Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Trouble with Frank Bruni

Frank Bruni is capable of writing insightful critiques of New York’s great restaurants. When he writes about education he can only offer us fast food.

Former New York Times food writer and current columnist, Frank Bruni had an op-ed piece in the New York Times entitled The Trouble with Tenure. In the article, Bruni quotes extensively from Mike Johnston, the former Teach for America temp teacher and public school principal, who is currently a Colorado State Senator from Denver and the author of Colorado’s 2010 law abolishing tenure. Bruni also quotes noted educational authority Whoopi Goldberg in the piece.

The gist of the Johnston/Bruni argument is that principals need the flexibility to “hire for talent and release for talent” so that they can form a team with the “same vision.” And that tenure provides no incentive to improve practice and provides no accountability for student outcomes. Johnston/Bruni continues, “We want a tenure system that actually means something, that’s a badge of honor you wear as one of the best practitioners in the field and not just because you’re breathing.”

I would call Johnston’s take on tenure the typical viewpoint of a bad principal. For you see it is the principal who issues and denies a teacher tenure. It is silly to blame teachers or teacher unions for tenure abuse, when the granting of tenure is fully in the hands of the administration. Johnston’s viewpoints on teacher unions and “bad teachers” were no doubt formed during his Teach for America indoctrination. He wants the principals to have the power to fire at will. He has now taken his bias into the schools he managed and into the Colorado Legislature. But, as Linda Darling-Hammond has famously said, “You can’t fire your way to excellence.”

Doing away with tenure will not improve student learning. Good principals know how to achieve results for children within the constraints of tenure.

How do good principals work to achieve a strong team with a shared vision under a tenure system? Let’s start with an understanding that teaching is a complex process that requires complex metrics to judge its effectiveness. A system of weighing merit through student progress on standardized tests is fraught with error and will be recognized by a good principal as a very limited way to judge success. The good principal communicates to teachers a deep understanding of the complexity of the job and issues fair assessments based on that understanding and based on intimate knowledge of the teacher, the students and the learning environment created by that teacher.

Secondly, a good principal builds a strong team by hiring the very best candidates s/he can find and providing them with the support they need to succeed in the form of professional development and adequate resources. After 2,3 or 4 years of providing the needed support, if the principal, using a variety of inputs, determines the teacher is not being successful with children, then tenure is not granted. So one way a good principal builds a strong team is to hire well, train well and cut the cord when things do not go well.

But what of those so-called “bad teachers”? What of those teachers the principal has inherited from former “bad principals” who were simply granting tenure for those who had been there for three years? A good principal doesn’t whine about not being able to get rid of the teacher, a good principal works to help the struggling teacher improve, through a corrective action plan, through professional development and through an intensive supervisory model. By investing this time, the good principal often finds that the teacher improves and a new loyal member of the instructional team has been added to the ranks. Sometimes the struggling teacher is unwilling or unable to improve and as long as the principal has documented the efforts at improvement and the failures to demonstrate improvement, that teacher can be removed under any tenure law.

Is it a long and tedious process? Yes, it can be. Could it be streamlined? Probably. But the streamlining of tenure process must be weighed against the possible mistakes that can lead to a competent teacher being dismissed after shoddy work by an administrator.

Tenure does not prevent a talented principal from forming a strong team with a united vision. A principal creates a strong team through the communication of a clear vision that is supported by research on how children learn, by understanding the complexities of the teaching/learning process and through hiring, staff development and staff improvement processes that move the institution forward. I have seen this happen in four schools I worked in as a teacher and administrator. There are no shortcuts and tenure is not the roadblock that Bruni, Goldberg and Johnston would have us believe.

In previous posts here and here, I have discussed the need for tenure. The need can be boiled down to the necessity for teacher autonomy, teacher advocacy for children and reasonable protections from politically motivated hiring and firing.

Frank Bruni is capable of writing insightful critiques of New York’s great restaurants. When he writes about education he can only offer us fast food.