A lot of chattering/emails this morning about the Newsweek article on education politics. When Senator Biden said that a President Obama would be tested early in his term, was he referring to Michelle Rhee? Perhaps!
In any event, this set-up line seemed off-key to me (and I didn’t talk to the reporter so I’m not just re-litigating here):
The education community is badly split on the issue of how to hold teachers accountable. The establishment sees tenure as a shibboleth, teachers’ only guard against politics and arbitrary firings. The reformers regard it as the chief obstacle to change, since it is next to impossible to remove ineffective teachers in almost all public systems. Obama has given mixed signals on accountability, and in his way, he has convinced each side that he agrees with them.
The education community is badly split on whether to hold teachers accountable as well as split and confused about accountability more generally. It’s why we’ve had more accountability talk than real accountability over the past two decades. And, given what we know about the importance of teachers to student learning it is crazy to ignore that in public policy as we basically do today. That said, the question of how to hold teachers accountable in a rigorous and fair manner is a challenging one and every objection the teachers’ union raise is not just reflexive opposition or without merit.
So, while tenure may be a shibboleth I don’t see abolishing it as the primary goal of “reformers” or as a sufficient step toward dramatically improving our schools and don’t think a lot of serious reformers do either. It’s a problem, sure. But even if “tenure” were eliminated tomorrow we’d still have irrational school finance systems that are unfair to poor kids, huge human capital problems, lousy incentives for performance and innovation, and all the other problems that together create the problems we see today. And, directly related to tenure, we’d still have an HR culture at odds with performance (even in places without “tenure” you don’t see low-performers systematically dealt with). Like vouchers, tenure has become one of those fights that has taken on an emphasis disproportionate to its impact as a reform and become a touchstone for the media.
The other thing that caught my eye this morning was Terry Moe’s WSJ op-ed cum cri de coeur about President-Elect Obama and education reform. Moe notes that the promise of Obama as a leader is “why I’ve supported him since the beginning of his campaign.” But that raises the question of whether Rudy Giuliani knew this and when did he know it?