Students’ Rights AND Teachers’ Rights

In response to questions posted at the National Journal.com Education Insiders blog about the recent court decision on teacher tenure in California, I offered the following thoughts:

I disagree with posing student and teacher rights as binary opposites. Every student, in every public school in America, deserves a quality teacher. Every teacher deserves to be treated like a true professional—which includes having due process before losing one’s position or teaching credentials. Doing the latter actually helps ensure the former.

We are closer to both those goals than we may realize. The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, now 25 years old, has painstakingly developed psychometrically and legally sound standards for highly accomplished teaching. These are recognized by the profession and by every state. National Board also has developed (and is currently updating) an effective process for measuring those standards in the real work of classroom teachers.

I live in a state that has never had teacher tenure. I just finished serving for 10 years on our state licensure board, before which teachers must appear before having their teaching licenses suspended or revoked. In all that time, I never saw a school district/administration bring a teacher before us to be de-certified for incompetence in the classroom—even though that is a relatively simple thing to do in our state. Tenure has become a convenient excuse and political gimmick, but it has never been the real reason less qualified teachers remain in schools or systems—that’s an administrative failing.

On the other hand, schools with high teacher turnover are inherently unstable which is extremely damaging to students. Not surprisingly, the schools with the highest turnover are those with the worst working conditions for teachers (that means they also have the worst learning conditions for students). Consequently, the students with the greatest educational needs and challenges often end up with the newest and/or weakest teachers, and the classroom problems spiral downwards.

One way to guarantee both students’ right to a quality teacher and teacher’s right to professional dignity would be not to eliminate tenure, but to connect it as other professions do to the achievement of Board certification.  Becoming National Board Certified should be the goal of every novice teacher, a goal towards which they are aimed starting in their teacher preparation programs. Novice teachers should be teamed with Board Certified mentors until they are ready to earn Certification themselves and become teachers of record (fully responsible for a classroom). This would be the foundation of a system that makes sense for students and teachers.