Thursday, December 10, 2009

Four Out of Ten

[Image courtesy the always brilliant Toothpaste for Dinner.]

NY1 is my default background noise at home, and this evening I happened to catch UFT President Mike Mulgrew on their "Road to City Hall" program. In the midst of a discussion of tenure, the anchorwoman asked Mulgrew how many teachers get tenure.

I know how many, off the top of my head--97%. But Mulgrew pointed something out that never crossed my mind. He pointed out that 37% of teachers never make it to the end of their third year to be evaluated for tenure. 37% of teachers who start in the system quit, are "counseled out," or are rated unsatisfactory and dismissed (as they certainly can be in their first three years). By that measure, that would tell us that only about 60% of teachers who start in the system earn tenure, which sounds about right to me.

A lot of people can't or don't want to make it in this line of work. But it is not easy. Tenure is not and shouldn't be a rubber-stamp process. It should be rigorous and challenging and important so that earning it is a moment in life of which one can and should be very proud. Much like graduations are called commencements--that is, "beginnings"--tenure should be viewed less as an end and more as a beginning, a beginning of one's real life as a professional educator, an invitation to become a leader and an expert. And if a longer probationary period is what we need to accomplish something like that, so be it.

But, by the same token, I don't know that we should pride ourselves on running working environments that destroy four out of ten new teachers within three years. Certainly the vast majority of new teachers come in with plenty of enthusiasm, energy, and willingness to learn. What happens in those three years? Sure, many of those people are going to discover that this isn't right for them for a perfectly valid reason, and moving on will be the right thing. But I'm worried about those people who might have been wonderful teachers, who leave because of lack of support or the crushing burden of work or the miserable situations most new teachers get stuck in. What about those people? Is it good that they wash out of a system in which they will never be able to survive? Or should we be asking ourselves why we've created a system in which people have to "survive"?
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