Attacking the pillars of mediocrity

Patrick Gibbons

Which industry in Nevada terminates less than one percent of its employees for poor performance, incompetence or criminal behavior? If you said “Public Education,” give yourself a gold star.


According to the Center for American Progress, a left-of-center think tank, and the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, Nevada’s school districts terminated or failed to renew the contracts of just 0.2 percent of “untenured teachers” and 0.3 percent of “tenured teachers” in 2007-08. Overall, Nevada kept 99.4 percent of its teachers that year. Only Arkansas, Delaware and Pennsylvania fired fewer teachers.


Either Nevada somehow attracts and retains the best teachers on the planet, or the state is packing kids into classrooms with unacceptably high odds they will be taught by ineffective, if not incompetent, teachers.


The latter is more likely the correct answer.


Teacher unions across the country have done an excellent job protecting the interests of their members, but often at the expense of the students. Tenure and seniority privileges (along with an entirely inadequate metric for evaluating teachers) allow bad teachers to continue “educating” students. Getting rid of bad teachers, even in Nevada, is notoriously difficult. Often it takes months if not years of conferences, meetings, counseling sessions and negotiations in order to terminate seriously bad teachers.


This is most evident in New York City’s infamous “rubber room,” where teachers accused of anything from extremely poor performance, to child endangerment or even molestation continue to receive their paychecks — some higher than $100,000 a year — for an average of two to five years. Ludicrous tenure protections in New York City make it literally cheaper to pay teachers to stay away from the kids than to fire them outright.


So bad is the situation, remarked one New York City principal, that Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, “would protect a dead body in the classroom.”


This upside-down world where bad teachers are protected originated largely out of the unions’ massive public-relations-warfare machines that lambaste dissenters and reformers as “anti-teacher” or “anti-education” — or worse, “anti-children.” Somehow, unions have managed to convince many that protecting bad teachers is in the best interest of the children.


Fortunately, teacher unions’ ability to manipulate public opinion is waning, as people grow impatient with years of repeated failure in the classroom. After years of blaming everyone else, people on both sides of the political aisle are zeroing in on the unions’ bad policy on bad teachers.


Indeed, as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan says, “When inflexible seniority and rigid tenure rules that we designed put adults ahead of children — then we are not only putting kids at risk, we are putting the entire education system at risk.”


Whitney Tilson, of Democrats for Education Reform, agrees. He’s identified “Three Pillars of Mediocrity” in public education that must be reformed:


1) Lifetime tenure,

2) Lockstep pay, and

3) Seniority (instead of merit).


Nevada must address those issues to ensure we have good teachers in the classroom.


First, without evaluating teachers using student-testing data, we have no idea how good or bad our teachers actually are. This means the $300 million Nevada taxpayers spend each biennium on class-size reduction is most likely merely exposing more and more students to ineffective teachers.


Second, Nevada state law allows teachers to earn tenure after just one year and three subjective evaluations. Thus, as the National Council on Teacher Quality notes, Nevada is a state where earning tenure is “virtually automatic.” Few higher-ed teachers, by contrast, actually receive tenure, and even then it takes five or more years to earn the privilege. Tenure, if kept at all for K-12 education, should be based on value-added assessment data and only awarded as part of a renewable contract after five years of teaching.


Third, Nevada needs to ensure that merit, not seniority, is the basis for school transfers, promotions, terminations and even pay raises. This means no terminating of young teachers when budgets are cut. The first teachers to be fired should be the bad ones, not — as now — the teachers who’ve paid the least in union dues. Additionally, Nevada should replace its lockstep pay-scale system with a merit-pay or merit-bonus system. The extra value that outstanding teachers bring to their students — and demonstrate under value-added assessment — must be recognized and rewarded.


Certainly it is true there are bad students and inattentive parents. But complaining about such realities produces nothing. It’s time we focused on issues that can be dealt with.


Rewarding good teachers and getting rid of bad ones is a must — if Nevada public education is ever going to improve.


Patrick R. Gibbons is an education analyst with the Nevada Policy Research Institute.