Beyond Tenure

September 23, 2010

I was talking to a primary school teacher who has recently returned from 3+ years in the UK. She is currently struggling to get the time she spent working at a top London school recognised in her measly NZ salary.

I can’t decide what makes me more angry – that clearly relevant experience is ignored or the patently stupid fact that her pay is tenure based in the first place.

As it stands, I don’t expect we’ll enjoy her company here for long. She is already looking enviously at the better situation she could enjoy in Australia.

So, why do we have this system? Is there any evidence that teachers get better the longer they have spent on the job, or that the best teachers are those who have the longest tenure ? Is this the system that the best teachers prefer – i.e. do they prefer to just be paid in-line with everybody else?

Education is one of the three key area that Bill Gates has identified for his Foundation (the other two are Global Health and Poverty). In his first TED Talk he asked the question: “How do you make a teacher great?” and talked about three things he’s learned about this:

The last point doesn’t really surprise me. Tenure means that managers can avoid difficult allocation decisions. Performance reviews are much easier – everybody is great, and those who have been around the longest are the greatest of all!

Most of us can point to exceptional teachers who made an impact on our own education. But, how do you systematise that and make it the rule rather than the exception?

This is not a subject that I know a lot about, but I’m interested to learn more. How do we sensibly measure the performance of a teacher, track that over time, report that information back to teachers to help them improve, and ensure that we are rewarding and retaining the best? How can we encourage the best teachers to work at the worst schools, rather than the best schools as they currently tend to? If you have it, please point me at any details about how well we do in these respects in New Zealand.

I’m also interested to learn who benefits from the current system – it definitely doesn’t seem to be the best teachers. I’m assuming that somebody is winning as the result of the status quo? I think they should probably have some sunlight applied to them.

Thanks in advance for your help with this.