Thursday, February 08, 2007

Elliot Spitzer Taking on Education

Spock: There is an old Vulcan proverb: “Only Nixon could go to China.”
-Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country

Last week New York’s new governor Elliot Spitzer made what I hope will be a groundbreaking speech on education. In it he proclaimed what he called a Contract for Excellence with the state’s public school system: more money in exchange for real accountability.

(And yes, I’m behind in my blogging, but this story is too important to let slide.)

He delineated the accountability piece of the plan three ways: financial accountability, which basically means adopting a foundation system so money follows students instead of politicians fighting over pieces of pie for their districts; programmatic accountability, where he will try to reduce class sizes, encourage innovative instruction methods, what have you; and performance accountability.

The first two are carrots. Performance accountability is the stick. Spitzer means to hold superintendents and principals accountable for results in their respective districts and buildings:

    Accountability should run through the system from top to bottom. We should make sure districts hold principals and other school leaders accountable for their actions with individual school leadership report cards. From now on, our children and schools should not be the only ones receiving report cards. We must insist on annual “School Leadership Report Cards” that track the performance of principals and superintendents. For the first time, we will be able to rigorously compare the performance of principals and superintendents across the state.
    And we should be ready to close more schools that fail – perhaps as many as five percent of all the schools in the state if we have to – through a tougher and more comprehensive program for schools under registration review.
More on the details of the plan in the Times.

Writing about the speech, Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter notes that the next step is holding teachers accountable. That means doing away with contract provisions that let senior teachers bump their way into schools where they can continue to slide by. It means letting principals pick their teams. And it means taking on the most sacred of liberal cows, teacher tenure.

If anyone can make a run at whittling down tenure protections for public school teachers, it’s Elliot Spitzer. Not only does he have the demonstrated toughness for the fight and an overwhelming mandate from the last election, he has the Democratic credibility to say something a Republican can’t. When Republicans go after tenure, they are accused of attacking teachers for their historic support of Democrats. Spitzer can say “I’m not doing this to hurt teachers, I’m doing it because it’s right for kids.”

So why do I, lefty Democrat that I am, get excited about this? I don’t believe in tenure for public school teachers. Teachers rightly pride themselves as being professionals, and professionals are held to a higher standard. It’s easier to fire a line worker in a union factory than a tenured school teacher. That just makes no sense. Here’s the Ohio Revised Code on terminating a teacher contract:

    The contract of any teacher employed by the board of education of any city, exempted village, local, county, or joint vocational school district may not be terminated except for gross inefficiency or immorality; for willful and persistent violations of reasonable regulations of the board of education; or for other good and just cause.
    (R.C. § 3319.16)

Whereupon the code begins to map out the tortuous layers of procedure required to fire a teacher who is guilty of “gross immorality.”

If their ever was a justification for public school tenure, it was protecting teachers from arbitrary decisions by principals or superintendents. By holding principals and supers are being held responsible for performance in their schools, Spitzer’s plan blunts this justification. Few school administrators will dismiss and effective teacher for no good reason, and fewer of those will stay in the job for long.

Spitzer did not specifically mention tenure reform as being part of the agenda, but as Alter notes, his agenda won’t go far without it. And Alter notes that Spitzer has already faced down the teachers union President over charter schools.

Let’s all wish the new Governor well as he girds for battle. Taking on Merrill Lynch will seem like child’s play by comparison. But if he is successful, he could strike a template for Democratic governors across the country.


redhorse said...

Saw this last week, but hadn't digested it yet. thanks for the jog.

As I've said in our conversations, I don't understand why a teacher in a local school that is miserable can continue being miserable simply because they've been miserable for years. Do you want this person teaching your future or your town's future?

Tenure makes greater sense at the university level, where lessons plans are much less driven by mandated metrics and the potential for instructor v. administrator conflict it higher.

loripho said...

As a tenured teacher, I agree that tenure causes a lot of problems.
I've seen some teachers who have gotten tenure and been surprised,
given their reputation in the school, to say the least. But getting rid of tenure causes some concerns, too. First off, I worry about coaching issues. I've seen bad decisions made to save coaches at the expense of good teaching. Of course, holding principals and
superintendents accountable for school performance should help to
alleviate these issues, but I work in a school with a solid "good old
boy network" full of coaches and jocks, so I'm a little sensitive to
these issues.

Another big concern I have is about teachers working with very low-level students. At my high school, our Algebra I classes are the lowest math class offered, and they have about a 40-50% failure rate, and many of the students are "repeaters" and even some
"three-peaters." The vast majority of students failing these courses
are struggling because of a lack of doing anything, not a lack of ability. I know the argument is that a good teacher would reach
these students and miraculously motivate them to success a la
Dangerous Minds, but until you've walked a mile in our shoes, don't
judge. I would hate to see a system put in place that penalizes
teachers by firing them for low performance of students without some sort of evaluation of what they are teaching and the clientele
involved. Of course, another problem is that the most inexperienced teachers get stuck teaching these classes and they are the least equipped to handle these issues. But it's not like I'm begging to teach low-level classes each year, either - I'll stick to my honors kids with no behavior problems, thank you.

I guess I'm not sure what the answer is, but I agree that getting rid of tenure is a good place to start. Of course, another great idea would be to pay teachers who do manage to motivate the lower-level kids a higher salary. There sure is a lot more work involved with teaching those kids to become successful, rather than teaching my highly-motivated honors kids to be successful. But hitting teachers with a restructuring of pay AND getting rid of tenure is an even harder sell to the unions.

Jill said...

Thanks for this post - I was not aware of the speech/plan.

What do you think about the money following the kid thing?