Sunday, December 22, 2013

Seniority and Tenure Reform Not the Key to Developing Great Teaching

    The reform movement has given tremendous focus on how to get rid of "bad teachers."   For example, a Students First policy briefing, entitled Great Teachers for Every Child, a Matter of Social Justice,  is dedicated completely to the elimination of seniority systems.  The thesis of this challenge seems to be that we can develop good teaching by getting rid of older more experienced teachers who have practiced mediocrity while being protected by seniority and tenure.    If we could just get rid of these bad teachers, we could replace them with a new complement of highly effective teachers, the argument goes. 

Reform advocates commonly cite to statistics that show that students in classrooms taught by effective teachers do substantially better than students in classrooms taught by ineffective teachers. Reformers then assume that the gap in student performance between high performing classrooms and low performing classrooms can be completely closed  by replacing the ineffective teacher with the effective teacher who allegedly is waiting in the wings to teach as soon as the abolition of the seniority system makes jobs available for unemployed effective teachers.

    I'd like to suggest that if we believe in reform we ought to be focusing on how good teaching is actually developed and fostered.   I'm not suggesting that we ignore completely the issues raised by seniority and tenure.  However, I am suggesting that removing seniority and tenure is unlikely to work a significant change in the quality of teaching and learning.   If excellent teaching were a talent possessed natively by certain teachers and not by others, possibly we could reform education  by culling bad teachers and recruiting those with native teaching talent.  Or, if good teaching simply requires dedication and hard work then possibly it would make sense to threaten teachers with discharge, at which point the fear of losing their jobs would foster more effective teaching. 

But I believe that the most persuasive authorities are telling us that the development of good teaching requires something more systemic!   What if good teaching actually results when licensed teachers -- the product of schools of education -- are made part of an organization that systemically fosters good teaching by implementing research-based practices that grow great teachers and great teaching?!   If that is the case, it is likely that implementing seniority reforms and bonus systems will not effect the kinds of positive change that the reform movement projects.

    In his work on Effective Supervision  Marzano argues that effective teaching must be developed over ten years or more in an environment that supports professional development and excellence. He contends that many teachers are not realizing their full potential, because they are developing teaching skills on a hit-and-miss basis, without the effective support of their school, their peers and their supervisors.  Effective teaching, he argues, requires continuous, deliberate efforts by the entire learning community.    He explores five categories of efforts to develop teachers:
  •  (1) a well-articulated knowledge base for teaching, 
  • (2) focused feedback and practice, 
  • (3) opportunities to observe and discuss expertise, 
  • (4) clear criteria and a plan for success, and 
  • (5) recognition of expertise
Each of these five really depend, in large part, on the way in which the school and school system support effective teaching.  It is possible, then, that we are spending way too much time arguing about how to get rid of teachers, and not near enough time discussing how to reform schools and school systems so that they develop the good teachers that we need.

In Visible Learning, Hattie reports the results of years of study of compilations of education research.    He writes, "one of the fascinating discoveries throughout my research for this book is discovering that many of the most debated issues are the ones with the least effects."   It is understandable that changing the seniority and tenure systems would engender controversy.   The arguments on both sides have at least surface merit and I'm not posting here to advance the argument for either side.  I'm arguing instead that  if we genuinely want reform, we need to invest a whole lot more time in studying, understanding, and supporting transformation in the systems that actually produce great teachers.   Reforming the way that colleges educate new teachers is  only a tiny part of this problem.  The five components described by Marzano can only flourish in a school system that provides an organized collaborative supportive system of staff development fostered by outstanding leadership.   Organizations like Students First  must recognize that eliminating tenure and seniority is nowhere near being the most important reform to promote great teaching.  

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