Teacher pay and tenure: creating a free agent market?

I have been known to describe the current situation of public education as not sustainable. The pay and benefits, and job protections, are very generous. Most working schlubs would really like to have that set up. I also freely admit that I would not be a good teacher in the sense of an objective assessment of cost-in versus product-out by which most of us are measured. Perhaps, however, changes will take hold that can save public education from itself. 

In Washington, D.C., the School Chancellor and the teachers’ union look set to make some real reform. According to The Economist,  in exchange for much higher merit-based pay, teachers would give up tenure protections. Teachers who excel get justified rewards while those who do not could be let go with ease. Backers believe not only will school and student performance improve by weeding out ineffective teachers, financial savings will come through greater system flexibility. Jonathan Alter, writing in Newsweek, also addresses the issue, albeit under a political guise. At least this time, I am not a lone voice on “educational sustainability.”

I deal frequently with the disappointment of under-performing students. Special education teachers are already held to a degree of partial accountability. They are required to develop individualized measurable goals for students; to chart progress toward the goals using objective and individual data, not just say-so; and are scrutinized annually by administrators, parents, and sometimes lawyers about the outcome. Ultimately, student progress in relation to student potential is subject to independent review and litigation. Some teachers do all this very well while others not so well. But each teacher ultimately is treated alike. None are easily held to account for unacceptable performance, neither obtaining reward nor earning punishment (punishment is borne by the school district, and there is no reward other than intangible satisfaction).

I am certainly not advocating that every student should have an individual plan and a right to sue. But we can see in special education that assessment of teacher performance is possible and does not need to be based just on questionable No Child Left Behind testing. In the special education example, one component of teacher performance is student performance. But another component is a measure of teacher effort – are the goals properly stated, objective, and measureable; is the data collected, let alone what it shows; and has the teacher responded appropriately to what the data shows about student performance. Looking at it this way takes away that uncertain but definite measure of inequity inherent in assessing one person based just on another’s performance. 

Teacher pay and tenure is not the only area of public education inviting reform. But creating a “free agent” market in which the best teachers, by objective measures of actual instructional performance, can offer services to the highest bidder is one step in the right direction for the ultimate goal of improving opportunity for students.