A very interesting, long article in the Washington Post demonstrates how hard it is to determine whether a teacher “deserves” to be fired and raises important questions about teacher tenure.
I often point out that tenure in K-12 education is different from tenure in higher education. In higher education, a tenured professor has a job for life, unless he or she commits a felony or does something else that is truly heinous. By contrast, a teacher in K-12 with tenure has a guarantee of due process if the principal wants to fire him or her.
Critics say that due process–the right to see the evidence, to confront one’s accusers, and to have the case heard by an impartial hearing officer–is too burdensome and costly. It takes too long, and principals will leave a “bad” teacher in place rather than go through the trouble of gathering evidence to persuade an impartial arbitrator.
From the teacher’s perspective, the right to due process is precious. It means that they will be protected against a vindictive principal and will be protected against pedagogical fashion or community pressure to conform. With the recent proliferation of newly minted principals who have little or no teaching experience, teachers may feel an even greater need for protection. Experienced teachers, in particular, may resent the demands of the novice principal, who not only wants higher test scores, but looks at the veteran teacher as a drain on the school’s shrinking budget, as someone who might be replaced by two young teachers.
Think of the convergence of these three trends: One, lots of brand-new principals who are under pressure to raise scores to prove their worth; two, shrinking budgets; three, the spread of a concept called “fair student funding,” or “weighted student funding,” where each school’s budget is tied to the students in the school and the principal is given “autonomy” to make the most of a shrinking budget for the school. In these circumstances, the veteran teacher is viewed as too expensive rather than as a valued professional.
I cannot say whether this context shaped the trial of Fairfax teacher Violet Nichols. What does seem clear is that Nichols was out of step with the pedagogical ideas of her principal. The principal said her methods were obsolete. Nichols responded with evidence to the contrary. Was her dismissal in any way related to her role in the local teachers’ association? Virginia is hardly a state that coddles teachers’ unions or that gives strong tenure guarantees to teachers.
Does the trial prove that “bad” teachers have too much protection and can never be fired (the test scores of Nichols’ students were similar to those of other teachers in her building)? Does it prove that principals should have the power to fire teachers for any reason or no reason at all? Or does it show that teachers need a modicum of insulation from the pedagogical winds of the day?
What do you think?