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Tenure needs discarding in LA colleges, schools

As institutions in the University of Louisiana System begin to generate controversy through tenure terminations of faculty members in response to streamlining program offerings, tenure elimination as a desirable policy in Louisiana higher education echoes to some degree that in public schools, but with more complications.

Ridding the public schools of tenure, as suggested by Board of Elementary and Secondary Education member Chas Roemer, is a no-brainer. The concept of tenure is to prevent firing of teachers at any level for arbitrary reasons, among which are to prevent politicization of education. But there are other methods in the public schools that can prevent that from happening without having to resort to jobs-for-life for all but the worst performers or rule-breakers.

Below the collegiate level, classroom teachers have practically one job: teach. Further, ability to do so can be easily measured, through a combination of student testing, progress reports, and observation by others (and should, in Louisiana, have subject area testing of the teachers themselves added as do many states). As long as clear rules exist to ensure termination occurs only after low evaluations on these categories, all but observation being amenable to objective measurement, this will ensure firings do not occur for arbitrary reasons. As such, teachers need only be offered contracts of a few years after their probationary period to enjoy protection from arbitrary dismissal.

However, serving as a faculty member at a college is more complicated.
While teaching should and must be the primary function of faculty members not in administrative positions, it is much harder to measure quality objectively. Unlike lower-level schooling, there are no agreed standards on what should be taught with much more emphasis placed on learning outside of a relatively small amount of core course (about a third of hours taken in Louisiana colleges). Even within the areas of study, outside of the hard sciences, these curricula have agreement on common elements to be taught only in rudimentary ways. For example, you can complete a political science major at different universities in Louisiana taking only a few similar courses. Further, even within one of the common courses like American Government a wide variety of emphases and perspectives may be employed.

And making things even less subject to objective comparative measurement, at this level faculty members have other duties. They are expected to engage in departmental governance, serve the university in various ways such as sitting on various committees that can make substantial policy recommendations, perform some public outreach such as media appearances, public lectures, service on community boards, etc., and, most difficult to account for, publish original research or engage in other creative contributions.

This engineers difficult dynamics for evaluative purposes. For example, does an instructor with lots of high grades in his class do better than one who has more lower grades? It could be that the latter is more demanding and her students may actually learn more than a lenient professor, even if the grades appear lower. With no end-of-course testing regimes, it’s hard to make these judgments. Or, is publishing work in two minor journals worse than, better, or equal to, publishing one piece in a more prestigious journal – a comparison made more treacherous by the fact politics often involves itself in decisions made by journals on what to accept?

In Louisiana, colleges and universities are required to design and implement evaluative systems, tailored to their actual jobs (for example, a community college would place most emphasis on teaching, while a research university might have all other aspects together count for more than teaching). These provide some objectivity to the process, and work better in some areas than others (for example, the hard sciences where knowledge can be measured more objectively), but not nearly what can be done in the public schools. Therefore, where more judgment becomes necessary to make evaluative decisions, the potential for arbitrariness grows and also the chance that political criteria get used in these.

Yet this does not mean that tenure should be the only acceptable response to rein in arbitrariness. Efforts can be made to interject more objectivity in the process, starting from accreditation baselines that lay out overall goals for achievement by colleges in the education of their students.  Through striving within universities and their departments to come up with some common concepts to be mastered by a sufficient proportion of their students, and then implementing exit exams where students who complete degree requirements also must take them to receive their degrees, greater objectivity can be realized in the critical teaching component, supplemented by observation and review of classroom materials (for example, appropriate textbook usage, degree of essays on exams as opposed to less rigorous assessment methods such as true/false questions, etc.).

Other elements such as committee work, research output, etc. can have their worth captured by roughly objective measures. Combining these over a relatively long period, can reduce subjectivity in judgment allowed from avenues of arbitrariness. As an example, a faculty member could be hired for an initial five-year period with certain benchmarks, escalating in severity, measured over that time span. If the minimum criteria are attained, then the member could be given another five year contract that carries automatic renewal as long as minimum standards are maintained.

It would be more difficult, it would require more work, frankly, out of faculty members and especially administrators in the area of guidance to make such a system work, but it could and thereby should replace tenure. The way it works at universities now, essentially only egregious rules violations and excessive failure to perform (such as many absences from the classroom without leave, missing deadlines, persistent teaching in a disorderly fashion like with the assistance of booze, etc.) get somebody stripped of tenure, absent program terminations. If done right, abolishment of tenure at the university level would produce a more efficient and effective university.

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