Among the favorite attacks on teachers lately is the claim that union protections such as tenure and seniority protect bad teachers. As with most occupations, we want the best quality possible. Seniority-based layoffs seem to undermine this goal. However, performance is in fact the primary criterion used for determining who gets tenure AND who gets hired in the first place. Student test scores can only tell us what students know and possibly how much they have improved. Contrary to common belief, they cannot tell us why the students improved, although we do know there is a much stronger correlation between test scores and students’ socioeconomic background than to the quality of their teachers and schools. Therefore, using test scores to evaluate teachers is unlikely to lead to any significant improvements in educational outcomes, while it is very likely to cause the demotion or firing of many excellent teachers.
In contrast to student test scores, which are objective, but only a proxy, and therefore an unreliable measure of teacher performance, evaluations by administrators are entirely subjective, even when informed by state standards and rubrics, and are therefore subject to bias and manipulation. The Shanker Blog had an interesting post on this topic on Friday: In Performance Evaluations, Subjectivity Is Not Random.
They argue that employment protections like tenure are still necessary since discrimination is still a problem at work, despite federal laws, and because “performance-based” evaluations often assess things that have little or nothing to do with performance. They point out that biases are not simply the product of individual idiosyncrasies. Rather, systemic stereotypes and biases become internalized by entire social groups. For example, teachers are often stereotyped as being whiners and complainers, a generalization that allows administrators and policy makers to discount their concerns and criticisms as being unfounded or trivial when in fact they are in the best position, both through their professional training and their day to day interactions with students, to understand if a particular reform is likely to work. Such a stereotype could have profound implications during a standards-based evaluation by an administrator. For example, a teacher who is seen as a complainer for questioning the efficacy of a particular reform during a faculty meeting could be given a poor evaluation and be accused of being a bad collaborator, when in reality they were simply advocating for their students’ best interests. Likewise, internalized racial and gender biases are quite common and can influence subjective evaluations.
The Shanker blog also correctly points out that tenure and seniority systems have been very effective at minimizing differences in pay and benefits based on gender, race, and sexual orientation. Contrary to the common misperception that seniority and tenure place teachers’ interests above the needs of children, they argue that minimizing discrimination in the workplace actually helps students by creating an environment in which teachers can perform at their best, without the uncertainty and distraction created under prejudicial working conditions.
Many administrators support performance reviews because they provide a framework for professional development. However, according to Samuel Culbert (see Why Your Boss Is Wrong About You, NY Times), evaluations are an intimidating process in which the employee’s future is at stake. Consequently, many employees are afraid to speak openly and honestly, thus reducing the chances for any meaningful feedback or professional development. Culbert argues that performance reviews corrupt the system by encouraging employees to focus on pleasing the boss instead of personal growth. “Under such a system, in which one’s livelihood can be destroyed by a self-serving boss trying to meet a budget or please the higher-ups, what employee would ever speak his mind?”
Culbert has a solution he calls the Performance Preview in which both bosses and subordinates are held accountable for goals and results. Under this system, the boss supposedly learns how to manage by acknowledging and listening to the employee’s concerns and by being responsible for ensuring that all employees earn A’s. Unfortunately, as long as bosses have the monopoly on hiring and firing, there is still an intimidating and adversarial relationship, and if employees cannot fire or discipline their bosses, where is the pressure for the boss to listen to them?
Culbert provides Wisconsin as an example, suggesting that its public sector unions’ willingness to impose pay and benefits cuts on their members in exchange for maintaining collective bargaining rights is somehow indicative of workers’ desire to collaborate with bosses on other things, too, like performance reviews. Culbert is wrong on several levels. The union bosses made these concessions without consulting their members and there is considerable evidence that their members are not willing to give up pay and benefits OR collective bargaining. More to the point, even if there was a consensus that this was a good trade off, it says nothing about the potential for effective performance review collaboration. Simply agreeing to or desiring such a setup does not protect workers or ensure that the collaboration will be mutually respectful and beneficial.