Tom Moran’s Terrible Take on Tenure

The Star-Ledger’s Tom Moran apparently follows one rule when writing about education:

If the teachers union is for it, it must be bad.

I guess following this rule is easier than using research and logic and facts to form an opinion. Witness today’s latest attack on the NJEA: an op-ed decrying tenure that deperately tries to transforms Perth Amboy Superintendent Janine Caffrey into a folk hero.

It’s worth noting that Moran saw fit to give Caffrey a big patch of the op-ed section last week to whine about how hard tenure makes her job. I tried to set her and Tom straight, but it looks like it didn’t take. So let’s go again:

Caffrey says tenure keeps her from dismissing teachers who are undeniably awful. But even Moran has to acknowledge that she herself is a huge part of the problem:

To be fair, districts share some of the blame as well. Tenure rules might be crazy, but it is possible to get rid of the worst teachers if the district builds a solid case with a paper trail. In the case of the refusenik teacher, Perth Amboy failed to do that. The teacher had won satisfactory evaluations in the past, as nearly all teachers do.

Let me get this straight: Caffrey couldn’t get her administrators to do their jobs and document how bad this teacher was. And it may well be that this teacher was being defiant because he or she is incompetent, it is also possible the teacher is standing up to Caffrey, her principal, and even her colleagues on a matter of principle.

But because Caffrey is – according to Moran – unable to work with her administrators to build what should be an obvious case, we’ll never know. So this “bad” teacher stays.

Let me ask those of you who are managers at large companies: would your bosses let you get away with this? Would your HR departments let you fire long-term employees whenever you wanted without documentation?

I’m going to be harsh here: what Caffrey is proposing is a solution to her own incompetence. As Diane Ravitch told Jon Stewart, a good administrator is able to hire good teachers, weed out the bad ones, and fire those who don’t do the job (embedded below, go to 7:30) – even with tenure rights in place.

As to the rest of Moran’s piece; once again, Tom, click on the little yellow notebook to the right for piles of research to help you understand this issue. I’ll summarize:

50% of teachers leave within 5 years. 40% of New Jersey teachers never gain tenure. This number will almost certainly increase if the time to gain tenure is extended to four years, as NJEA proposes. Without question, many bad candidates for tenure are removed during the probationary period.

– There are already disturbing amounts of corruption and cronyism in school districts; your own paper, Tom, has led the way on exposing this. Removing tenure will undoubtedly turn many districts into Tammany Halls, ripe for patronage and graft. This is why any appeal on a tenure case MUST be made to an authority outside the school district.

Standardized tests are unreliable; secretive; error-prone; graded by low-paid, low skilled workers; and completely inappropriate measures of teaching effectiveness. Even if they make up only part of the evaluation, their very nature makes them the most important part; in other words, they are part of the evaluation but all of the decision.

– There is no evidence that teacher evaluations (particularly using standardized test data) are good at accurately measuring fine differences between teachers. While seniority-based decisions may have their flaws, at least they are objective, which makes them much more fair. In any case, why are we still talking about laying off teachers as if it should be inevitable?

Capping the time of a tenure hearing will cap the cost; the alternative will be clogging up the courts, because you simply can’t deny people due process. That’s why private companies spend so much time and money documenting the poor performance of their employees before the fire them.

Tom, as you know, I’ve followed your writing on reform carefully; as far as I know, you have never given a substantive reply to all of the evidence-based concerns above. Why?

As to Caffrey:

Even her administrators and secretaries are protected by tenure. Caffrey can’t fire them, or even demote them, without jumping into the hated tenure vortex.

“This is the single greatest impediment to education improvement in New Jersey, without a doubt,” she says.

First: we’ve really defined worker protections down when we bemoan the fact that a secretary can’t be fired on a whim. Instead of asking why educators get special workplace protections, it seems to me we ought to be asking why more of those protections aren’t extended to all workers. That doesn’t mean we should allow incompetence; it does mean that perhaps our middle class deserves not to live in constant economic fear.

Second: as everyone who studies this stuff knows – and as Caffrey should know – school-based effects account for about 20% of student learning. Student and family characteristics – including poverty – account for around 60% of learning (the rest is error, and yet we think we can accurately judge teacher quality enough to make layoff decisions; oy…).

Given this truth, it is very disturbing that a school superintendent would then make the blanket statement Caffrey makes here. She should know better; so should Moran.

Here’s Ravitch with Stewart:

Comment (1)

  1. William Weber (WjcW)

    You have to imagine you are a manager at a large company and have an empolyee who is not performing properly and who does not respond to your attempts to correct their behavior.

    Then, you have to imagine that this employee is the son in law of the owner, that there is only a 17 in 100,000 chance they will be removed at the end of the day and only if management has the $200,000 to pursue the removal. Then futher realize that once started down that path, you will still be responsible for this persons work/non-work for the next two years while the removal process works itself out.

    Now, you ask yourself the question, it is easier to just give them an acceptable evaluation and work around them, or try to write them up as deficient, knowing they can make your job harder for a couple years and there’s very little you can do about it, short of writing them up again.

    Then realize whatever you decide, your job isn’t in jeopardy, because you are the owner’s brother in law.


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