Last night, Superbowl Sunday, I went to my friends place to watch the game and hang out. I'm thinking we'll order pizza, have a few beers, place a few dollar bets here and there, and hopefully watch Ben Roethlisberger lose. Both of the guys I watched it with are teachers, and as I found out, Sunday nights are work nights. This is the third year my friends are teaching, they started out through the Teach for America program and both of them had family members who were teachers. As it turned out, in your third year of teaching in New York City, teachers have to go through an assessment process to determine if they should be granted tenure or not. So instead of being able to watch football, one of them spent virtually all day yesterday, the weekend, and about three quarters of the game, building a portfolio based on the last two and half years of his teaching.
In all honesty I don't think I've ever seen my friends work so hard. Both of them were the type of students who didn't have to work hard to get an A in class. Yes, I hate those people too, but obviously I've digressed. The portfolio he put together was huge. It had graphs of their student's performance, tests they administered, assessments by their principal, and their own take on the results. It was in a twelve inch three ring binder with barely any room left. What also took me by surprise was that out of the twelve teachers that were up for tenure at my friends school, only two of them were going to get it.
There has been a lot of pressure to change tenure systems in public schools. In New York City, a key administrator from the Department of Education warned that if the New York does not change how tenure is granted, it can be in serious jeopardy of not receiving money from the Race to the Top program, or the No Child Left Behind. States across the country are competing for these grants and any additional funds school districts can get would be a big help. While many states are considering to simply remove tenure for teachers, New York City has taken a different approach.
Before he left, School Chancellor Joel Klein wrote a open letter to the teachers and described the problem as "a loose tenure system isn't good for anyone—it hurts students, it disrespects successful teachers, and it leaves those who are not up to the difficult job to struggle." It makes sense. There is no possible way that all teachers will be as good as we would like for our students, and in most cases, some will be better at one aspect of it then the other. In 2010, New York rated teachers on their effectiveness, and only if they were deemed effective or highly effective would they even be considered for tenure.
I liked the assessment my friend put together for three reasons. First, it didn't just focus on standardized tests. Instead, it looked at the overall picture and took into consideration other important aspects of teaching that standardized tests don't. Those aspects include experience (the amount of years a teacher has been in the classroom), where the teacher was teaching (looked into demographics, what kind of school the teacher is in), and tests delivered in the class room.
Quick Tangent: Standardized tests and tests delivered by teachers are very different. Standardized state tests only gauge what students should know, and only tells us which classes/teachers did better than others. The tests administered by teachers tell us the same information, but also allows for something to be done about it. Standardized tests are given at the end of the year where by that time the students have either learned the information or not. But teachers who give their own tests can give them early on or in the middle of the year to determine which of their students needs help. The teacher tests are also created in conjunction with the principal to make sure they are acceptable.
Second, it keeps teachers on edge. My friend wants tenure, who wouldn't? You don't have to worry about losing your job (unless you do something really bad), in New York you get all the Jewish holidays off(which most school districts in the country don't), your salary usually increases as the years go by, and most importantly, you get out around 2:30pm leaving you the rest of the day to get errands done. Tenure is a great carrot to hold over teachers heads to make sure they don't lose focus and give them something to achieve. Critics always worry about the teachers who are slacking off, but if they know they can get canned when they don't have tenure and are forced to prove they are doing work (work that most teachers want to do), it makes everyone happy.
Third, and I think the most important one, it makes teachers evaluate themselves. Believe it or not, teachers work weekends. My friends get up at five in the morning to get to school on time, and trust me, as a twenty-four year old that's no easy task! They are usually exhausted and don't have the energy to think about the classroom (that is unless you go out to drinks with a bunch of teachers. You will, without question, hear some great stories.). As much as I hate to give my friends more work to do, they should be looking to see what their strengths and weaknesses are, and how they can improve.
Even if you have tenure, assessments are always a good thing. There's no reason why anyone shouldn't be looking to improve their work. In the classroom, assessments are the teacher's responsibility. They can't argue someone else is telling them how to do their job, or that the tests are bad. If their own assessments show they're not doing a good job, proper steps can be taken to help them, or it will show they are just not cut out to be a teacher.
These teacher assessments can be combined with programs that are already being designed to help teachers. There are plenty of growing websites and blogs that are working to devise ways that help teachers teach. Combining them with assessments will give all teachers a fair shot for them and their students to succeed.
The debate to determine how to hold teachers accountable won't stop, and it shouldn't. Teaching is one of the most important jobs in this country, and those who do it shouldn't be demeaned. But it is important to know which ones are doing well so we can acknowledge them for it. Standardized testing became popular because it's the easiest way to assess teachers, and the easiest way for states to qualify for federal grants. Students deserve better, and figuring out ways (like self assessments) to make schools better is the least we can do.