Saturday, August 4, 2012

GHSGT Math + Good Kids Failing = Rant

This is a rant. I wrote it three weeks ago now, and have now “cooled off” enough to still think it’s worth posting. 

One of my summer tutoring kids just left, and I was talking to Mick and he suggested I write all this down.  He’s right, and I’m furious.  This is a rant about the State of Georgia and the state of our public education, and if you don’t feel like reading a rant or if you think you’ll get fired up as well and aren’t up for that, take this warning and close this link.  I promise I won’t get angry with you.  But I don’t want you reading along if you don’t want to deal with a rant.  Consider yourself warned.

Still with me?  You are so good to me!

Here is the story.  This kid should have graduated two months ago.   He hasn’t passed the Georgia High School Graduation Test yet, though, despite a handful of opportunities, and that just plain stinks.  I am by no means a bleeding-heart or an excuse maker, I don’t feel bad for kids just because they can’t pass a test, and I almost certainly do not believe in “test anxiety.”  That being said, this kid’s been robbed in more ways than one, and I am furious that he’s a victim of our lousy system.   He’s one of the good kids, and he’s a victim.  And I’m pissed.

First of all, the test itself is patently unfair.  This is not new in the history of Georgia tests.  For years, the GHSGT Science component was known to be ridiculous and the very model of a bad test:  after three years of high school science, students were expected at the end of their junior years to recall facts from a class they took two years ago.   And the GHSGT isn’t the only Georgia test rife with issues and questions of validity, either, but we’ll save that for another rant, another day.

It used to be that the math component asked questions such as “which of these is used to measure temperature?” and showed images of a clock, a thermometer, and so forth.  A lot has changed since then, of course, and the state has done a 180-degree swing to prove just how much it has “increased standards.”

Unfortunately, they went about it all wrong.  Now, the math test is a lot more like the science test used to be, which is to say, asking three years of content material in one exam, and much of that material either at the basic “recall” level (do you remember this specific fact, kinds of questions) or at way too high of a level for a specific topic.  What do I mean when I say that?  Great question.  What I mean is that  although the question itself may be a higher-level question, because the test covers so much material, even these questions are reduced to “do you remember this specific concept?” and are not, in the end, higher-order-thinking questions as much as memorization questions.   Thus, the GHSGT is terribly unfair, unrealistic, and I’ll say it: damaging.   I know you’re thinking, “okay, but what makes it so bad?”  The short answer is that it covers too much material too specifically, which I just explained.  But it’s more than that. 

Let’s start with a simple question: what is the – or any -- high school graduation test designed to measure?  It seems to me that it should measure basic competency to be a functional adult.  It should show that a student went to high school, took math classes, and has a functionally literate understanding of math.  Pardon my French here, but who really gives a rat’s you-know-what if Junior can identify the properties of the circumcenter of a right triangle?  What we should be measuring with this graduation test should be basic benchmarks.  Can you identify the graph of a quadratic? What happens if the leading coefficient is negative? Can you use and apply the Pythagorean Theorem?  Can you calculate area and understand the difference between, say, lateral and surface areas of a prism?  Can you perform simple operations and solve moderately complex equations?  Can you add and subtract fractions?  Can you find an average?  Perhaps even a weighted average?  Can you identify and apply mean, median, mode and understand why mean is not resistant to outliers?  Can you read a graph or a pie chart?  Can you write, graph, and identify a linear equation?   Can you manipulate a recipe or figure out how much paint you need for a room, or can you convert inches to miles, centimeters to feet?

THESE are the things that make for a functionally literate adult.

We don’t need to know if you remember how to use the sigma-notation formula for standard deviation, or how to complete the square for a quadratic function.  If you ever need them again (and you may well – I don’t dismiss these skills out of hand; I am merely agreeing with most high schoolers when they say they will never use this stuff again), you will surely be able to look it up.   But you should know, for example, that there are 52 weeks in a year*, 3 feet in a yard*, and how to make change if I buy a shirt for $19.99, tax is 6%, and I hand you two twenties*…. And I don’t say that because I expect you to be working retail.  I say that because I expect you to understand American currency and simple arithmetic.

*all things my students did not know how to do. That should tell you their level, and affirm the idea that they would be better served in a slower, lower-level math class that meets their needs and prepares them to function in society.  I’m not saying they need a life-skills class, but I wouldn’t argue against it if you offered them one!  These are good, articulate, kids.  They are not “slow,” and they will be outstanding members of society.  But instead, we’re saying they don’t get to graduate high school, and that in turn limits their options severely.  They’re not trying to go to Harvard.  They’re trying to go to community college, or take the ASVAB and join the Navy.  The Navy will realize soon enough that they’re not fighter-jet pilots… why can’t the State of Georgia?

But that’s not what happens in Georgia.  Instead, students are asked to both remember and correctly apply more challenging concepts as much as three years after they first encountered them.  And for some students, that’s not a problem, but for the kids who don’t really belong in those classes to begin with, that’s grossly unfair and entirely unreasonable.  It doesn’t measure what they can do, it measures what they have specifically remembered – because it was not, sadly, actually ever learned.   It fits right in line with the Georgia – and national, to some extent – misguided mantra to “raise standards,” without any regard to whether there is any actual learning.  We’re so concerned with telling everyone how much material we cover, that we never actually tell them how many kids never “got it.”  And we doctor our test scores and cutoff marks to make it almost impossible for the layperson to realize how doctored and sad and off-the-mark the tests and measures really are.

I’ve said this many times, and I don’t want to stray too far down a tangent here, but wouldn’t it be better for all of us if, instead of saying “look how many topics we covered,” we could say, “look how much we learned”?  We race to touch upon so much more than reasonably fits in a school year, we shove material down kids’ throats when the kids are not ready for it academically or developmentally (in some cases, both), and then we have to dumb it all down so the kids can at least have some measure of success and the failure rates are not astronomical.  Then, we test these same kids at higher levels and wonder why no one is successful.  It makes no sense!

The GHSGT should not be a “final exam” for subject-area content.  It should be a gateway exam to say that you meet minimum competencies as a literate adult. The measure of how well you understand specific difficult concepts from Algebra 2 or Geometry should come from those course grades and those EOCTs (what with being in a testing frenzy and all, though I do happen to agree with EOCTs, if not exactly – or even remotely -- how they are handled in Georgia).

The Georgia High School Graduation Test as it is now sets up these good, but ill-placed, kids for failure.  Our system of “bigger, better, faster,” ignores the needs of the kids that are not special-needs, but DO need a slower pace.  We have effectively said they won’t be good members of society, and to prove it, we will make it so that forever, they will have to say that despite four years of excellent attendance, decent grades, and all sorts of participation in extra-curriculars, they have to say for the rest of their lives, “I didn’t graduate high school.” 

Why do we do this?

We know at whose expense it is, so I ask again, WHY DO WE DO THIS?

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

“Making Middle Grades Work” Doesn’t Work

Brace yourself.  This is a long one.

I wanted, actually, to say in my title that Making Middle Grades Work is “stupid,” but I thought that went a bit too far.  And I’m sure you can Google it right now and find countless reports of how great MMGW is, but I’m here to tell you that they are wrong.   Are there elements of MMGW that are great?  Sure.  But as a whole, it’s a problematic model and I’m writing this to talk about why.

In my last post, I mentioned my frustrations with the tendency for blanket policies within the education world.  While this is true for nearly everything (“all-call” emails reminding an entire faculty about appropriate seasonal dress, hoping to reach one particular offender, come to mind as one egregious example – and yes, this has happened more than once at more than one school where I taught, believe it or not), it is particularly true when someone in a position of authority happens upon a technique a teacher has used successfully.

Call out the troops!  Mrs. Dayplanner teaches quadratics this way!  We must all now use her method! Mr. Havenport is doing this really great tool for discipline!  We must now all use his technique!

It’s awful, and it defeats the purpose.  And there is no mention of the fact that neither of those methods might have worked with any of Mrs. Dayplanner's previous classes, and Mr. Havenport uses that technique with only half of his classes, and it's usually not his first choice. 

If there is anything true in education (well, there’s a lot true in education, but this in particular), it’s that we are constantly reminded to teach the individual students. We all have individual people in our rooms, who all come from different home experiences, with different stories and different environments making them into exactly who they are as they sit in our classrooms.  Differentiate, differentiate, differentiate, is the battle cry.  And then we’re given blanket mandates that we must teach these lessons in these ways, marching in lock-step, disregarding the specific and particular needs of the individual people in our rooms.

Making Middle Grades Work is a giant example of this.

If you’re not familiar with MMGW, its essential tenet is that you can not, and will not, allow students to fail.  They can not, and will not, be allowed to make choices to fail.  They can’t “not turn in” assignments; they can’t turn in poorly-done assignments.  Or rather, they can, and the teacher will give repeated opportunities to fix whatever is wrong and to complete whatever is missing.  Envision a teacher telling a student who’s choosing to give up, “I won’t let you make this choice,” and pushing them to succeed.  This is a great teacher, right?  Now, turn the tables just a bit.  The teacher no longer has to pull that student aside to say that or offer that assistance; it’s mandated.  There is no choice to be made. 

Trouble is, students have a right to make a choice.  More importantly, we have a duty as teachers to let them exercise that right.

You read that right.  We have a duty as teachers to let our students choose to fail.

Now I know there are people who are thinking, with so many kids already in so much trouble, can she really be sitting here telling me it’s a teacher’s duty to let these kids choose to be unsuccessful?

Yes.  I can, and I am.

Because here’s the problem:  Any good teacher already does these things for his or her students.  Any good teacher already notices who is giving up and who needs another shot, and who needs an exception made to allow them to re-do poor assignments or turn in missing ones.  Any good teacher already uses his or her discretion and professional judgment based on infinitely many factors to do all of these things, and more, for his or her students.  I can’t tell you how many times I did it, or how many times I saw it done.  And it’s not just for the students on the brink of failure:  it’s also for students who need a nudge from a B+ to an A-, or a C to a C+, or anything else.   The key difference is that students used to have to engage with that teacher or otherwise earn the opportunity. 

Now, don’t get me wrong.  There are certainly bad teachers in the world.  But let’s talk about the majority of teachers, who are good, who entered teaching for all the right reasons, and who, day in and day out, bust their tails to do the best they can.  And yes, that’s most teachers. 

Well, those good teachers already do what MMGW mandates.  They do it on their own scales, in ways that fit their classrooms, their schools, their students, their courses, their rubrics, and so forth.  Moreover, there are mechanisms in place to work around the teachers who are not already doing this.  For students slipping by, there are guidance counselors and administrators who theoretically pull grade reports; there are interventionists, and if it’s the student who wants an opportunity but is up against an unreasonable teacher, there are certainly appeals to the administration and higher.   So in that sense, MMGW is not only unnecessary, but it’s also redundant.  A good teacher already does it; a bad teacher can be overridden.

But we have MMGW, and so what happens?  Students are not dumb; they understand how to game this system within a few seconds of hearing it.  “I can turn it in however late I want?  And do it over ‘til I pass?”  “You can’t fail me?” 

And so, what used to be a teacher working individually with students to help them succeed is now a blanket policy robbed of its effectiveness.  (“You will help your students succeed” is not what I mean.  Of course that should be policy.)  The teacher isn’t working with any student, or making any special accommodation to help the student along to success.   There is no discretion to make different accommodations for different students based on their unique circumstances.  (And as an aside, I am adamantly opposed to the “if I do it for you, I have to do it for everyone” nonsense.  No, you don’t.  You have to do it for everyone with this exact set of circumstances in this exact situation.  What is wrong with exercising discretion these days, and making distinctions?  Again, a phenomenon of blanket-policy-thinking failing us.)  The student feels no small victories along the way, no reward for an unexpected opportunity to re-do the assignment.  There is no personal sense of satisfaction or accomplishment in bringing up a grade – because MMGW removes the ability for it to feel in any way special.   Now it’s mundane.  Didn’t get a C?  Do over.  And do over.  And do over again. 

Think of being this struggling student.  Wouldn’t it mean more to you if your teacher noticed you, sought you ought, and made a gesture to help you?  Isn’t it necessarily less meaningful when the teacher does all of those same things as a matter of course and has no choice but to do it?

That sounds terrible.  I sound as though I advocate telling teachers they don’t have to care.  That’s not the case at all.  What I am trying to say is that by making all of these accommodations entitlements, they lose their effectiveness because students don’t feel any ownership of them, or any sense of having earned them. 

There is a lesson to be learned in failing, just as there is a lesson to be learned in losing a game.  It’s a matter of learning how it feels and deciding if you want to be in that position again, and then figuring out what to do to avoid it.  These are important life lessons and important life skills, and MMGW takes away the opportunity for students to authentically learn them.  There are consequences for one’s actions (or inactions), and sometimes the consequences include failing an assignment or a class, or losing a game.  And where better to suffer these consequences than a middle school, sheltered from the real world and long before high school and all that “matters” academically for post-high-school plans?

So yes, it is our duty as teachers to let students learn these lessons, in order to grow as people and to understand what it means to take responsibility for oneself. By disallowing an opportunity to fail, we fail our students – and society -- in a greater, more damaging way:  we fail to teach the next generation that there are consequences to one’s actions, and how to be responsible for one’s choices.

Years ago, when I first started teaching, I had a colleague who wanted to make every assignment he gave “extra credit.”  He was frustrated by the phenomenon wherein students will do more of, and a better job at, what they perceive to be a reward compared to what they perceive to be the expectation.  I can’t say it enough:  MMGW takes this away; there are no opportunities for teachers to say, “I know you can do better.  I’m giving you an opportunity to do better.  Let’s fix this.”  There is no extra credit.  And thus, there is no reward.  Worse, there is no opportunity for teachers to take a moment to know a student and interact on a personal level: “ I want you to succeed, and we are going to get you through this class because you are going to redo this assignment.”  Nope. It’s mandated.  Sure, a teacher can still nurture and nudge, but the student had the same ability to turn in the assignment repeatedly without that.  It’s not special, and that personal touch, and the significance of it, is forever lost.  Go a step further, and there’s not even motivation to do the work to begin with.  The good kids will do it because “it’s what you do,” but there is a very quick slippery slope until even the best kids will take advantage of the “no deadline, no bad grades” policy. 

MMGW is, quite simply, a mess.

If you give a kid $5 every time they come to your window, and all they have to do is come to the window to get it, eventually they’ll stop coming.  It’s not special.  It’s too easy.  It is, in effect, rendered meaningless to get that $5.  And yet if one day you’re not at the window to give out the $5, you’ve robbed the kid of what has become an entitlement. 

MMGW robs our kids of the opportunities to feel special.  To feel as though someone has taken special note of them to give them an opportunity to succeed.  It robs our teachers of autonomy.  It takes the very students we’re most worried about, who perhaps don’t have support at home or a sense of self-worth, students who already think no one cares or thinks they’re special, and takes away one last opportunity for teachers to help provide it.  Don’t do well?  A good teacher would likely let you try again.  And again.  And again.  But more than likely, these extra chances would be under pre-estsablished conditions, and with the teacher’s guidance, and the knowledge that you were working as a team.  MMGW makes it a mandate, and conveys the message that there’s nothing special about you or anyone else.

It’s not how the world works.  Okay, who cares how the world works, right?  We’re here to teach our kids, but also to coddle when they need coddling. 

Good.  Well, MMGW took away the opportunity to coddle.

It teaches our kids that there’s no need to have a work ethic, because you can do it over and over again whenever you finally feel like doing it to begin with.

I can’t stand MMGW, because it takes what good teachers already do, strips the acts of feeling personal or special, strips the teacher of the authority to fix consequences, and steals from our students the opportunity to learn about responsibility and life.

Are there modified versions of MMGW?  Sure there are.  Are there books out there that tout it as the next greatest thing?  Well of course there are, silly.  It “worked” somewhere, so it must now be done everywhere! 

I don’t believe in it.  I believe in giving autonomy to our teachers.

Because once again, what works for one won’t always work for the many, and by forcing it on the many, we are forcing some classrooms to go from effective to ineffective – not because they were struggling before, but because someone decided we must all, once again, march in lockstep.

Here’s an idea for a blanket policy:  get rid of MMGW.  That just might work.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Common Core ... and more

I stumbled upon an education quote today (on Pinterest, of all places).  It was about the new Common Core curriculum, and embracing all the change and how educators have fire in their hearts and oh, if only we’d see the potential, it’s truly an amazing time to be an educator!

Here is the quote in its entirety, typos and all:

As we move to the Common Core standards, we will continue to see changes in what and how we monitor and asses student learning. The use of technology in the classroom as an means of delivering content and also as a means for formative and summative assessment will continue to develop over time., It is indeed a magical time to be an educator, if only we embrace the possibilities before us.*

And I about threw up in my mouth, to be a little crass.

Thing was, it wasn’t because I necessarily disagreed with the gist of her saying:  I happen to think that on many levels, the Common Core is fine (not all levels, but we’ll talk about that later), but I don’t drink the “rah rah all is well” Kool Aid.  And I don’t mean to attack the author personally, because I really do believe her heart is in the right place and she fights for what she believes in.  (And I believe that even more now that I've been to her blog and read more of what she has to say.)

But it’s not a great time to be a teacher.  And let’s get something straight, we’re "teachers;" we don’t need some fifty-cent ego-boosting word of “educators,” and quite frankly, I find it off-putting and pretentious. 

Pick up any newspaper or major new magazine, and you’ll see just how bad it is, actually, to be a teacher.  There are relentless pressures from all sorts of sources about test scores.  There are helicopter parents who rule the schools through bullying and intimidation, and spineless administrators who refuse to stand up to them.  There is a complete lack of discipline.  There are frozen – and cut, if you count furlough days – salaries, and paying for your classroom supplies from your own pocket.  There are increased class sizes and ridiculous pushing-down of content to grade levels where kids are not physiologically developed to do it, but we need to say we “teach Algebra” in grade six or what-have-you.  There are countless “Experts” passing legislation and top-down mandates that make no sense and cause unnecessary and burdensome paperwork for teachers and in many cases, create so much “procedure” that teachers can’t even timely help the kids who need it most.  There is a whole culture of blaming the teachers for everything and saying we need better teachers … but demonizing our current teachers at the same time. 

So, really?  It’s a great time to be a teacher?  I can’t even begin to count how many former teachers I know who say over an over again how glad they are they got out, or got out when they did.  It is most definitely not a good time to be a teacher. 

Now, I am of two minds on the Common Core.  On the one hand, I think it is good for us to have some sort of common curriculum so that a kid who moves from Alabama to Alaska can say what class he or she was in, and that translates.  But that’s only in theory.  We’re (I’m going to use “we’re,” even though I am not teaching anymore) all using different books and have different students in our classrooms; we all necessarily move at different paces and make different accommodations.  That’s kind-of the point, right?  Meeting your audience?  And the Common Core creates a slippery slope to a national curriculum that takes a state power and brings it over to the federal government.  I don’t like that, and I don’t trust it, and I do not believe we need educrats who’ve studied theory or public policy telling us what to do and how and when to do it. 

(The same, by the way, holds true for content-area experts.  I understand that you’re a math major, or an English major, or a chemist; that means you are, and have typically been, good at it. You don’t know what it’s like in a classroom with 30 kids of different abilities, or where they will make their mistakes, or how to teach factoring a seventeenth way because the first sixteen didn't click for two kids. You have a false sense of what school is like, because you only ever went to school and sat in class – for the most part, forgive me my generalizations – with the good kids.  You don’t know why or where this stuff is hard, and – dare I say much like many first-year teachers, you have a very naïve perspective on what can be accomplished and how “easy” it will be to accomplish it.  That's okay.  We still love you. But we don't need you making education policy or having final say on curricula.)

And on the other hand, I don’t think too many people would argue that as a nation, and from state to state, we already had a somewhat de facto national curriculum.  So in that sense, I think the Common Core is a bit redundant, if you will.  It purports to eliminate the nuanced differences between what constitutes Algebra 1 in Miami, Florida and Miami, Ohio, but as I said earlier, it just doesn’t account for the countless other factors that led to the differences to begin with.

Which brings me to my next point:  the tendency of the government – all the way down to local school systems – to rule by blanket policy, taking what might have been good and rendering it worse:  either broken completely, or not as efficient or effective, or almost to feel like punishment. 

But that’s my next post.  Stay tuned. I’ve got a lot to say.


P.S.  By the way, the full post from which I found the quote actually talked about student assessment and the need to change what we’re currently doing.  I agree completely, and I’ll write more about that, too.

*Janie Andrich, from pinterest, which linked to

Friday, July 22, 2011

Oh, Massachusetts

Bless your heart, always trying to fix all that ails us, you liberal bastion.

You just went ahead and legislated that effective for the 2012-2013 school year, there shall be no more "unhealthful foods" in school cafeterias, vending machines, and so forth.  Admirable, to be sure, but no more white bread for sandwiches?  No more flavored milk (and I am sure, though I didn't yet read it, it's not unreasonable to suspect there will also be no more whole milk).  I understand the obesity concerns, and agree that we don't need to be serving fried slop or sodas.  I disagree that we need to eliminate white bread, flavored milks, etc.  Which is better:  to have a child drink whole milk, or no milk?

Here's a thought:  instead of legislating what we can eat, why not just legislate that schools must bring back recess and physical education?

Just sayin'.

Friday, May 13, 2011

I Stole...

... this image from Facebook posts of friends.

I think the bottom ought to read, "And those who've never taught, pass laws about teaching."

Even so, you get the point.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Glenn Beck ...

... is hosting a forum about education right now on his show.  Unfortunately, the two children whose education I most value are making it difficult for me to watch right now, but we're "dvr'ing" it.  Still, some quick points:

1.  A lot of people ask me what I want to do, and why.  Here's a longer version of my elevator speech answer to this.

I went to law school because I want to get involved with education policy.  I taught in public schools, and regardless of what you think of public schools, the fact is that teachers do not make the rules, do not control the purse strings, and almost without question they do not have a voice as to curriculum, or policy.  (I am not talking about unions or the NEA claiming to represent teachers.  Those "voices" are a different issue altogether.) 

No Child Left Behind is a perfect example of good intentions gone terribly wrong.  People wanted accountability in the schools, and the best way to measure something quantitatively is to test it.  Thus we entered the world of large-scale high-stakes testing.  Any teacher could have told you in two seconds how the system would be gamed, the standards lowered, the passing scores manipulated, and ultimately the curriculum modified to reflect this dumbing down -- all to show that we "mastered" a test and we're all on the same playing field.  Any teacher could have predicted that schools would follow a (sorry have to say it here) race to the bottom until classes became little more than a series of practice tests for the big test, with testing -- not teaching and learning -- the focus and the only concern of administrators. 

The problem is that no one asks the teachers for their input.  The people who make the rules and push down legislation and mandates have never been in a classroom as a teacher, and by and large they've only ever been in classroom as, and with other, good students.  On the other hand, teachers neither get meaningful input nor care to leave the classroom, so they never have an opportunity to make the rules or policies -- or even, in a meaningful way, to influence them.  (Seriously, had anyone in any role of influence asked teachers to predict the end result of NCLB, we wouldn't be in the mess we're in now!  And when I was "just" a teacher, sure, we were asked for our opinions, but they were either not presented to the powers-that-be, or they were repainted with rosier glasses.  Our concerns were never heard, our input never valued other than for show.)  The result is that we end up with a group of professionals being told how to do their jobs by people who have no earthly idea how to do those jobs.  The logic seems to be, "I was a student; I know how to be a teacher."  Huh?  I was a patient, so I know how to be a surgeon? The fallacy is so obvious, and yet it is not just ignored; it's as if no one has ever even considered it.  As far as I can tell, this is the only profession where everyone thinks they know how to do it better than the professionals. 

I went to law school to get involved in education policy because I want to be the bridge between teachers and their concerns, and legislators and other policy-makers.  I want to be a voice of reason for teachers' interests and concerns without being bullied, pushed and pulled by union and other political interests that really have nothing to do with teaching and learning.  I went to law school because I have something to say, by golly, and I need the "credit and cache" a law degree gives me to be able to say it to people who are in power to effect a change.  Maybe one day I will even hold one of those positions!

2.  A teacher on the show was just speaking (among other things) about how she is mandated to have a certain amount of class time each day dedicated to small-group work and large-group work.  She expressed  frustration with the idea of small group work as it is presently mandated, because it small group work is not always appropriate or the best fit for the students' needs.  Glenn Beck seemed to balk at this at first, offering, "But isn't that where we are all going?" 
Here is the problem:  Yes, in work situations it is important that we know how to work in groups.  But there is no value in working in groups if you first don't know how to think.  Knowing how to work in a group is an important life skill; knowing how to think so you have something to bring to that group and value to add is infinitely more important.

That's it for now.  I'm eager to watch this forum from the start, and hopefully I'll be able to do that this weekend.

Monday, April 18, 2011

A Clarification on Tenure

Back in October, I posted a little bit about tenure.  I was (and remain) pretty adamant that "tenure" does not grant with it a status of "unable to be fired."  That being said, I do want to let you all know that I absolutely realize that it does have a de facto sense of that.  I tried make that clear in the original post and realize that Iwas not as clear as I could have been. 

So, here's the summary:

"Tenure" means that you have a right to due process and an appeal if you're fired.  It does not entitle you to your job in perpetuity; merely to a right to know why you're being fired, and to be heard if you're forced out.  And of course, you can't be fired arbitrarily.  With tenure, you can only be fired for cause.

That being said, historically administrators do such a poor job of documenting cause, that by the time it is clear that a teacher really really really needs to go, administrators are way, way, waaaaay behind in having a justification for firing that tenured teacher. Generally speaking, unless the offense is egregious, the paper trail to show cause for the firing can't be created overnight.  (You can't show a history of bad behavior if your history only started recently and therefore can be explained away...)  So, if you have a lousy teacher who's getting worse, but no single "big thing" to point to, you can't fire this teacher unless you've documented the issues, however small, all along.  Most of the time this doesn't happen.  (Do I have data?  No, but I have anecdotal evidence and heck, I watch the news and read education blogs!)

Moreover, once you've got this teacher you want to fire, very often the union steps in to represent the teacher.  Now, whether you like it or not, those union reps and attorneys are doing their jobs to represent their client teacher.  (Think, if you will, of the defense attorneys who represent the worst of the worst.  Those criminals still have rights, and the attorneys don't defend the criminals, per se, but rather protect the rights of those criminals.)  Same is true for the attorneys and union reps who step in to "save" the teacher's job.

I was speaking with an education law attorney recently who said she doesn't believe in tenure precisely because of this part of the process.  Teachers who need to leave teaching (by any standards but their own) will fight, and put the administrators through such efforts and misery that the administrators almost universally say "never again." Quite frankly, it takes such time and effort (and therefore, money), and the process is made so miserable, that it is easier for school districts to let bad teachers languish until retirement, than to be repeatedly dragged through the mud.

I am not convinced I don't believe in tenure, though, because I have seen arbitrary decisions by petty administrators, and tenure generally works to balance that.  It allows teachers to stand up for themselves without fear of retribution.  (Before you go saying that there are other protections in place, I will say that there are infinite ways for an administrator to make a teacher miserable, any of which standing alone is perfectly "justifiable given the circumstances and needs of the school." To document and show a pattern of retaliation is difficult, if not impossible, and yet we all know it happens.) 

What we do need is for administrators to start the evaluation process and paper trail immediately -- and we need an appeals process that isn't so miserable that it makes administrators want to forget it and keep terrible teachers around.  This is where more robust teacher evaluations are very important, and I think we're starting to see a swing towards such evaluations nationally. Of course, there are still many issues to work out with teacher evaluations in general, but that's another post.  My point is that richer, more detailed evaluations would help avoid this lack-of-documentation issue.

I'm going to try to sit in on some hearings in the future, to see how the tenure/firing process works in person.  I don't know if I'll be allowed to do this, but if I can find a public hearing, I'll write more about what I see.