If some Missouri legislators have their way, teacher tenure will be a thing of the past.
Bills introduced in the House and Senate would eliminate tenure, strike down minimum salaries for teachers with master’s degrees or 10 years of experience and replace them with a new four-tiered pay system, based on student scores.
Speaker of the House Steve Tilley, R-Perryville, says this legislation is one of his priorities in this session.
After all, who can argue with the idea of replacing a system that allows bad teachers to remain in the classroom, year after year?
Who can object to rewarding the teachers with the strongest performance and not those who have earned advanced degrees or those who have spent more years in the classroom?
Who can argue with paying the teachers whose students achieve the highest scores on standardized tests?
This would appear to be a slam dunk for Steve Tilley and the sponsors of the bills, Republicans Scott Dieckhaus in the House and Jane Cunningham in the Senate.
But as we all know, things are not always as clear-cut as they appear to be.
The idea that teacher tenure is keeping hundreds, maybe thousands of poor teachers in the classroom is largely based on horror stories from New York and Washington. While some bad apples have undoubtedly slipped through the cracks and need to be encouraged to find a different line of work, tenure is not an obstacle.
In Missouri, a teacher has be unemployed five years to be eligible for tenure, which starts on the first day of the sixth year. If a teacher is bad, five years should be plenty of time for any capable administrator to make that determination.
And even if somehow, a teacher’s performance slumps after that fifth year, or the teacher managed to slip through the cracks, tenure does not keep a bad teacher in the classroom. All tenure does is require that the teacher receive due process before he or she is fired.
If that protection is removed, veteran teachers are left at the mercy of any administrator who decides to cut the teachers who have been around the longest, (which of course means they are the ones who are making more money).
It also would be an open invitation for removal of teachers who may have disagreements with new administrators, many of whom are simply passing through for a year or two on their way to the next step on the ladder.
Critics of the tenure system always like to point out how few teachers are removed from the classroom for poor performance. Those statistics are misleading. It is always pointed out how many beginning teachers do not remain in the classroom after the first five years. While some of that is undoubtedly due to dissatisfaction with working conditions and the lure of higher paying jobs, many of the people who leave the profession do so because they were not cut out to be teachers. The system does have a way of winnowing out the worst, some of them because administrators encourage them to explore other opportunities and some because they realize the responsibility of teaching the next generation is something that is beyond their abilities.
Proponents of the teacher tenure bills also point out that the best teachers should receive the most pay. It is hard to argue with that. If an ideal system were to be established that could make that possible, I would hope all teachers would jump on board.
The four-tier system proposed in the Dieckhaus and Cunningham bills would be a nightmare. Under this plan, every school district in Missouri would have to divide its teachers into four tiers. The teachers whose students score the lowest would receive the lowest pay, with the second tier receiving more, the third tier an even greater total, and then the fourth tier receiving 60 percent more than those in the third tier.
Even if all of the teachers are capable, the tiers would be required, and the bill even offers an elaborate tiebreaking system to determine who goes in what tier.
This system does not take into consideration many things.
First, the cost. Right now, our students are only being tested in a few areas, math, reading, and some science. We would have to come up with costly tests for the other disciplines.
Second, the students themselves. In my first year at South Middle School, I was lucky enough to get nearly every well behaved eighth grader in my English classes, while the other teacher received the nightmare. It wasn’t anything that happened on purpose, but under the kind of system that is being proposed, I would have been rewarded, unfairly, for dealing with ideal students, while my fellow English teacher would have been relegated to a lower tier.
Teachers should be responsible for students’ scores and a continuing pattern of poor scores obviously needs to be addressed, but the teachers are only one of the factors, albeit an important one, that goes into the success of students.
If the students do not receive proper reinforcement at home or do not have the proper attitude when they go into the schools, the teachers already have two strikes against them. As much as the current crop of so-called educational reformers like to blame everything on what goes on inside the classroom, the learning experience is not limited to the school.
Having teacher pay decisions based almost entirely on standardized test scores is also guaranteed to continue the transformation of our schools from places of learning, which they have continued to be despite the recent wave of negative publicity, to test preparation factories.
And finally, this insidious idea of eliminating minimum pay standards for teachers with master’s degrees or with 10 years of experience.
Those who favor this approach would like to have us think that veteran teachers are trotting out the same lesson plans, unchanged, year after year, steadfastly clinging to outdated methods and waiting for retirement.
For most teachers, nothing could be further from the truth. The state requires a certain number of professional development hours each year, and even without these, most teachers are keeping up with the latest developments in education and in their particular disciplines.
Proponents of organizations like Teach for America would like us to think that any student with good grades and a desire to serve can take an “intensive” six-week course and immediately be ready to teach.
They are also a lot cheaper and most of them do not remain in the classroom past the two years they are required to stay under that program.
Since when has experience been a crime?
I am in my 12th year as a classroom teacher and I know so much more now than I did when I stepped in front of my first creative writing class at Diamond Middle School in August 1999.
And I will know more in my 13th year than I do now because that is what teaching is about. The learning experience is not for students alone.
Sadly, our legislators can come up with a dangerous plan that can continue what seems to be their goal of remaking the public education system into the same business model that has put this country in its current economic crisis.