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National Review Online


Testing for Tenure

December 02, 2009

By Marcus A. Winters

Mayor Bloomberg pushes to hold teachers accountable for student performance.

While everyone else was putting the final touches on their Thanksgiving-dinner grocery lists, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg was picking a fight with his state legislature and the teachers’ unions. His insistence that the school district use standardized test scores when evaluating teachers for tenure promises to keep New York’s schools moving in the right direction and provides an important example for lawmakers across the nation.

New York’s state legislature gave teachers a gift last year by banning the use of student test-score data in tenure decisions. Many expect the legislature to allow the law to expire next year, but Mayor Bloomberg refuses to wait. Last week, he ordered schools chancellor Joel Klein to use the data anyway, arguing that the teachers up for tenure this year were hired in 2007, and a careful reading of the law suggests it applies only to teachers hired after July 1, 2008.

Bloomberg’s action is laudable because reforming tenure is an important step toward keeping bad teachers out of classrooms. The protections granted to a tenured teacher essentially guarantee a job for life. In 2006–07, only ten of 55,000 tenured public-school teachers in New York City were fired. Such low firing rates for tenured teachers are typical nationwide.

Offering job protections to proven teachers isn’t necessarily a bad idea, but in today’s public schools, tenure is treated as a right rather than a privilege. Nearly every teacher who decides she wants to stay on past the three-year mark receives the rubber stamp of tenure.

According to the city’s Department of Education, only 2 percent of teachers eligible to receive tenure last year were denied it (another 5 percent had their probationary period extended a year). That’s actually quite an improvement and reflects the Bloomberg administration’s push for a more accountable education system. In 2005–06, only 25 of the more than 6,000 eligible teachers (about 0.4 percent) were denied tenure.

While most public-school teachers are doing fine, not every person who ends up in a classroom deserves a lifetime job guarantee. We should do everything we can to remove the bad apples before they receive tenure. When bad teachers get tenure, they harm decades’ worth of students unlucky enough to be assigned to their classrooms.

A school should carefully consider as many factors as possible when deciding whether a teacher deserves lifetime employment. The performance of a teacher’s students on standardized exams surely deserves the evaluator’s attention.

No one argues that test scores should be used in isolation to make tenure or any other employment decisions about teachers. Test scores are imperfect measures of student proficiency, and it is difficult to distinguish a teacher’s independent contribution to a student’s test-score gains.

But standardized-test scores can raise red flags. If a teacher’s students consistently perform poorly on standardized exams, the principal should pay close attention to whether the teacher is the issue or another factor is at work. If it is the teacher’s fault, then tenure should be denied. It seems so obvious, who could oppose this?

The teachers’ unions, that’s who. New York City’s teachers’ union, the United Federation of Teachers, pushed the legislature to adopt the test-score ban. It did so while under the leadership of Randi Weingarten, now president of the national American Federation of Teachers.

The unions are wedded to a system that treats all teachers as if they were uniformly effective, even though both research and common sense tell us that this is simply not true. Real information about teacher quality threatens the worldview these unions advocate, and they are willing to pull every string available to stop it.

Whether Mayor Bloomberg’s gambit is legal will be decided in the courtroom. But he should be commended for taking on what is sure to be a brutal fight. State and city lawmakers across the nation should look to Bloomberg’s example and push for tenure reform of their own.

Original Source:



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