While I don't know of any teacher who thinks of him/herself as a below-average teacher, about half of all teachers outside of Lake Wobegon are below average. Is that bad? Even if every teacher were Superteacher, there still would be some Superteachers who were not as good as other Superteachers. This is what happens when you use norm-referenced criteria--someone is always on the bottom.
The question should be: is a teacher competent? If a teacher is competent, but not as good as Superteacher, that teacher should still be able to teach. Not every wide receiver in the NFL is as good as Jerry Rice (used to be), but there are certainly other wide receivers worthy of an NFL job. I have no doubt some airline pilots are better than others, but given their frequent evaluations I'm sure they're all competent. Not every choir is the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, but plenty of choirs hock their cd's on infomercials, so they must be good at singing.
The question becomes, how do we determine if a teacher is competent or not? And then, how do we determine if a teacher is really a Superteacher and thus reward him/her with merit pay?
Governor Schwarzenegger is backing some proposals to initiate merit pay and increase the number of years, from 2 to 5, for a district to grant tenure to a teacher. You can read the Sacramento Bee blogger's takes on those proposals here, here, and here. Said blogger, Dan Weintraub, usually has his head screwed on straight when it comes to education issues. I think he's pretty much got it right in these cases as well.
I support merit pay. I'm not convinced I'm Superteacher, although I do try, but I'd like to think there would be a financial payoff for becoming Superteacher in addition to just the psychological benefit of a job well done. Of course there are problems with certain merit pay proposals, and I discussed the subject of merit pay here.
I don't understand the governor's tenure proposal, though. Why should it take 5 years before a school district determines that a teacher is incompetent? Is it not better to make this determination in the first 2 years, rather than let 5 years' worth of students get a substandard education? What is truly accomplished by not granting tenure after 2 years?
Let me be clear here. I'm all about competence testing. In fact, I had to pass 2 fairly rigorous, and 1 not-so-rigorous, tests to become a math teacher. Of course, that was after passing the at-most-8th-grade-level California Basic Educational Skills Test (CBEST), which doesn't test educational skills as much as it tests if you have a junior high knowledge of math, reading comprehension, and written communication. Had I received my Bachelor of Science in math here in California, instead of at West Point in New York, I would not have had to take the 3 subject matter competency tests mentioned above. Seemed a bit odd and unfair to me; every prospective teacher should take subject matter competency tests. That would establish a level of competence in the classroom; I'm not sure how you'd go about testing the ability to convey knowledge, the essence of teaching, without some kind of value-added study. Something like that would have to be worked out.
So what is the governor trying to accomplish with his tenure proposal? There's no doubt he's after the California Teachers Association (CTA), and rightfully so. I've addressed the CTA in this blog so many times that I won't even link back to the posts here, but you can find posts about the CTA in each of the monthly archives listed in the left column. I think that with this proposal, Governor Schwarzenegger has missed his target--he aimed for the union, but got the teachers instead. Making enemies of teachers not only isn't smart politically, it's just plain not smart. Teachers aren't necessarily the problem. Teachers don't determine if they themselves are competent, teachers often don't get input on curriculum, teachers often lack the authority to truly deal with students who disrupt the learning of an entire class. A teacher will try to teach, however, if the state credentials them and a school administration doesn't tell them they're doing anything wrong. Fix the kinks in the licensing program and actually expect administrators to evaluate their newest teachers, and not within 5 years. Give substandard teachers the opportunity to improve their craft. There will of course have to be some due process in place, but let's not make it so difficult to identify a truly substandard teacher (as opposed to a competent teacher who isn't Superteacher) and remove that substandard teacher.
Remember, as nice as it would be for every teacher to be Superteacher, that's just not realistic. Nor is it reasonable. But it's entirely realistic and reasonable to expect every teacher to be competent.
I don't see how the governor's tenure proposal accomplishes that goal.