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An Uneasy Thanksgiving: Klein, Tenure & The Nation's Report Card

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Somehow this Thanksgiving seems more like Halloween, full of tricks and treats.

#1. The big treat was, of course, Tom Friedman's column in the New York Times, telling the world that, if he were starting out in journalism today, he would be an education reporter. He's right. It's a happening beat.

Joel Klein, Bill Gates, Randi Weingarten, Cathie Black#2. This next one is either a trick or a treat, depending on where you are sitting: Bill Gates continues to speak out, leading some to label him 'the shadow Secretary of Education. This time he chose the annual meeting of the Council of Chief State School Officers in Louisville to call for huge changes in how teachers are paid. He said that the 'bonus' for having a Master's degree was a waste of money (lots of money too, an estimated $8.6 billion in extra pay), because there's little evidence that extra degrees add to positive student outcomes. There's a mighty wind blowing on the issue of teacher pay.

Michelle Rhee opened the door with her 'red and green' pathway contract proposal over a year ago, offering to pay successful teachers roughly double their salary if they would give up tenure. That never made it into the contract, but her high profile made it very difficult for anyone to argue that teacher pay should be based solely on years of service and graduate credits. (Nonetheless, the National Education Association's President, Dennis Von Roekel, continues to beat that drum.) I'm told that Gates' audiences, the state superintendents, did not jump for joy on hearing him, but, then again, the state superintendents don't have to make payroll. That's the job of the district superintendents.

#3. Joel Klein's departure is, for many teachers in New York City, sure to make for a happy Thanksgiving. He has been relentlessly combative throughout his tenure. Early on he made it clear that he felt that what he called the union's "three legged stool" of seniority, tenure, and a rigid pay schedule were the major obstacles to serious reform. He's managed to change the seniority rules, and the conversation about tenure is changing as well. The Bloomberg-Klein claims of great academic progress were severely undercut recently when the New York State Department of Education adjusted test scores after the fact, admitting that the tests had become too predictable and too easy. That wiped away almost all of the gains that the Mayor and the Chancellor had been crowing about and, at the same time, called into question Klein's relentless focus on test scores.

#4. When he selected another non-educator, apparently without much consultation, to be the next Chancellor, Mayor Bloomberg missed an opportunity to heal some of the wounds that Joel Klein inflicted. It seems to me that, moving forward, New York City schools need someone who can work with teachers (and unions). This is not to repudiate Joel Klein, because he took over a system that consistently put the interest of adults ahead of those of students. He had to take that on, and he did. But we don't need more years of confrontation. Randi Weingarten of the AFT (and former head of the local UFT) seems to understand that conditions have changed. This was an opportunity to move beyond confrontation. Whatever ails public education here won't be fixed without the support of the city's teachers. That's an inescapable truth.

#5. Tenure as a concept may be on the way out. I've had conversations and exchanges with half a dozen thoughtful and influential people in recent weeks, all of whom saying essentially the same thing: "If due process rights are protected, we don't need tenure." Go back to #1 and Tom Friedman's observation about education journalism. This will be a huge story.

#6. The continued flatline of scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress does not make for a Happy Thanksgiving. That's our 'gold standard', and we aren't doing very well. The results suggest that No Child Left Behind has been a failure. More than that, however, they say to me that we need to have a national conversation about the purposes of school. Not finger-pointing for Thanksgiving, just some soul-searching. Why do we send kids to school?

I have some thoughts on that, and I am sure you do as well. Happy Thanksgiving to all, particularly to our hard-working teachers.

Links
Tom Friedman's column [NY Times, 11/20/10]
National Assessment of Educational Progress Report [NAEP, 11/18/10]

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John Merrow blogs regularly at Taking Note, where this post originally appeared. His forthcoming book, The Influence of Teachers, will be out in Spring 2011.