At the heart of America’s lasting education debate lies a topic often contested with extreme vitriol and frustration: teacher tenure. Although varying by state, teacher tenure generally refers to policies that protect teachers with non-probationary status from being unjustly terminated.
In California, which was the first state to adopt tenure laws and has some of the most protective legislation for teachers, education reformers and teacher unions are constantly at odds. Opponents of tenure claim that it encourages complacency and stagnation among educators, whereas proponents believe that its effects are overstated and that it fairly protects the vast majority of teachers.
In 2008, then-D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee pioneered tenure reform in public education. She proposed a “pay-swap” for teachers, that is, a contract which would increase teachers’ salaries if they agreed to surrender their tenure rights. These contracts would allow mid-level teachers with salaries of $62,000 to earn more than $100,000 yearly at the cost of job security. When the teacher ratification vote came around, however, the proposal failed to pass. Rhee later resigned, leaving behind a somewhat infamous legacy of discipline and pugnacity.
Despite Rhee’s lack of success in D.C., tenure reform quickly became disputed across the nation. Two years later, in a surprising display of bipartisanship, the Colorado State Senate set national precedent by passing Senate Bill (SB) 10-191, which clamped down on teacher tenure. Specifically, the bill mandated that much more importance be placed on teacher evaluation and student academic growth. Perhaps the most shocking tenet of the policy was the possibility for non-probationary teachers to be demoted to probationary status after receiving two consecutive years of unsatisfactory evaluations. More than half a decade after the bill’s signing, Colorado’s teachers unions are again protesting the reform, this time suing to strike down the law.
Both of these examples of education reform, however, are inherently flawed. Rhee was too authoritative in her brand of reform, alienating many teachers after a sudden mass firing of teachers and administrators. And Colorado’s reform was too unforgiving, increasing restrictions on teachers without benefitting them in the slightest — inevitably incensing teachers unions.
Ultimately, the debate over teacher tenure is myopic. The two parties of this disagreement fail to realize the underlying problem with America’s education system: that teachers are not valued as much as other professionals in our society.
According to Dana Goldstein, author of “The Teacher Wars,” the difference between what American teachers and attorneys or engineers make is much larger than the corresponding differences in Finland or South Korea — two countries with excellent education systems. As a result, only around 23 percent of new U.S. teachers graduate in the top third of their graduating class, as compared to 100 percent in Finland and South Korea, found consulting firm McKinsey & Company in their report, “Closing the talent gap.” Additionally, the report found that teacher turnover rates in Finland and South Korea were 1 and 2 percent, respectively, compared to the U.S.’s 14 percent, illustrating that many American teachers are unhappy with their careers.
These two countries have selective admissions to teacher training, government-regulated supply of teachers, widely-considered professional working environments in education, cultural respect for teaching and a host of other factors that contribute to teaching being a desirable and viable career option. McKinsey’s report found that the United States was lacking in all of these fields, contributing to both the absence of student enthusiasm for the discipline and the high turnover rates.
Increased federal apportionment for teacher compensation would help amend these pitfalls hugely. Paying teachers more is the single most effective strategy to attract top talent for educators while maintaining low attrition. McKinsey’s study noted that a system similar to Rhee’s proposed pay-swap seemed to be promising, in addition to special incentives for math and science graduates. Additionally, salary increase is the simplest, most effective way to illustrate that teachers are valued as much, if not more, than other professionals.
And, as with other professionals, teachers need to have their own feedback loop in which they are open to evaluation. This means enacting legislation similar to Colorado SB 10-191 that does not unconditionally guarantee job security, but rather rewards effectiveness.
America’s education system is not waiting on teachers to take more accountability for their work. Rather, it is waiting on a paradigm shift, one that will give teaching paramount importance in society. Only then will America constructively work towards a better education system, and only then will America’s quality of education compare to other rich nations.