Sunday, April 29, 2012

Speaking Truth to Power on Teacher Tenure

Are we really going to have to go through this every time a so-called education reformer gets kicked in the head by politics? Evidently so.

Case in point? The Passion of Perth Amboy Superintendent of Schools Janine Walker Caffrey as related by the Gospel of Tom Moran in Sunday's Newark Star-Ledger. When we last left the story, Moran was singing Caffrey's praises as someone who was trying to get rid of ineffective teachers in her district. The problem was that through either ineptitude or poor management, the principals in Perth Amboy were giving satisfactory evaluations to people who should not have been in the classroom. Then, when these teachers showed their true colors, there was no paper trail of their ineffectiveness. My take on this is in Lies, Damn Lies, and the Truth About Teacher Tenure.

Moran continues his epistle because the Perth Amboy Board of Education has voted to put Caffrey on leave with the presumed intent of firing her from her job. I feel bad for her and for the hard-working parents, teachers and children in the district because Caffrey seems to be trying her best under extraordinarily difficult circumstances.

Moran, though, doesn't quite get it. From the article:

But none of that matters much. Because Caffrey is not a great politician. Her first sin was to tell the truth about tenure — that it protects horrendously bad teachers in her district and hurts kids. Then she refused to make the patronage hires she says board members pressed on her. And then she bucked the all-powerful teachers union by trying to change ancient customs on evaluations, job placements and student suspensions.

He also says:  

Teachers unions, for example, generally want sturdy raises every year and no accountability.

There are four things wrong here.

First of all, tenure only protects bad teachers if those teachers are not given truthful evaluations by administrators. When principals lie or are horrendously bad themselves, then it will come back and hurt the district years later. This seems to be an ongoing problem in many districts, not just Perth Amboy.

Second, tenure protects effective teachers from the kind of patronage pressure that the Perth Amboy Board of Education is exacting on Caffrey. Getting rid of tenure would render Caffrey a mere figurehead when it comes to hiring. The parents, children and teachers are far better off with an effective tenure system than without it.

Third, the teacher's union is far from all-powerful. Local teacher's associations sign contracts with districts that spell out exactly what each body is required to do and what it is prohibited from doing.

Moarn's last point is more than wrong: It's a disgrace.

Teachers absolutely want accountability and are, in fact, accountable to the evaluation system in place in every school district in the state. Every effective teacher in New Jersey wants an effective teacher in the room next door and in every school in their district. Teachers want to know that the students they get every year have the knowledge and skills to succeed in their classroom. Teachers, unlike journalists, can't just say what they want under the assumption that it's their opinion, and not have facts and research behind their assertions.

It's a shame that Caffrey has to go through this, but my experience is that being a superintendent required some political savvy or at least the assumption that you were going to need to work with the local politicians to get things done. One person alone can't fight an entrenched political culture. But if we are going to make schools as effective as they can be, we need at least to tell the truth about what goes on once the bell rings. Moran's article does not do that.

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