Teachers unions are under a lot of pressure right now.
Long known as the strongest, most important advocates for educators, teacher unions and the contracts they negotiate have come under increased scrutiny.
Case in point: The “last-hired/first-fired” tenure provisions of the NYC teachers union contracts. Under the current rules, after three years of service to the school system, generally a teacher is granted tenure. And once a teacher has tenure, it becomes extremely difficult to remove them from their jobs, even in cases where there is just cause.
Also, within the last-hired/first-fired provisions, new teachers would be the first to lose their jobs, in the event of layoffs. These provisions do not account for the effectiveness or skill of the new teacher-- only how long the teacher has been working.
So, even if the teacher is considered high performing by the standards of the principal and the performance of the students, they could be fired.
On its face, it may seem obvious that this is a flawed approach to layoffs. I mean, what other profession allows people to be laid off without taking into consideration their effectiveness or the added value that they bring to an organization?
Clearly using this model to decide who should stay and who should go is not always in the best interest of our children. Mayor Bloomberg feels that this is outrageous as well, which is why he is fighting to push through legislation that will simply keep the best teachers and lay off the worst ones, regardless of seniority.
But hold on, not so fast. Before we are quick to jettison the last-hired/first-fired rule of tenure, let’s first ask ourselves, who are the best teachers and how do we determine what is “best?”
The answer is, no one knows, because to date, there are no universal standards or measurements in place to make that determination. And while principals certainly are in one of the best positions to decide which teachers are best for their schools, it still leaves far too much room for an abuse of power by some principals.
And so, without a set of standards in place, the decision becomes subjective – in some ways, arbitrary and, at worst, personal.
Currently, last-in/first-out is viewed as the only transparent and fair way to determine who would keep their jobs, in the event of layoffs. So, absent a thoughtful, accurate and clear system of evaluating teachers, last-in/first-out wins by default.
The sad truth is, education has been a latecomer to the professional accountability party. In any other industry, you can go to court and sue a doctor, accountant or lawyer for malpractice, because there is a clear set of universally accepted standards associated with these professions.
Furthermore, individual advancement in these professions would depend upon the service providers performing at their highest level and measuring that performance against universal standards in that industry.
It is only within the last five years that there has been serious discussion about creating transparent systems to evaluate teacher performance that grants tenure to teachers only after performance is measured by an objective set of professional standards.
But that discussion is still ongoing; it is not complete. In education, the system of evaluating teachers is multi-layered and complex, as it would have to take into account a great number of varying and unique circumstances no other profession has to consider:
The first challenge is the fact that most professional relationships between a service provider and client is based upon the premise of freedom of choice and mutual selection. That is, we have selected each other and have come to a mutual agreement to work together.
Often, public school educators are forced into a one-sided relationship with students who do not always conform to school rules and structures and with families not always willing to participate in the educational process. This makes the job of measuring a teacher’s impact on student learning a challenging one.
Conversely there are many situations where students and families are forced to attend schools that they have not selected and do not want to be in since, on the elementary and middle school level, school placement is still largely a function of geography, i.e. the school district you live in.
The second challenge is that teachers receive students with a wide variety of skill levels and social-emotional backgrounds. Will teachers who have to deal with more challenging students be measured by the same metrics as those teachers in more affluent school districts?
If the ultimate measure is how well students perform on standardized tests, then teachers who work in low performing schools and districts (who may work three times as hard and see fewer results) may never be measured the equal of their colleagues in more affluent or selective schools where students arrive performing at or above grade level.
But even this is just the tip of the iceberg. The point is, complex thinking needs to go into developing a fair system of deciding what constitutes the “best” teachers.
And, unfortunately, until a more holistic and fair results-based paradigm of measuring teacher effectiveness is fully developed – one that does not leave it solely up to the subjective whim of an administrator and one that accounts for large and complex socio-economic variances – we're stuck with this linear measure of our current last-hired/first-fired tenure system.