On Teachers, Testing and Tenure — An Analysis
Dr. Lawrence Davidson
The Florida State Senate and House of Representatives have passed Bill 736. The state’s governor, Rick Scott, has signed the bill and so this effort to “reform” teaching practices in the Florida public schools is now a law. Reform them how? According to the Miami Herald, the bill will eventually “tie teacher pay to student test scores, eliminate so-called tenure for new hires as of July 1 [all subsequent hires will get only yearly contracts] and end layoffs based on seniority.” It was, of course, a Republican sponsored bill and that had the Democrats looking for flaws. It did not take them long to spot an obvious one. According to the Florida House Minority leader Ron Saunders (D-Key West), “if you are basing a teacher’s pay on test scores, there’s going to be a natural incentive for the teachers to teach to the test, instead of, maybe, expanding other areas of interest.” The Republican response to this concern was to dismiss it as a false issue. According to Representative Eric Fresen (R-Miami) who sponsored the bill, “As long as the students are learning, I don’t think there’s a problem with that.”
The state of Florida is actually rather late in coming to this. The bill largely mimics the still extent Bush Administration policy known as “No Child Left Behind” which came into existence in 2003 and was overhauled by the Obama Administration in 2010. As the Florida legislation suggests, this approach relies on assessment based on standardized tests and has made a lot of money for companies who put such tests together.
There are number of assumptions that lay behind all these efforts and here are some of them:
1. There is an assumption that the American public school system is performing poorly.
2. There is an assumption that this is the fault of bad teachers.
3. There is an assumption that getting rid of the tenure system will get rid of bad teachers.
4. There is an assumption that using standardized tests will allow you to measure necessary levels of learning for specific ages.
5. There is an assumption that having instituted such tests, the attainment of adequate scores means that both the student has successfully learned and the teacher has successfully taught.
It just so happens that all of these assumptions are problematic. Let’s take them one by one.
1. Is the American public school system performing poorly? Well, yes and no. There are plenty of supposedly scary statistics out there that show that the majority of public school students are not fully proficient in a number of academic areas, given a definition of proficiency set by standardized tests. For instance, the U.S. Department of Education reports that, as of 2009, 17% of 12th graders are proficient in math and 18% are proficient in Science (let’s keep these percentages in mind), and that “in comparison to 1992, reading scores were lower in 2009.” However, these statistics begs the question of what criteria is being used to determine proficiency? Or, if you will, just what does it mean to be educated?
Historically (and here I mean from the dawn of civilization onward), the notion of educational proficiency has always been tied to making a living. In other words, either through apprenticeship or formal schooling, what most children have learned over the ages is what their economic environments required of them. Applied to our own time this means that, for all students in all schools, there are two curricula. Whether you want to be a lawyer or an auto mechanic, the primary curriculum is vocational and the second one is, shall we say, elective. This elective category may or may not include independent critical thinking which, in any case, is a pursuit that is often disapproved of by local school boards. By the time American kids are in Junior High School they usually know the difference between what is vocationally valuable and what is not and most gear their learning efforts to what they believe are their future career interests. That means vocational learning will most often trump elective learning. It also means that it is not the school per se, or the teachers, that are actually setting the criteria for learning. It is the economy and the student’s local culture.
So, if the economy demands reading and writing abilities at the level of business memos and technical reports, that is the proficiency, on average, that you will get. On average, all learning beyond that, regardless of the courses taken, will be seen by the student as elective and absorbed or not depending on personal interest. Ask yourself how many American students want to, or will be required to, know anything beyond basic math in their future workplace? 17% sounds like a roughly accurate number. How many are going to want to, or have to know much science? 18% sounds about right. Thirty years ago computer savvy was not a job related skill. Schools largely ignored it and relatively few people had real proficiency in this area. Today, the situation is reversed. So you see for most students, and their schools, useful knowledge is deemed to be employment knowledge.
Actually, almost all American schools, even the “failing”ones, deliver employment knowledge. You might think that this claim is off base, but it really is not. High end public schools cater to students, most of whom by virtue of their cultural background, have professional career expectations. And that is the educational preparation they get. Just so, low end schools (admittedly underfunded) cater to students, most of whom have very different expectations, and they are educated accordingly. I am not claiming this is a good thing, only that this is the way it works. If you want to change it, you have to change culturally driven expectations and the structural nature of the economy. Just looking at tests and teachers won’t do it. To achieve this sort of change means a lot of social rearrangement and revenue shifting. Historically, the U.S. has never been willing to do these things.
2. And that brings us to our second assumption. If you are not satisfied with the status quo in education, but are not willing to acknowledge where the real problems lie, you might be tempted to find a scapegoat. So, it all becomes the fault of bad teachers. First of all it should be determined what is meant by bad teaching. Do we define it by poor student scores on a standardized test? Or do we define it as the failure or inability to make a good faith effort to address the required material? It should be kept in mind that you can have the first without the second. I would be very suspicious of the first definition because of the reasons given above. So let use the second definition. Given that meaning, are there bad teachers in our public school system? Yes there are. But it is highly doubtful if, in terms of percentage, they number any more than bad administrators, bad bank managers, bad lawyers, bad doctors, and even bad Florida state politicians, etc. Nor is it true that, allegedly unlike the other categories, teachers are “insulated from accountability.” Almost every public school teacher in the country is under contract. One assumes that failure to teach competently is a breach of a teacher’s contract. Just as in all other contractually governed employment settings, it is the administrator’s (the principal’s) job to document the situation and fire the worker who is not doing his or her job. If you have the evidence of breach of contract it is unlikely that a union will expend much energy defending a bad teacher. As a consequence, it is simply wrong to blame the workers or their unions for what appears to be the incompetent response of management relative to bad job performance.
3. But what about the Tenure System? Doesn’t that protect bad teachers? No, it does not. Probably understood and applied, it should have nothing to do with the question of incompetent teaching. What the tenure system is designed to do is protect all teachers from the political, religious and other biases of politicians, school boards, administrators and the society at large. If you will, the tenure system is a necessary extension of the teacher’s constitutional right of free speech to the classroom. And this is absolutely necessary if teachers are to be free to teach anything other than the prejudices of the majority in their particular community. Also, tenure is not the same as seniority. Actually, the idea of seniority is in place to prevent management from firing expensive workers (that is those making a good wage) and replacing them with ones who can be paid much less.
4. In the end what is being attempted in Florida, and the country at large, is the implementation of quantitative measures for all school grades as well as all subjects. In some areas this is appropriate. You want to teach a child aspects of mathematics, you can access the result of this effort by a test with exactly definable answers. Even the testing of very basic levels of reading and writing might be quantified after a fashion. Setting a standard for what levels of mathematics, reading and writing someone should be at by what age is something else, particularly if one tries to do this without reference to the economy and local culture. Things get hazier when we enter the realm of the humanities and social sciences. The notion that one can create a one size fits all test to measure learning in these latter subject areas is highly problematic.
5. Nonetheless, according to the Florida approach, having set the test, whatever it might be, all else can inevitably be judged according to its result. This includes the child’s learning, the teacher’s teaching, the administration’s administering, etc. In other words, thanks to the test, we now believe that we know what good and bad means in the classroom. All the teachers can learn to teach for test and, if successful, that will automatically equal good teaching. Maybe some will get merit bonuses for this. All the students can learn to learn for the test and that, if successful, will automatically equal good learning. Some may get into better colleges for this. Besides the fact that putting so many eggs in one basket invites a lot of cheating and corruption, everyone can give a great sigh of relief.
Americans seem caught on the horns of a dilemma with all this testing and learning business. On the one hand, they want a yardstick that can tell them if their kids are being adequately educated in a time of economic uncertainty and cultural flux. On the other, learning is something that, with but few exceptions, is not easily expressed in quantitative terms. Nonetheless, the politicians are always going to go for the simple answer, whether it makes sense or not. In this way, Florida is right in step with the rest of the country.