Replacing teacher tenure with incentives for achievement

Published June 25, 2014

Could one ruling by one Los Angeles Superior Court judge free public education from the stultifying grip of the teacher tenure system and lead to widespread use of incentives to reward excellent work by teachers and students alike?

Not by itself, of course. Desperate to preserve employment guarantees for the good, the mediocre, and the horrible alike, the teachers unions vow to appeal Judge Rolf Treu’s June 10 decision. However, so compelling was the evidence of education malpractice presented in the case, there is every likelihood other lawsuits will follow around the nation where other victims are willing to come forward.

As Pacific Research Institute senior fellow Lance Izumi observed in a June 11 Fox & Hounds blog post, what made the evidence in Vergara v. California so compelling – “shocking the conscience,” as the judge put it – was the testimony of the minors who were the plaintiffs.

The students told of uncaring teachers belittling them and asserting that as Latinos they would never do more than clean houses for a living. One 16-year-old told of her best-ever teacher being laid off because of the “last in, first out” dismissal policy that goes hand-in-glove with union seniority requirements.

The point is not that all teachers are so callous – far from it. The point is the absurdity of a system that enables teachers with less than two years logged on the job to become eligible for lifetime tenure. The reality remains that tenured status makes it complicated and expensive to dismiss a teacher who later fails to live up to his or her classroom responsibilities or even becomes abusive. And then seniority ensures they stay while younger, brighter teachers are laid off.

Economist Eric Hanushek, an education analyst at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, has said on many occasions that even though a small percentage of tenured, grossly incompetent teachers inflict the damage, the impact is devastating for the children affected, given that the loss of serious study time reduces their future earning power by thousands of dollars apiece.

Hanushek has calculated that replacing the lowest-performing 5 to 8 percent of teachers with even just average teachers would yield productivity gains for the nation in the trillions of dollars.

So how might school policymakers begin replacing the ossified system that shields tenured teachers from reasonable evaluations and personnel decisions to which employees in other lines of work are subject? A good start could be to offer teachers (as well as students) incentives – tangible rewards – for demonstrated achievement.

As Herbert Walberg and Joseph Bast point out in their forthcoming book, “Rewards: How to Use Rewards to Help Children Learn – and Why Teachers Don’t Use Them Well,” the incentives built into the current system are not conducive to high morale or academic quality:

“Many teachers are under-performing because the current system of hiring, paying, and managing teachers creates perverse incentives,” they write. “Good teachers are not rewarded for their successes or additional efforts and ineffective teachers are rewarded with pay increases and pension benefits based solely on tenure, encouraging them to stay long after they have ‘burned out.'”

If tenure crumbles under judicial scrutiny and legislative action, the door could be opened for greater use of the value-added model for rewarding productive teaching in various ways. Through careful analysis of student test results over time, it is possible to determine how much an individual teacher’s efforts have contributed to the academic progress of her or his students. Additional evidence of teacher effectiveness can be used to ensure a balanced evaluation.

For instance, Pittsburgh Public Schools this spring reported success in having teachers work with the same groups of students for two years and tracking value-added gains in student learning. According to an April 13 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette report, “The teams were judged on student growth over two years based on four measures: attendance, core course pass rate, the district’s own curriculum-based assessments, and the PSAT, a preliminary college entrance exam.” Some teachers earned bonuses of as much as $11,000.

As Walberg and Bast make clear in their book, there are many kinds of rewards, ranging from cash to trophies, that also can motivate students to work hard at their studies. But having teachers who are enthusiastic about helping kids make real gains – as opposed to just putting in time to move themselves up a step on a uniform pay scale – can surely be a rewarding experience in itself.


[Originally published at Orange County Register]