Home > education, math education, news > Getting rid of teacher tenure does not solve the problem

Getting rid of teacher tenure does not solve the problem

June 13, 2014

There’s been a movement to make primary and secondary education run more like a business. Just this week in California, a lawsuit funded by Silicon Valley entrepreneur David Welch led to a judge finding that student’s constitutional rights were being compromised by the tenure system for teachers in California.

The thinking is that tenure removes the possibility of getting rid of bad teachers, and that bad teachers are what is causing the achievement gap between poor kids and well-off kids. So if we get rid of bad teachers, which is easier after removing tenure, then no child will be “left behind.”

The problem is, there’s little evidence for this very real achievement gap problem as being caused by tenure, or even by teachers. So this is a huge waste of time.

As a thought experiment, let’s say we did away with tenure. This basically means that teachers could be fired at will, say through a bad teacher evaluation score.

An immediate consequence of this would be that many of the best teachers would get other jobs. You see, one of the appeals of teaching is getting a comfortable pension at retirement, but if you have no idea when you’re being dismissed, then it makes no sense to put in the 25 or 30 years to get that pension. Plus, what with all the crazy and random value-added teacher models out there, there’s no telling when your score will look accidentally bad one year and you’ll be summarily dismissed.

People with options and skills will seek other opportunities. After all, we wanted to make it more like a business, and that’s what happens when you remove incentives in business!

The problem is you’d still need teachers. So one possibility is to have teachers with middling salaries and no job security. That means lots of turnover among the better teachers as they get better offers. Another option is to pay teachers way more to offset the lack of security. Remember, the only reason teacher salaries have been low historically is that uber competent women like Laura Ingalls Wilder had no other options than being a teacher. I’m pretty sure I’d have been a teacher if I’d been born 150 years ago.

So we either have worse teachers or education doubles in price, both bad options. And, sadly, either way we aren’t actually addressing the underlying issue, which is that pesky achievement gap.

People who want to make schools more like businesses also enjoy measuring things, and one way they like measuring things is through standardized tests like achievement scores. They blame teachers for bad scores and they claim they’re being data-driven.

Here’s the thing though, if we want to be data-driven, let’s start to maybe blame poverty for bad scores instead:



I’m tempted to conclude that we should just go ahead and get rid of teacher tenure so we can wait a few years and still see no movement in the achievement gap. The problem with that approach is that we’ll see great teachers leave the profession and no progress on the actual root cause, which is very likely to be poverty and inequality, hopelessness and despair. Not sure we want to sacrifice a generation of students just to prove a point about causation.

On the other hand, given that David Welch has a lot of money and seems to be really excited by this fight, it looks like we might have no choice but to blame the teachers, get rid of their tenure, see a bunch of them leave, have a surprise teacher shortage, respond either by paying way more or reinstating tenure, and then only then finally gather the data that none of this has helped and very possibly made things worse.

Categories: education, math education, news
  1. June 13, 2014 at 8:31 am

    That graph has an interesting feature other than the helpfully supplied red regression line: Namely, the enormous vertical spread at the far right, in the above 80% poverty group. It might be interesting to know what explains that spread.


    • Min
      June 13, 2014 at 12:13 pm

      One thing that I find interesting is the **lack** of spread on the left side of the chart. 🙂


      • TRN
        June 13, 2014 at 3:53 pm

        Much of the spread is often explained by where the passing cut score lies in relation to the distribution of the school’s scores. If the passing score is close to a school’s mean, small variations in that mean can large changes in % passing.

        Suppose there are two schools serving populations with nigh poverty rates; school A has a mean scaled score of 525 with a std dev. of 25. If the passing score is 520 this school would show 55-60% passing depending on how skewed its distribution is. Similar School B with a mean of 505 and s d, 25 would have 25-30% passing. A spread of about 30 percentage points

        Two schools in affluent areas, C mean 550 S.D. 25, 85-90% passing, D mean 530 S.D. 25, 70-75% passing. A spread of about 15 percentage points.

        I played around with my numbers so my examples would match the graph, I have no knowledge of how these passing rates were computed. The numbers were typical of the data my school would have received from our state back in the 90’s.

        In my examples a 5% gain in mean scale score could mean a doubling of the passing rate for a high poverty school, the same gain in mean would mean only a 20% improvement in the rich kids school. A larger spread on the right than on the left


  2. ScentOfViolets
    June 13, 2014 at 8:44 am

    it looks like we might have no choice but to blame the teachers, get rid of their tenure, see a bunch of them leave, have a surprise teacher shortage, respond either by paying way more or reinstating tenure, and then only then finally gather the data that none of this has helped and very possibly made things worse.

    IOW, run the experiment. There’s a reason why progress in the social sciences is so much slower than is the case with the harder kind.


  3. Cauchy
    June 13, 2014 at 8:52 am

    Teachers aren’t the only ones with middling salaries. All the days off must mean something also.


    • June 13, 2014 at 9:49 am

      Maybe I misunderstand your comment, but most teachers I know work 10-12 hour days during the school year, and some of their summers are taken with lesson prep, etc. So if your comment is meant to imply that teachers get more time off than others with comparable (middling) wages, you have to factor in the long workdays. If you were to look at average hours worked per week over a year, the weekly hours for teachers is probably comparable to what someone else in a 40-hour salaried job works.


  4. Bill
    June 13, 2014 at 8:58 am

    If this is the Washington, DC schools this is about the time when there was thought that fraud was taking place. A way higher then normal number of students were erasing and correcting their answers in some schools. The theory was that school administrators were wholesale correcting students tests before sending them in. I haven’t found anything definitive with Google yet, but it does make any conclusion drawn from DC schools’ test results suspect.


  5. June 13, 2014 at 9:08 am

    Agree with you on tenure. However is poverty the CAUSE of bad scores, or does lack of education CAUSE poverty? Poor Chinese immigrants in NYC do quite well at Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, etc.Culture?


    • Min
      June 13, 2014 at 11:33 am

      There is a feedback cycle, not an either/or. That is one reason that poverty is so difficult to break out of.

      One interesting finding is that differences between richer and poorer kids seem to increase during the summer, when they are out of school. I was also reading the other day that longer school days, equivalent to 2 or more months of schooling per year, may be effective. That is tentative at this point, however.


  6. DJ
    June 13, 2014 at 9:37 am

    Let’s get real. They’re going to get rid of teacher tenure all right, and see a bunch of them leave. But they’re not going to respond to the shortage by paying way more or reinstating tenure. There may not even be a teacher shortage — plenty of desperate people will take the job even at low wages. At worst they may have to lower certification standards. Or they might simply allow class sizes to rise.

    Don’t be fooled. David Welch and his friends have never been particularly concerned with student outcomes. That’s all just political cover. If they really wanted good student outcomes, they could go after the real root causes of school defunding, such as Prop. 13. Their primary goal is to destroy unions, not to educate students.

    I don’t even agree that student outcomes should be the right goal. In the long term, certainly, that’s the whole purpose of the school system, but if we set up an incentive system that rewards short-term gains at the expense of long-term results, then the students won’t win. That could very well happen under the no-tenure regime.


    • Min
      June 13, 2014 at 11:34 am

      “Their primary goal is to destroy unions, not to educate students.”

      Right on!


  7. mathematrucker
    June 13, 2014 at 9:39 am

    The suit is probably aimed more at breaking the back of the union than anything else.


    • mathematrucker
      June 13, 2014 at 9:40 am

      (I wrote this before seeing DJ’s comment, which I agree with.)


  8. June 13, 2014 at 9:57 am

    I really this will cause that many good teachers to leave the profession. People (especially teachers) don’t just work for money. What fraction of good teachers do you believe this will cause to leave the profession?


    • June 13, 2014 at 10:21 am

      While most teachers don’t enter the profession for money, many leave or transfer to suburban schools with money being one factor. In NYC in 2004, the 1st year attrition rate was 18%, after 2 years 25%, after 3 years 40%, and it has not gotten better.


      • June 13, 2014 at 10:22 am

        That’s not just money, it’s also this very problem of vilifying the teaching profession, not to mention extremely hard working conditions. Hard to tease out the different factors.

        On Fri, Jun 13, 2014 at 10:21 AM, mathbabe wrote:



  9. Brad Davis
    June 13, 2014 at 10:29 am

    I agree with Harald, I think that spread is extremely interesting. Looking at the locations of the samples along the x-axis suggests that the distribution is somewhat bimodal. There seems to be a focus around the 0-30% poverty mark, and then another one between the 80 and 100% poverty mark. Why is there a strong absence of data points between 42 and 61%? Is that because of biased sampling somehow, or is that really what our neighbourhoods look like? At some level, that makes sense to me. Poverty seems like it might have a rather strong basin of attraction (in other words, affluence is very difficult to achieve), so neighbourhoods that fall to the right of the 30% mark end up being sucked into the poverty vortex, never to escape again.

    My ‘guess’ (if its fair to call something this ill informed a guess, but whatever) is that if there was more data in the figure, we’d be able to see a slow initial decline in the % students passing that test with an increase in the fraction of % of students in poverty until we reach some critical threshold, after which the variation explodes. In a hypothetical classroom of 25 students, if 1 student lives in poverty, but the rest of the students live in relative affluence (i.e. outside of poverty), then a larger fraction of that teacher’s time can be spent working with that one student who lives in poverty if they need it. But if 5 of the students in the classroom lived in poverty then the teacher’s teaching resources would be far more strained. And at some point, adding just one more poverty-stricken student to the mix would mean that the classroom becomes effectively impossible to manage. At which point everyone’s test scores collapse. Teacher quality obviously would play some role in the point at which they become overwhelmed, but all teachers will become overwhelmed eventually.

    It also seems to me that teachers aren’t engineers. If you have a truly excellent engineer, you can pay them more to work harder, promote them, train them to manage and train other engineers, and conversely if they aren’t very good at their job you can fire them. But I don’t think that model works with teachers. I just don’t think that the numbers work.

    We need approximately 1 teacher for every 25-30 students at a minimum, and actually we probably need 1.1 to 1.2 students for every 25-30 students at a minimum to account for teacher illnesses, etc. Approximately 25% of American’s are under the age of 18 and 6% are under the age of 5. That means that there is approximately 19%*317m = 60 million students in the United States. That means that the US needs at least 2 million teachers, and closer to 3 million to be able to account for illness. If you simply fire all the teachers that are slightly less able to manage a classroom filled with impoverished children then you’re going to make the problem of finding more teachers even more difficult. As Cathy points out, it’ll dissuade a lot of people from becoming teachers. Furthermore, since teacher performance is strongly tied to classroom composition, the best teachers, those who have the most marketable skills, will end up going into the school districts where those skills are needed the least. Teachers are not engineers, and we can’t manage them like their engineers. It won’t work- the demographics won’t let it. And saying that ‘teachers are overpaid’ or ‘too expensive because of cumulative weights of their salaries is missing the point entirely. The appropriate term to judge the ROI for a teacher and investment in a teaching system is at least 12-16 years assuming that kids start school at 5 and graduate high school and college. We need to elevate teachers, not complain about them constantly.

    The education system is quite a bit better in Canada, thankfully. In fact, that’s one of the reasons we decided to move back to Canada from the United States, despite the fact that I had a job offer for a better paying job in a much less expensive city in the US.


    • June 13, 2014 at 10:32 am

      If you look at the page I got the plot from, the author makes the point that middle-class kids are being pulled out of the system by charter schools.

      Also, Canada has less of an unequal society. According to the poverty/ achievement theory, that explains a lot.


  10. cat
    June 13, 2014 at 10:30 am

    “On the other hand, given that David Welch has a lot of money and seems to be really excited by this fight, it looks like we might have no choice but to blame the teachers, get rid of their tenure, see a bunch of them leave, have a surprise teacher shortage, respond either by paying way more or reinstating tenure, and then only then finally gather the data that none of this has helped and very possibly made things worse.”

    Sorry, This is not what is going to happen. Whats going to happen is we’ll traffic teachers from poor countries or create a specific Visa to allow them to come to work in the US but structure it in such a way it keeps wages depressed.

    The Teacher trafficking story was big news recently I’m surprised you missed it. http://www.bostonglobe.com/editorials/2013/06/11/your-child-teacher-victim-human-trafficking/dQz2fYPwg6Xkgt1aV6HaiL/story.html

    And see H1-B visa program abuses.

    After this ‘free market’ experiment plays out with the poor districts doing worse these same groups will circle back to their biases and it will be “the students and the parents fault for not trying hard enough” or the “poors are not like us, they are the failures and deserve their lot in life” . The people living in the poor school districts will have the message society has been telling them for centuries drilled home yet again, “You are not like us, we don’t want you here, you have no value to us”


  11. June 13, 2014 at 2:39 pm

    Come on! Who wants to be ‘reality based’ or ‘data driven’? That simply gets in the way of one’s ideological animus toward public institutions (school), workers (teachers) and unions! That, after all, is what is driving all this neo-liberal education reform.


  12. June 14, 2014 at 1:52 pm

    You are wonderful; and you’re oh,so right.


  13. June 14, 2014 at 1:57 pm

    You’re wonderful: and oh,so right.


  14. lew
    June 15, 2014 at 3:44 pm

    You all buy into the idea that our public educational establishment is a good thing.

    There are good studies showing that standard public school pedagogy is responsible for many of our social pathologies. There are many studies showing that ignoring formal, academic education until age 16 is good for children, and does not affect going to college and further academic achievement.

    My kid has not been in school, except for language tutoring, since 6th grade. He is much better educated than his compatriots who went to school because he spends so much time watching Youtube channels : there are a ton of channels on all kinds of topics. He watches those to prevent boredom. Adults like talking to him, he knows a lot.

    He just started a FT job which is effectively an apprenticeship in EE, which he got because his background was interesting to the owners of that company, and because he could explain adder circuits that he learned in Minecraft electronics.

    My kid has a big headstart over your kid because I didn’t force him through school. Wish I had understood a lot earlier how bad schools are for kids.

    My reading and my experience says we should abolish the public education system as part of rejuvenating this awful status quo.


    • mathematrucker
      June 15, 2014 at 5:05 pm

      Marriage should be abolished too.


      • June 15, 2014 at 5:15 pm

        Who among us who have been married for a while has not at least once contemplated that thought? 😉


  15. Brandon
    June 16, 2014 at 4:29 am

    Click to access w15715.pdf

    “I find evidence that principals do consider teacher productivity in determining which teachers to dismiss. Principals are significantly more likely to dismiss teachers who are frequently absent and who have received worse evaluations in the past. Elementary teachers who were dismissed had significantly lower value-added with regard to student achievement in prior years compared with their peers who were not dismissed. In addition, principals were significantly less likely to dismiss teachers with stronger educational qualifications as measured by things such as the competitiveness of their undergraduate college, whether they ever failed the teacher certification exam and whether
    they had a Masters degree. Finally, dismissed teachers who were subsequently re-hired by a different school are substantially more likely to be dismissed again relative to first-year teachers in the school.”

    Apparently value-added isn’t the only characteristic they take into consideration, and it isn’t over one singular bad year. Furthermore, value-added may not be as random as you claim:

    The analysis incorporates three proxies for teacher quality. First, I use teacher absences
    because they are measured extremely well, they are easily interpretable, and they impose
    substantial financial and non-financials costs on the school, which has to arrange for and pay substitutes. Moreover, several recent studies have documented that teacher absences have a strong, negative association with student achievement, providing evidence that this association is causal (Clotfelter et al. 2007, Miller et al. forthcoming). Indeed, in other work using Chicago data from a similar time period, I show that a teacher’s absences are negatively associated with principal evaluations of the teacher and with a teacher’s value-added contribution to student achievement (Jacob and Walsh 2009).”

    Of course, this doesn’t say anything about overall performance, or your speculation on where good teachers would go if they can’t get tenure. However, there is this:

    Click to access Hoxby1996.pdf

    “This study helps to explain why measured school inputs appear to have little effect on student outcomes, particularly for cohorts educated since 1960. Teachers’ unionization can explain how public schools simultaneously can have more generous inputs and worse student performance. Using panel data on United States school districts, I identify the effect of teachers’ unionization through differences in the timing of collective bargaining, especially timing determined by the passage of state laws that facilitate teachers’ unionization. I find that teachers’ unions increase school inputs but reduce productivity sufficiently to have a negative overall effect on student performance. Union effects are magnified where schools have market power.”

    Of course, this is unionization and collective bargaining in general, which implies a lot, although one of them being tenure.


    • Brandon
      June 16, 2014 at 4:38 am

      In hindsight, I could have just gone back and posted this:


      “Are teachers’ impacts on students’ test scores (“value-added”) a good measure of their quality? This question has sparked debate partly because of a lack of evidence on whether high value-added (VA) teachers who raise students’ test scores improve students’ long-term outcomes. Using school district and tax records for more than one million children, we find that students assigned to high-VA teachers in primary school are more likely to attend college, earn higher salaries, and are less likely to have children as teenagers. Replacing a teacher whose VA is in the bottom 5% with an average teacher would increase the present value of students’ lifetime income by approximately $250,000 per classroom.”


      • June 16, 2014 at 6:57 am

        There’s a deep problem with the Chetty studies. Namely, they use testing data from before the testing climate began, so before teachers began to “teach to the test.” So the signal that was there was less noisy.

        Anyway, I’m not saying there’s no signal at all, just not enough to fire someone by. There’s a 24% correlation between scores from one year to the next – that’s not 0%, but it isn’t a place I’d stay working at if I could get fired for two bad numbers.


  16. Aaron Lercher
    June 28, 2014 at 4:57 pm

    If Chetty’s linear model shows that a single bad teacher throws off the average student’s achievement, then the same model must also show that a single good teacher will greatly boost the average student.
    But educational policy is made only the basis of the first of these two symmetrical observations.
    Hmmmm… Why is that?


  1. June 18, 2014 at 9:33 am
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