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Roemer makes right call on suggesting ending tenure

As his latest comments show, Board of Elementary and Secondary Education member Chas Roemer has it completely backwards … by his musing about not running for reelection.

Rather, more than ever educational progress in Louisiana desperately needs officials like him, as demonstrated when Roemer opined in a letter to legislators that the state needs to end tenure. As it is now, after a three-year probationary period, a teacher in a traditional public school in Louisiana gains access to procedures that make it difficult to fire even for cause. Witness the samples for the latest reporting period of 2007-08 that show 97.6 percent of tenured teachers retained their job in the state, as did 98.8 percent of those in the probationary period when it is easier to fire them for cause.

Statistically, these results advance two largely contradictory conclusions. They may indicate that, with the overwhelming proportion of teachers apparently performing adequately, that the profession in Louisiana – much like that of state employment – highly disproportionately attracts quality individuals. On its face that determination seems dubious, and descends into the laughable when considering how Louisiana scrapes the bottom in student achievement both in absolute and relative terms.

Therefore, the alternative hypothesis seems much more plausible – rules regarding retention of teachers encourage poor performers to remain the system and likely are one factor that contributes to poor student performance. While other factors no doubt play a role here also and likewise beg for reforms – such as providing incentive to perform better through merit pay and regular subject area competency testing to weed out those too ignorant in the areas they teach – tenuring makes it more difficult to remove substandard teachers because of the extra resources devoted to that process to overcome the greater ability to resist by the incompetent afforded by those rules.

This assumes, of course, that administrators actually want to relieve low performers of their duties. They may well not, because they’re buddies with the person, from some kind of sympathy such as for those in the twilight of their careers, it would be a hassle to deal with a vacancy, of political pressure from elected officials such as those on the school board, etc. These attitudes would exist without tenure, but at least in clear-cut cases where removal is desired, the numbers indicate tenure must inhibit – especially since apparently those with fewer protections are less likely to be terminated, suggesting that some substantial portion of tenured teachers coast beginning some period after getting it, some so egregiously that administrators feel compelled to go to the trouble of engaging in the onerous dismissal process.

But statistics ignore the theoretical reason why tenure really is not necessary at this level of instruction. The concept gives protection to those whose work relies in part on production of ideas, to prevent discouragement of production of those ideas out of fear these producers will be evaluated politically by those with power over their employment and by elected officials. However, while that may apply to those involved in higher education, where research can be a necessary component of the job, at lower levels of education the mission solely is instruction. Without that component to the job, there’s no reason a regime like five-year contracts with failure to reappoint based upon objective measures of quality teaching cannot provide as much protection from arbitrary, non-cause-related personnel actions as does tenure.

Further, contemplated policy actions in other states show they recognize the costs of tenure at this level of education exceed its benefits. This year alone, several are opting to pursue major overhauls of it, or even wanting to eliminate it entirely. Roemer rightly suggests that Louisiana join them.


Anonymous said...

Good idea, I think we need to start in the College Political Science Departments.

Jason said...

Teacher attrition is roughly 25% in the first three years of the profession. A large number of teachers either leave or are urged to seek other work in that period.

Between a four year degree, one-two years of certification work, post-grad work, required yearly professional development, and an ever-expanding set of responsibilities the overwhelming majority of teachers who remain are both committed and excellent educators. Your "facts" on display are both misleading and disingenuous.

Further, in a "right to work state" the only thing that tenure does for a teacher is secure them due process rights if an administrator wishes to dismiss them. Due to their position being forever in the public eye and a increasingly litigious public, teachers require those due process rights as a bare minimum. A tenured teacher can certainly be fired, especially in this state. Your argument may make an iota of sense in more union friendly states, but then only just an iota.

Let me ask you a sincere question. If a mission fails in Afghanistan or Iraq or Libya, do you blame the troops? Do you want to fire the private first class who participated in the mission? Because that is exactly what you are calling for in relation to teachers.

Jason said...

I see that respectful and candid dissenting opinion is not welcome here. My comment left earlier today was factual and cogently written, but I notice it is now missing. Anyone who can not discuss and defend his or her opinion/position does not deserve the right to disseminate it publicly, in my opinion.

Jeff Sadow said...

Absolutely. I have been an advocate of getting rid of tenure at all levels of education before I got it. And with the quality I provide as a faculty member, even my holding political views anathema to many in academia would not be enough to prevent me from having contract renewal after contract renewal. Bring it on.

Jeff Sadow said...

Jason -- your comments got tagged as spam, for whatever reason. I check these about once a month and only now found them in Blogger's spam folder.

Your comments really don't address the argument being made by Roemer. If a quarter of teachers leave in the first 3 years, what does that have to do with tenure? Most of that is voluntary, and of those "asked" to leave, how would tenure change that (they probably don't even have it during most or all of this period)?

The same goes with due process rights -- why cannot these be a part of a contractual relationship? The concept of tenure itself does not secure these -- the only thing it is useful for is to make it more difficult to fire somebody without cause simply because there is not a regular opportunity to do so.

And again your present a red herring with your argument about litigation. How does tenure protect a teacher any better than a well-written contract? And tenure is irrelevant concerning a misbehaving teacher; indeed, it is more likely to encourage misbehavior with those bad apples knowing they can use the system to a greater degree to insulate themselves.

By contrast, the problems that tenure brings far outweigh the nearly non-existent benefits that accrue at the elementary and secondary level. Because it makes it more difficult to bring personnel actions, that discourages attempts to flush incompetents out of the system, as the statistics above indicate. (Of course, that LA has a tepid evaluation system only slowly and marginally improving allows substandard performers to continue on regardless of being tenured.)

Finally, how is having teachers work on, say, 5 year contracts instead of tenure the same as "firing" soldiers who don't achieve military objectives?