This depressing Los Angeles Times story inspired a pretty interesting debate on teacher unions over at the American Scene. In comments, Freddie mounts a persuasive defense of union-backed tenure for professional educators, arguing that job security is a major incentive behind recruitment and retention. This certainly makes sense to me, though it’s worth noting that a few proposed reforms replace tenure with a different incentive structure. Here, for example, is a good summary of DC School Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s new program:
Rhee has proposed a two-track, green and red, system for D.C. teachers. Teachers who volunteer for the green track would give up all tenure rights and, in return, would get larger pay hikes and become eligible for performance bonuses that could put their annual income well above $100,000. Red track teachers would not give up tenure; they would receive a smaller pay increase; and would not be eligible for performance bonuses.
Rhee’s reforms have become something of a cause célèbre, garnering praise from Nicholas Kristof and a high-profile Time cover story. Her abrasive personality and take-no-prisoners approach hasn’t endeared her to the local teacher union, however, which is generally wary of performance-based reforms.
From what I understand (I have a few friends with the DC Teach for America program) the divide over Rhee’s reforms is mostly generational, with new teachers favorably disposed towards performance-based pay while older teachers are more concerned with job security. This may also reflect different career priorities, as a lot of DC’s Teach for America volunteers are not planning on staying with the DC school system.
To be perfectly honest, this is not an issue I pay close attention to, although I did get the chance to see Rhee speak last summer and was suitably impressed. The (younger) teachers I know in the DC system are almost uniformly enthusiastic about the proposed changes, and I think that replacing tenure with performance-based pay has the potential to incentivize better teaching. Having said all that, the environmental barriers to improving student achievement in DC are pretty overwhelming, and I’m sympathetic to teachers who feel that they’re being unfairly scapegoated for structural defects.
Good teaching does seem to be quantifiable, and DC’s public school system definitely needs a major overhaul, so I’d tentatively place myself in the reformist camp. What do you all think?