People who shout loudest about how low our kids rank on international tests are the same folks who want to make the most radical changes to our schools. Under the umbrella term, “education reformers,” these critics suggest we cripple teachers unions, lower the credentialing standards for teachers, expand the reach and power of standardized testing and abolish teacher tenure.
It’s no surprise people who believe our schools are doing a lousy job want to rip up some parts of the system root and branch. But the problem is, their suggestions for improvement would move us further away from, not closer to the countries, whose test scores they covet.
Let’s look at Finland, a country where students excel on international tests, outscoring not just the U.S. but European nations, and sometimes even the Asian nations, which are regularly in the top five.
Finland has a very strong teachers union. It works closely with its department of education to ensure educational quality.
Though it may sound unbelievable to some, Finland’s students excel on international tests even though they don’t take any standardized tests until they’re ready to graduate high school.
Teachers in Finland go through a rigorous three-year teacher education program after graduating college. It’s free and includes a living stipend. No wonder Finland’s teacher programs turn away so many applicants and draw their students from the top 10 percent of college grads. That helps explain why the country’s intelligent, well-trained teachers are so effective in the classroom, even with minimal national curriculum standards and no standardized testing.
And yes, Finland’s teachers have tenure. So do teachers in Japan, Korea, Germany and Sweden, to name a few other examples.
Tenure recently became the hot education topic of the day because a judge struck down California’s tenure laws. Unfortunately, like so many other “education reform” ideas, abolishing tenure moves us further away from countries the reformers say they want to emulate. And like so many of their ideas, it appears logical at first glance but will have negative consequences if it’s put into practice.
Yes, getting rid of tenure will make it easier to fire bad teachers. Tenure laws already allow for teachers to be fired, but it’s true, sometimes the process is more difficult than it should be, and that needs to be corrected. Demonstratively bad teachers should be fired using an objective, fair and reasonably swift process. But tenure shouldn’t be abolished completely.
Principals shouldn’t be able to simply fire teachers at will. Woe be to the tenure-less high school teacher who defies a principal’s order to “coach football or else.” Woe be to the dedicated teacher who gets into a spirited discussion questioning administrative policy she honestly believes will be bad for her students. Teachers’ jobs will be on the line for those kinds of “offenses,” or simply because the principal doesn’t like their looks.
Teachers start out with low salaries, which gradually rise to a wage more in keeping with their educational levels. But without tenure protections, whenever there’s a school budget crunch (which these days is, always), older teachers’ salaries will look like low hanging fruit. If a cash-strapped principal knows firing two experienced teachers can mean hiring three or four teachers straight out of college for the same price, that can be pretty tempting.
Meanwhile, young, talented teachers who see respected, older teachers getting the ax without good reason are likely to make hasty exits themselves rather than face the same fate when they’re in their 40s or 50s. They’ll understand, they’d better get out while they’re still young enough to start over.
If we want better teachers, we need to make the profession more desirable to our best and brightest young people -- and give them time to develop into great teachers. That’s a far better option than turning teachers into classroom drones who fear the upcoming test and the wrath of their administrators more than they care about what’s best for their kids.