called "The Teacher Wars." How are teachers responding to this ruling in California? How great is there a concern about job security in the light of this ruling?
GOLDSTEINI think one of the really interesting things about teachers is, if you actually survey them on their beliefs about tenure, they don't tend to support the type of tenure system that is in place in California. So California gives teachers tenure after about 18 months on the job. Yet when you ask teachers in a survey, what do you think is a fair amount of time to work before you achieve tenure, they'll say something closer to five years. So I think considering we know that it takes about two years of student data to really fairly assess a teacher, I think pretty much everyone would agree that this California system is not based on best practices.
GOLDSTEINTo me, the sort of larger question that I think concerned teachers have is who will you replace teachers with? It's just as hard to hire teachers in high poverty schools as it is to fire teachers, and especially because we know a string of first-year teachers has very negative effects on children, on student achievement. First-year teachers are generally just not excellent at their jobs, and there's tons of data backing this up. So I have a concern that, you know, if we enact these sorts of rules where we're much more aggressively firing teachers, who's going to replace them? And that's really the next question on the policy level.
GJELTENNow, you actually wrote that some district -- and you have to remind me which district it was -- was offering $20,000 bonus for teachers to go into some of the most segregated schools. And they had trouble finding any teachers that would go into those schools, even with that bonus.
GOLDSTEINThat's right. Yeah. It actually was an experiment that the federal government funded, and it took place in 10 cities. And one of those cities was Los Angeles, which is interesting because that, of course, would be affected by what happens with this Vergara ruling in California. And when they approached excellent teachers who had a lot of success raising students' test scores and asked them, would they do this for $20,000, would they go to a higher poverty school, about 75 percent of the teachers did not even fill out an application to become eligible for this program.
GOLDSTEINAnd they were able to fill some of the jobs, but not all of the jobs. So it's interesting to me. Even when there's such a great carrot, such a great benefit, of $20,000, we see a resistance among high quality teachers to flood into the sorts of classrooms that the Vergara decision is trying to improve. It's really interesting because he cited Brown v. Board in the decision, the judge, and yet what he, you know, neglected to say is that these schools that he's talking about are just as segregated, a lot of them...
GOLDSTEIN...as things were before Brown. I mean, we're talking about schools that are over 90 percent black and Latino, over 90 percent high poverty. You know, there's a lot of challenges to teaching in those environments.
GJELTENWell, Greg Toppo, if, in fact, these teachers are not responding to that kind of bonus to go into those schools, the obvious implication is that the teachers in that school -- in those schools would probably prefer to be somebody else that -- somewhere else. They must not be the best teachers if they are there -- they have made the decision to go there over, you know, alternatives that might be more attractive.
TOPPOI mean, one of the interesting things that you'll find in California is that, you know, even absent -- any kinds of considerations of tenure or how hard or easy it is to get rid of a teacher, you know, I think the statistic was something like 10 percent of teachers in the highest poverty schools, you know, every year, leave to go to another school. So, as Dana says, you know, these aren't -- they're not very attractive places for anyone to teach.
GJELTENRight. Yeah. Well, if they're not attractive teachers (sic) for anyone to teach in, that, to me, raises questions about what is the quality of the teachers who are stuck in those schools? Does that mean that they don't have the option of going to more attractive schools?
GOLDSTEINWell, actually, I think it's really important to make the point that there are great teachers in these schools. We know that from the research on teaching. There are high quality teachers in high poverty schools.
GOLDSTEINThe question's how to get more of them there.
GJELTENDana Goldstein is staff writer for The Marshall Project and author of the upcoming book, "The Teacher Wars: A History of America's Most Embattled Profession." My other guests are Andrew Rotherham, co-founder of Bellwether Education, Michael Feuer, dean of the Graduate School of Education and Human Development and professor of education at George Washington University, and Greg Toppo from USA Today. Stay tuned. We're going to take a short break.
GJELTENAnd welcome back. I'm Tom Gjelten sitting in today for Diane Rehm. And we're talking about this really strong ruling from a judge in California saying that teacher tenure laws in that state are unconstitutional because they have the effect of handicapping, disadvantaging students in low-income schools. My guests are Greg Toppo, education reporter for USA Today, Michael Feuer from the -- professor of education at George Washington University and also president of the National Academy of Education.
GJELTENOn the phone with us from Arlington, Va. is Andrew Rotherham, co-founder of Bellwether Education and executive editor at RealClearEducation. He's also a blogger at Eduwonk.com. And finally Dana Goldstein is at NPR studios in New York City. She's staff writer for The Marshall Project and author of an upcoming book called "The Teacher Wars."
GJELTENAndrew Rotherham, let's take this issue of tenure up with you. I've got a number of Facebook postings here from people who raise a really fundamental question. Why is it that anyone should have tenure? We don't have tenure in the private sector. You know, if you don't perform, you have to worry about your job security. What is so different about schools that teachers, unlike other workers, should have tenure?
ROTHERHAMWell, this is one of these things that's grown up, and it grew up for, you know, very, very legitimate and important reasons and then just sort of evolved. And it's important to note in the decision the judge was very clear. The issue here is not whether people should have due process. And in the K-12 system, when we talk about tenure, we're talking about due process.
ROTHERHAMIt's not tenure as we think about it in higher ed. There's really not issues of things like academic freedom in public schools here. When you sign on to teach, you're signing on to teach a certain curriculum and a set of standards and so forth. So this is about due process and what due process you should be entitled to. And the judge's issue was everyone's entitled to due process, but the question is whether or not what he described in his words were uber due process is what's emerged in California, was excessive and made it difficult to remove low-performing teachers.
ROTHERHAMAnd, you know, if you just look at the numbers in California, obviously something is going on. As Dana said, there's good teachers to be found in pretty much every school, and that's a very important point. But you have 275,000 teachers in California. We should just assume -- there's actually a new report out today about teacher (word?) -- we should just assume that even if you do everything right, some percentage of them are going to be low-performing when you hire at those numbers, 275,000.
ROTHERHAMI mean, that's why there's people in the military who are great and are not necessarily great. There's lawyers who are great, not necessarily great, doctors (unintelligible) these numbers. And yet we're talking fewer than 100 dismissals. And that raises question of whether the barrier is too much. And over time, what's happened is some of these things we are concerned about, that you could be fired because of your religion, you could be fired because of your sexual orientation, things like this, in religion, everywhere, as states like California, sexual orientation more and more of these things are protected. And so you can't just be arbitrarily fired.
ROTHERHAMAnd so the question that's emerged is, what sort of protection should teachers enjoy from -- you know, should they enjoy from capricious arbitrary bad behavior by school administrators and how much is too much? And the judge said they should obviously enjoy protections. But what we have here, this is too much.
GJELTENWell, Dana Goldstein, you've done a lot of writing about the history of teacher tenure. To what extent -- as Andy says, to what extent have the conditions that explain the rise of teacher tenure in the beginning really changed over the years?
GOLDSTEINWell, tenure dates back to about 1909. At the time, it was something that school reformers and teachers unions pretty much agreed upon. What happened is they looked over at Germany where they considered that teachers and schools were higher quality than in the states at the time. And they saw that teachers there had tenure. And they thought it would be a good idea to bring the system to the United States.
GOLDSTEINOne of the reasons why was because teaching is low paid. It was low paid then. It remains pretty low paid compared to other professions that require a college degree. And it was thought to sort of give teachers another benefit other than pay. I don't think that that has changed very much. Andy is right that legally workers have so many more protections now against the sort of firings that were commonplace back then. It used to be common to have to leave your job if you were pregnant, if you have other elements of your personal life that the principal did not agree with.
GOLDSTEINYou know, we don't really face that all that much anymore, although I will say that I don't totally agree that academic freedom is not an issue for K through 12 educators. In the research for my book, I've talked to teachers who've been punished for voicing opposition to standardized testing, punished for voicing opposition to the Common Core. However we might agree or disagree on those sorts of positions, I do think teachers have the right to take them publicly as long as they're doing their job in the classroom. And it is certainly not unheard of for them to be unfairly targeted for those, you know, opinions that they voice.
GJELTENGreg Toppo, you watched some of the videotaped testimony in this California trial, and you heard students talking about their experiences with teachers. Tell us a little bit about what the students said in that trial.
TOPPOSure. I mean, it's kind of amazing really to go back and watch some of the testimony in this case. I mean, there's almost a way in which the plaintiffs really didn't even have to win this case to win. The testimony these kids brought forth was really compelling. I mean, Beatriz herself, you know, who's now in 10th grade...
GJELTENShe's the lead plaintiff.
TOPPO...she's the lead plaintiff, she's in 10th grade, and she talked about, you know, a handful of just supremely bad teachers she had. And one of caution -- I mean, this wasn't, you know, her saying, you know, I've had this string of bad teachers. This was just two or three people. Her sister said the same thing. And they told these stories of, you know, teachers sleeping in class, couldn't control their class. Beatriz even said, you know, one teacher she had, you know, would let students smoke marijuana in the back of the room. I mean, it was really just jaw-dropping stuff.
GJELTENMichael Feuer, how do you react to that? I mean, because you did make the argument earlier that it's not always obvious which are the best, that, you know, even if we agree that the 1 to 3 percent of teachers are ineffective, identifying which are those 1 to 3 percent may not be all that easy.
FEUERRight. Well, I put together two basic pieces of evidence here. One is that we know teachers matter and the other, how difficult it is to come up with reliable metrics to actually do that kind of pinpointed selection of who's good and who isn't. You put those together and a more rational approach than what California has had would be at least to leave a little more time for the judgment to be made. The judgment needs to be based on observations. It needs to be based on some data.
FEUERThere's a big argument in the field about whether we should be relying on student test scores tracking back to the teachers they've had, etcetera as a basis for making decisions about teacher performance. All of these things are still in some amount of flux and uncertainty.
FEUERThe least we could do is afford principals and administrators a little bit more time to figure some of this out, and, in fact, I think the teachers. Which is probably why Dana's picking up on the statistic about five years rather than two, who would imagine, whether it's any profession, teaching or otherwise, to make a judgment about professional competence in that short amount of time? They certainly don't do that in higher ed, and that's for the good.
GJELTENAnd remind us what the law actually said in California. It was two years or a little bit -- even less.
FEUERIt was two years, but it's actually less when you think about when the judgment has to be made in order to provide a little bit of lead time to the teacher who's going to be sacked. So this is -- and that's why it's referred to as -- I think Andy used the word -- the uber due process system.
FEUERI just want to go back to one other question that Dana asked which is, so who's going to do the teaching? And this of course raises the question about what level of proficiency and competence we expect or need from first -- from starting teachers? And I think there's a general sort of conventional wisdom that most teachers don't actually feel very proficient on their first day at work. But my argument about that, or my question about that is whether that's really much different from any profession where there ought to be in place a system of ongoing development and essentially the development of expertise, which takes a little bit of time.
FEUERAnd I think here's something that may be missed in this whole argument about the California case is, do we want a system that so reduces the complexities of teaching to something that we can actually measure with enough certainty and say, ah-ha, you've got it, and you don't on the first day at work?
GJELTENAndrew Rotherham, what's your feeling about that? If -- you know, is it possible to measure a teacher's effectiveness sufficiently, to sort of move forward with some of these accountability programs?
ROTHERHAMWell, I mean, there's two issues here. It actually is -- and it is possible -- I think everybody agrees -- you even had defense witnesses when they were being cross examined in this case in open court where they were under oath, were saying that the California's period is too short. So there was general -- there's sort of an almost general agreement emerged on that.
ROTHERHAMBut it is possible relatively soon as a hiring matter you reach a point -- and you see this in a lot of cities now with evaluation systems, where you can start to see sort of what's the median performance you'd expect from somebody after a year or two years -- and you can start to say, well, if you've got people who are under that level substantially, then you're probably better off -- just as a matter of probability, you're better off trying to hire somebody else.
ROTHERHAMAnd Dana's right about the hiring challenges, but we're also -- where two things go on. We're not ambitious about what we try. Teachers don't want to go into these schools themselves with bonuses. We're not ambitious about sending them in as cohorts, making sure they have leadership, which is very important to teachers, and that they're well supported. We sort of send them in as super heroes. We can be more ambitious about how we do that.
ROTHERHAMAnd then, second, some of the other things that are at issue in Vergara -- and we've just talked about this tenure issue -- there's also the whole issue of due process, which we started to get at. And then the court also struck down last and first out rules which are seniority-based rules. And there's a lot of evidence that these seniority-based rules actually make it harder for high-poverty schools, for urban school districts to attract teachers because the hiring timeline -- they have applicants. But by the time the seniority provisions have run their course, those applicants looking for jobs, they have gone and taken jobs elsewhere.
ROTHERHAMAnd the new teacher project did a really similar study on this a while ago called Missed Opportunities. And what this points up is these laws -- I mean, you know, I certainly agree with the judge's ruling. They're obstacles. They need to go. But just getting rid of them doesn't actually improve things. There's a whole host of things that have to go on, how we support teachers.
ROTHERHAMWhat Michael -- it's important what Michael was saying, is we toss teachers into the classroom and they're sort of left to sink or swim. There's not really good support and mentoring, how we evaluate them, how we do all these things. And just getting rid of the stuff is only a first step. And there's been a lot of cheering about that, but there's a whole set of things that the field has to do if we're actually going to see progress here as a result of this decision.
GJELTENWell, Dana Goldstein, what are your thoughts about how do higher -- do a better job of hiring teachers in these schools? We had a Facebook posting pointing out that the United States spends more on education than any other country in the world. So is it just a matter of paying, you know, higher salaries? Is that all it's a matter of, or is there more to it than that?
GOLDSTEINThere's a lot more to it than money. One of the number one things teachers say about what attracts them to work in any school is a great principal. So we have this huge teacher quality movement, this teacher accountability movement.
GOLDSTEINAnd we really need to have just as strong of a principal accountability movement because a great principal with a strong vision for what a school should be, someone who teachers really believe in, is probably just about the number one thing that can convince a teacher to go work someplace.
GJELTENDana Goldstein is staff writer for The Marshall Project and author of an upcoming book "The Teacher Wars: The History of America's Most Embattled Profession." I'm Tom Gjelten. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." So, Greg Toppo, to the extent that we do now move in a direction of demanding more accountability from teachers, what are the most tempting metrics that administrators and school boards are likely to use?
GJELTENI mean, obviously there's been a tremendous emphasis on test scores lately. And is there a danger that -- you know, that administrators will grab, you know, some easy number, like a test score, in order to justify their decisions about which teachers should stay and which should go?
TOPPOI don't know. There's a way in which, you know, this case feels like an outlier in focusing so much on that. I think that good supervisors are really focusing not just on test scores. They're focusing on all sorts of things. I mean, you know, good principals are, you know, in the classroom observing, you know, several times. They know who their teachers are. They know, you know, what these folks are capable of. And to Michael's previous point, I mean, they know, you know, what their potential is. It may not even be, you know, showing up after a year or a year-and-a-half but they have a sense of, you know, what's possible.
TOPPOAnd I think, you know, in a lot of places, we're seeing, you know, what you think of -- you know, what's pushing it -- people can disagree but I think we're seeing evaluations sort of mature in a way. We're getting states, you know, places like New York, you know, really moving toward kind of a more holistic way of evaluating teachers.
GJELTENMichael Feuer, what have we -- I know there's been a tremendous amount of debate and research about what makes for a good school. Have we reached some kind of consensus about the role of the principal and the importance of a principal in a school?
FEUERWell, I think that's another example of where research evidence has caught up with something that was probably intuitive to a lot of people for a long time. And that good leadership in schools makes a huge difference.
FEUERIn this particular case -- and I think the point Andy was making, which is very significant here, or somebody was making it -- anyway that one of the things that attracts teachers to work in difficult environments -- it was probably Dana who said this -- is in fact the presence of a leader, of a principal who has a certain kind of vision for the school and has a capacity for leadership and knows how to do the mentoring and will use, in particular I think, measures of accountability that are not just, you know, convenient and that come with the aura of scientific integrity just because they're numerical, but that they actually mean something and that they can be used to help teachers improve their craft.
FEUERMy baseline assumption is that most teachers who go into this line of work really do want to do a good job. There are other jobs out there that pay a little less, a little more. It's not as if, you know, teaching is the only thing these people could really be doing. Most teachers, I believe, go into this with a sense that they really want to work with children, that they want to provide an education that matters. Having leadership that can help in their professional development is, I think, very key.
FEUERAnd as one irony about all of this, a lot of this emphasis on teacher accountability, school accountability grows from a sense of how we are doing compared to other countries. And when you look at what other countries do with respect to the protection of teachers, in a place like Finland for example, they spend a huge amount on the preparation of teachers. And they have very, very strong protections of the teachers.
GJELTENAndy Rotherham, you wanted to make a quick point.
ROTHERHAMTom, there's just a contextual point here that gets lost. Most teachers don't teach neither subjects or grades that are assessed by standardized tests. So this whole conversation about using numbers, numerically driven things, it's a relatively small subset of teachers. It's much fewer than one in three. And so that necessitates both other kinds of evaluation methods and then making sure that principals and other school leaders can actually -- are competent and capable to actually use those measures and those tools and evaluate. There's just not a way in which test scores and standardized tests solve this problem.
GJELTENRight. Greg Toppo, very quickly.
TOPPOYeah, sure. I mean, you know, there is a lot of research on what teachers want and, you know, what draws teachers into certain schools and not others.
GJELTENWell, we're going to take a break here. But when we come back, we're going to want teachers and parents and maybe some students to join in this conversation. Obviously the quality of education, there's so much at stake in our schools and the performance -- so much depends on the performance of our schools. This is a really important issue. And it appears that this California ruling is going to precipitate more such initiatives around the country.
GJELTENOur phone number is 1-800-433-8850. Our email is firstname.lastname@example.org. We're going to take a short break here. And when we come back, we will go to your calls. Stay tuned.
GJELTENAnd welcome back. I'm Tom Gjelten sitting in today for Diane Rehm. And we're talking about the future of teacher tenure, in the aftermath of this ruling in California, by a court in California, that the teacher tenure laws there have been used to protect incompetent, ineffective teachers. And that poor students are suffering as a result.
GJELTENMy guests are Greg Toppo, who's education reporter for USA Today, Michael Feuer, dean of the Graduate School of Education and Human Development and professor of education at George Washington University. By phone, from Arlington, Va., is Andrew Rotherham, co-founder of Bellwether Education and executive editor at RealClearEducation, also a blogger at Eduwonk.com.
GJELTENAnd from NPR studios in New York, Dana Goldstein, who's the author of the upcoming book, "The Teacher Wars: A History of America's Most Embattled Profession." Andrew Rotherham, I know you're going to have to leave us here in a few minutes. I want to read to you a couple of emails that we have gotten, first, from Nicola. She says, "Thanks for the program, but your intro" -- she's talking about my intro to this program -- "is not quite accurate.
GJELTEN"You posed the question, 'Should administrators have more power to get rid of ineffective teachers?' But that's not what tenure is about. Historically, it's about protecting free speech in a classroom. I had hoped you would focus on this aspect as well." Would you agree with that, Andrew, that this not really about the power to get rid of ineffective teachers?
ROTHERHAMWell, again, in the K through 12 space, tenure is about -- it means due process. And it's different than how we think about it in higher ed. And what happens is after a period of time -- in California it was two years. And as Michael pointed in practice, because of the way it worked, it was less than that. And the judge sort of seized on that in his decision. These high-stakes decisions about whether or not somebody gets really heightened due process rights, happened within 18 months. In other states it varies. Some states are lengthening that period and so forth.
ROTHERHAMAnd so that's what we're talking about. Just at what point do you get heightened due process, where it makes it substantially more difficult to remove you from your position. And there's how much rights teachers should have there, relative to other professions in absolute terms. That's one set of issues. And then second -- and we haven't talked about it today -- is what should that bar even look like?
ROTHERHAMThe other problem here is in a lot of places you just get over it automatically. It's not a meaningful bar. You don't have good evaluations. In New York, for example, in New York City, you can even be not teaching. You can be in a non-teaching role, and you can still get over that bar just automatically. And so the second conversation for the practice and for the field is, what should that bar, wherever it's set, at whatever point, what should it look like?
ROTHERHAMAnd so there's a complicated set of issues there. But, really, you know, at the margins there's teachers who get penalized for doing stuff, but fundamentally, this is about broader issues and due process, not academic freedom as we think about it in higher ed.
GJELTENOK. Andy Rotherham, co-founder of Bellwether Education. And, Andy, I know you've got to leave. Thanks for joining our…
GJELTEN…conversation. We have an interesting email here from Charles, who points out that what we've been talking about this morning is getting rid of ineffective teachers. But what about ineffective administrators? Where there is effective academic leaders, there you will find excellent education, and the weaker teachers are lifted up to meet the challenge. Where there is an ineffective principal, then even the skills of the best teachers are inhibited. Michael?
FEUERWell, that's part of a general movement to holding various professionals in their different roles, accountable for performance. And I think most people involved in education policy and research would favor some sensible approach to the evaluation of principals and administrators and, for that matter, district leaders and superintendents all up and down the line as a general strategy for the improvement of the whole education system.
FEUERThe point about whether -- and I appreciate the question from the correspondent who asked about academic freedom, and if that's what tenure is about. I don't completely agree with Andy on this. I think there is some about -- some aspect of this that does have to do with what I would call professional autonomy that teachers need to feel they have at least some of that in their classrooms.
FEUERAnd, you know, the big tension here is -- it's two phrases that have P-A in it, professional autonomy versus public accountability. And what we're looking for actually -- and we don't know exactly where on the dial or how to get there -- is some reasonable balance between providing the public and parents and kids some evidence that the teachers they have are actually adequate and doing a good job versus the fundamental idea of teaching as a profession, which entails a certain amount of autonomy in the classroom. And there's no known formula to settle that one.
GJELTENLet's go now to Deloris, (sp?) who's on the line from Tampa, Fla. Hello, Deloris. Thanks for calling "The Diane Rehm Show."
DELORISThank you for having me. What I want to question or make a comment about is the institutions that prepare the teachers. I have worked in a public and private schools, school social worker, classroom teacher, other type school administrator. And many -- most of the people that I have observed would not have been in any department of a school except the school of education. What do they do about admitting certain people to schools of education?
DELORISAnd I doubt seriously if even 50 percent of the people who are attempting to prepare people to go -- especially into undeveloped or difficult schools -- if they could survive there even for two consecutive months, let alone two years.
GJELTENLet me put that question Dana Goldstein. Did you spend any time in researching book, Dana, about the quality of teacher training institutions? And would you agree with Deloris, that a lot of the people that are preparing teachers are not, themselves, capable or would not be -- would not do a good job if they actually had to teach in some of these difficult schools themselves?
GOLDSTEINYeah, I do look at this in my book. I mean, Deloris is right. A lot of the people who teach in teacher preparation programs either have never taught, or they've never taught in a particularly difficult or low-income setting or they did it so long ago that they may have forgotten certain details about it or they may not be completely up to date on what those neighborhoods are like today and what those schools are like today.
GOLDSTEINI think a bigger problem is a lot of people would be surprised to know that across the country only about half of training teachers ever student teach. They ever actually have the opportunity to observe a professional at work and learn in the setting that they'll eventually be working in. Teacher education programs tend to have quite low admission standards, compared to other majors. So I think this is a very fair concern.
GJELTENLet's go now to Mark who's on the line from Kalamazoo, Mich. Hello, Mark. Thanks for calling "The Diane Rehm Show."
MARKGood morning. Thank you very much for calling -- or letting me speak. My point was that I do have the facts from the Western Michigan University Education Program. And based on all the beat-up we've lost tenure policy, we've lost seniority. I teach in an urban city school. The classroom management skills, salary, the retirement benefits. Why would anybody want to go into teaching? From 2005 to this 2013, the enrollment has dropped on average by two-thirds.
GJELTENThe enrollment in teacher training institutions?
MARKYes. And my mother is also affiliated with Central Michigan University. And the enrollment numbers are likewise.
GJELTENOK. All right. Let me put that question to Greg Toppo, from USA Today.
TOPPOI mean, the caller brings up an interesting point. And it's something, actually, that some of the folks in the teachers' unions pointed to reacting to this case, which is, you know, this is going to make it harder to get good quality people to come teach in our high-poverty schools, that something like the Vergara case is not making it any more attractive. You're not making a teacher's job any more secure. And that's a big issue we really haven't talked about too much.
GJELTENLet's go now to Jerry, who's on the line from South Miami, Fla. Hello, Jerry, you're on the air on "The Diane Rehm Show."
JERRYGood morning. Yeah, I just was curious. Last night on Chris Hayes' program, "All In" on MSNBC, turns out a reporter was curious about that 1 to 3 percent that one of your guests mentioned. And he went to the guy who -- the defense witness -- this was after the trial was over. He went to him and said, "Where did this number come from? How did you find it?" And the guy said, "Actually, there's really no evidence to that. I just kind of made it up after visiting a number of classrooms and seeing what was going on."
TOPPOYeah, it wasn't, I mean -- this was David Berliner from Arizona State, who was one of the defense witnesses, as Michael was saying. It wasn't entirely out of thin air. It was sort of his best guesstimate. I mean, this is someone who actually has been in classrooms and has been studying this his entire career. But he did say, you know, afterwards, and there is an interesting little piece of that that he did say, you know, kind of pressed to give a number, this was the number he gave.
GJELTENWell, Michael Feuer, Greg talked earlier about what some of these students described in their classrooms, teachers who were keeping no control over the classroom, allowing kids to smoke marijuana, sleeping on their jobs. I mean, it is, I mean, you can identify some really bad teachers and what do you think about this figure of 1 to 3 percent? Is that hard to believe or do you think that's entirely credible?
FEUERWell, first of all, I know David Berliner, and I think that figure comes from a lifetime of contemplation and analysis and a lot of observation of schools and teachers. And he admits it was an estimate. It was -- but, you know, estimates from somebody like that are -- have a certain amount of validity. I don't think we should get hung up about whether it's 1.8 percent or 2.6 percent or 3.9 percent. I think the question is the one that you just asked, which, what do you do about the blatantly incompetent, unprofessional and underperforming teachers?
FEUERAnd I think that's something where a system in which there is a certain amount of professional judgment, a certain amount of, shall we say, mutual understanding, that there are norms of behavior that are simply not acceptable? The problem is if you have a system in which eliminating a teacher for that kind of behavior who has been granted tenure and for whom the misunderstanding is that the tenure is a form of lifetime sinecure, that's a big problem.
FEUERSomebody has tried to actually estimate how much it costs a school system to eliminate a truly underperforming teacher who has tenure. Lots and lots of money, legal expenses, other kinds of expenses. So here the question is suppose we were to come up with a system that protects teachers jobs and protects their sense of professional autonomy, their sense of professional standing, but that enables some quality judgments to take place and for decisions to be made. It would not be the system that California has in place.
GJELTENDana Goldstein, we haven't talked much about teacher unions yet this morning. And we have an email here from Naomi, who writes, "Until teachers' unions take charge of policing their members, as well as supporting them, they are fated to go the way of all unions. Teachers should be insisting that bad, ineffective teachers be removed from the classrooms.
GJELTEN"School systems should wipe out the discrepancies between wealthy and poor schools by assigning only the best teachers and administrators to the worst schools." What about -- what do you see, after doing all your research, on the role of teacher unions here? Are they part of the solution or part of the problem?
GOLDSTEINI think they're part of the problem and they must be part of the solution. I think in many cases they are part of the solution. Dating back to about the 1980s, teachers' unions have promoted an ideal called peer review, in which teacher judge other teachers and sometimes vote them out of a job if they're not good at what they do. Now, every school district wants to empower teachers in this way, but I think it's a really excellent idea because it gets teachers bought in to the whole concept of accountability.
GOLDSTEINAnd we see in places where it is in practice, like Montgomery Country in Maryland, that teachers are happier, those are places where teachers want to work. And it can work quite well.
GJELTENOK. Dana Goldstein is staff writer for The Marshall Project. I'm Tom Gjelten. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And let's go now to Crystal, who's on the on the line from Pensacola, Fla. Hello, Crystal.
CRYSTALHi. Thank you for my call. Your conversation is just awesome. And I'm really stimulated to hear such great conversation on both sides. I'm a teacher. And I've taught for over 10 years, and I'm tenured within my county. And tenure is a double-edged sword. As a tenured teacher, I'm glad for the protections and the due process because I've seen ineffective, incompetent administrators come in.
CRYSTALAnd education is one of those fields where egos can get in the way. Personality clashes can happen. So that does protect me. And I work very hard at what I do for my students. So it protects me from someone who comes in and there's a personality conflict, oh, I don't like how you did this. You're out of here. On the other hand, I've walked into classrooms, and I've thought, good God, this person should not be in charge of these children. This is our safety. This is our future. You need to go.
CRYSTALIt's just -- it's a double-edged sword. I wish that my administrators could rid of the ineffective teachers. And, like in any profession, there's tons of them out there, but also there's tons of awesome teachers that they do it because they love the students, they love to teach, and they're -- we empower. I've got two students who I've written college recommendations for, and, to me, that is a source of pride.
CRYSTALAnd lastly, you know, for teachers, we use a Danielson model here in my county. And we've tweaked it a little bit, but if I'm doing what I'm supposed to do, by all means, evaluate me, hold me accountable, talk with me about how I can improve because the more improve, the better I can be for my students.
GJELTENOK. Crystal, I've got a question for you. We're talking about getting rid of bad teachers. We actually had a comment here from someone on Twitter say, "What if we shift our focus on assessing teachers to assessing school administrators?" What has been your experience on how good administrators are at identifying and rewarding good teachers and pushing bad teachers out? What's your view on the role that principals and other administrators have played?
CRYSTALWell, I've always been fortunate. My administrators, they're on top of it. And I've worked with roughly -- probably about four administrators in my current school. And I made it a point to talk with them every day. And I see them walking around. I see them gauging. I look at it this way, my administrator could stop in my classroom and ask for a glass of water. He's taking in two seconds, the environment, what's going on. He has evaluated me in some way, shape or form.
CRYSTALOur county makes it to where administrators have to go to classes on Danielson model. And they're learning. And they take back what they learned. The administrators need to be effective, the need to be educated and all -- like I said earlier -- all egos need to be out the door.
CRYSTALWe are all professional. We're capable of being professional.
GJELTENOK. Thanks so much for calling us, sharing your experience with us, Crystal.
CRYSTALThank you so much.
GJELTENGreg, we haven't talked about the politics of all this. The Obama administration has been largely on the side of education reform, but they also have important allies with -- relationships with teacher unions. How do you see the politics of this reform movement going forward?
TOPPOWell, I mean, I think this case kind of highlights an interesting little piece of this. You know, in this case, you know, you had good Democrats on the side of the plaintiffs here. You know, one of the folks supporting the lawsuit was somebody who just, until a few months ago, was President Obama's, you know, head of civil rights at the Education Department.
GJELTENGreg Toppo is education reporter for USA Today. We're going to have to wrap this discussion up now. It's been really interesting. I've also been joined by Michael Feuer, dean of the Graduate School of Education and Human Development, professor of education at George Washington University, and president of the National Academy of Education.
GJELTENAlso, Dana Goldstein, staff writer for The Marshall Project, and author of the upcoming book, "The Teacher Wars: A History of America's Most Embattled Profession." We were joined earlier by Andrew Rotherham, co-founder of Bellwether Education. Thanks for listening. I'm Tom Gjelten.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Denise Couture, Susan Casey, Rebecca Kaufman, Lisa Dunn, Danielle Knight, and Alison Brody. The engineer is Timothy Olmstead. Natalie Yuravlivker answers the phones.
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