Teacher Accountability: The Next Front in the School Reform Wars

By 04/15/2010

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The other day I floated the proposition that tenure reform, not choice, is the “Holy Grail” of education reform. Several thoughtful folks pushed back, including Kathleen, Greg Forster, Jay Greene, and Rick Hess. (And Adam Schaeffer offered a very funny satirical response.)

Their comments  helped to sharpen my thinking and reconsider my argument. Here’s the new version, straight from the brand-new Education Gadfly. I’ll post it here in full for your convenience.

Why teacher accountability is the next front in the school reform wars

Be forewarned: It’s going to take me a while to get to my main argument. I hope you agree it’s worth the wait.

For going on two decades now, the twin movements to expand parental choice and foster accountability have been the major drivers of reform in the K-12 education system. And while choice and accountability can be seen as ends in themselves, for many reformers they have been primarily means: tactics for creating a high-performing education system, one that puts the needs of kids over the needs of adults. They are tonics meant to overcome the corrupting influence of complacency and protectionism within our public schools.

This brand of reform diagnoses the school system’s disease as primarily political rather than structural, behavioral, or attitudinal. It’s not that educators don’t work hard enough, or care passionately enough, or know enough. It’s that organized interests have a stranglehold on the system, creating incentives for managers at all levels to avoid making the hard decisions that are necessary for any organization to thrive. Most obviously, union contracts and civil service rules make it next to impossible to fire low-performers, whether they be central office bureaucrats, principals, teachers, or aides. And this creates an insidious cycle of cynicism that permeates the schools.

Enter choice and accountability. The theory of change goes something like this: Offer parents and their children real options outside the (unionized) public schools. Attach public dollars to the kids so that the money leaves the bureaucracy. Grow enough options so that the outflow of kids and money is large enough to get the attention of the district, and to cause real pain for the union (as the number of teachers–and union members–shrinks).

At the same time, hold districts accountable from the state and federal levels, by making their (bad) results transparent and forcing them to adopt meaningful (and unpleasant) reforms in their failing schools. The combination of competitive pressures from below, and accountability pressures from above, will create a new political environment, one in which unions and civil servants have no real alternative but to accept reform instead of oppose it—out of sheer self-interest.

And finally, after this long and circuitous route, districts will adopt critical changes, such as those that make it much easier to remove ineffective teachers (or principals or staff) from their jobs. And managers, newly empowered, will take bold action to weed out the low-performers and usher in a new era of excellence and accountability.

Sounds great, but how has this theory turned out in practice? Not so well. For instance, ten cities boast a charter school “market share” of greater than twenty percent, places like Detroit, Kansas City, and Dayton, which means that their districts have lost loads of kids and cash and teachers. And these districts are also subject to NCLB-style accountability from on high. But to date, their unions and central office staff aren’t exactly burning a path to reform’s door.

Then again, there’s Washington, D.C. Here we have a city where a third of the students have decamped to charter schools, creating an environment in which the union is desperate to stanch the loss of teachers. And we have a tough-minded chancellor, backed by a strong mayor, willing to wield a tough accountability stick. And sure enough, just last week, Washington’s union leadership reluctantly embraced a reform-minded contract that will make it much easier to remove ineffective teachers from the classroom. (Of course, pay raises for everyone surely helped too.)

But it turns out that DC is the exception and not the rule. It is unique in one very important way: It is a city without a state. And, as we learned in the National Council on Teacher Quality’s report, Invisible Ink, many of the key policies that protect teachers and create complacency are enshrined in state law, not in district contracts. The NCTQ authors write, “State law dictates how often teachers must be evaluated, when teachers can earn tenure, the benefits they’ll receive, and even the rules for firing a teacher.” The Washington contract could address these issues because they weren’t already buttoned-up in state policy.

All of this helps to explain why “teacher accountability” is now the reformer’s primary rallying cry—and why the battle is primarily being fought at the state, rather than district, level. After twenty years it’s become clear that choice and accountability are necessary but not sufficient to create the conditions for high-performing systems. They were too indirect; now it’s time to tackle teacher tenure and evaluations head-on. And that means fighting the unions in committee rooms in state capitals.

That’s what we’re seeing in Florida, with the far-reaching bill just vetoed by Governor Crist. That’s what we’re seeing in Colorado, with a bold proposal  just released by state senator and uber-reformer Mike Johnston. And that’s what we could see nationwide if states were willing to step up to the Race to the Top’s challenge for meaningful teacher accountability.

But reformers shouldn’t expect this to be beanbag. In Florida, the unions have pulled out all the stops, and managed to get the Democratic caucus in the state legislature to more or less march in lockstep against the proposed changes. This same caucus split 50-50 when it came to expanding the Sunshine State’s private school choice program, demonstrating that teacher reform is now more radioactive than vouchers.

Tackling tenure and related reforms will be a fight to the finish, but after two decades of preliminaries, it’s about time for the main event. May the good guys win.

Comment on this article
  • Don Blankenship says:

    I agree 100%. Once we can start getting rid of teachers without due process, we can get rid of those who have been teaching more than a couple of years. This means we’ll never have to pay a teacher more than $31K or $32K a year. If we can eliminate tenure, we can crush the union and that helps us all.

  • John says:

    Who are the good guys? Surely not Duncan st al.?

  • Peter Meyer says:


    I would argue that both of you are right! But there’s a Third Way. I call it ownership responsibility. Some call it “public engagement.” (See the Kettering Foundation’s good work on this.) You allude to it in your discussion of the DC system — and its freedom from state laws. The assumption there is that smaller is better; i.e. fewer overseers offer more opportunties to succeed. And fail, for that matter. We now have a public school system “too big to fail.” (In New York state voters will go to the polls on May 18 to vote Yes or No on their district school budgets. You’d think that No means No. But no, it means try again. And if you say No a second time, too bad: state law trumps you and orders an increase in local property taxes!) Arne Duncan talks tough about RttT, then pleads with Congress to send more billions to everyone! My head is still spinning. Ownership responsibility is not so much a theory of change as it is a restastement of fundamental governing principles; at least, a rethinking of them. What is the nature of the “public” that owns schools? And what is that public’s responsibility — or right — toward its schools. (Personally, I think all management roads lead to vouchers.) It’s hard not to watch the Tea Party ruckus without thinking that our public schools are freighted by a frightful case of “taxation without representation.” It’s a bureaucratic colonialism worthy of King George and his tenured favorites. Somebody’s got to write an education Declaration of Independence, with a Constitution that is a bit briefer than my school district’s Code of Conduct!


  • Elisa Cohen says:

    The great thing about SB 191 in Colorado is that due process remains. Teachers earn probationary status after three years of effective ratings. They go back to non-probationary status after two years of ineffective ratings. The law spells out the requirement to provide targeted professional development for struggling teachers and principals.

    The measurement tools by which effectiveness is determined will be designed by union teachers on the Governor’s Council for Educator Effectiveness.

    Principals have the incentive to keep the best and most effective teachers as the principals’ evaluations will be based on student growth.

    Colorado has put into place many measures to make this work – from a teacher identifier system linking student to teachers and now the Governor’s Council to create the tools.

    As a parent, I support this bill because it provides tools and protections for effective teachers and principals. To learn more visit http://www.GreatTeachersAndLeaders.org today!

  • Lauren says:

    I sincerely hope Mr. Blankenship is being sarcastic with his comment of never having to pay a teacher more than $31-32K.

    Let me first say I believe that ineffective teachers should be let go and replaced with more effective teachers. I do think new reforms should address this issue, especially as educational budgets are slashed due to the recession and those who will find themselves out of work are the newest teachers, regardless of their effectiveness and abilities.

    I also must urge policy makers to investigate what allows teachers to be effective. Is it autonomy in the classroom? Is it support from the administration and parents? Is it something personal about the these teachers that can be characterized and measured? Once “effectiveness” can be measured and characteristics that foster effective teachers can be identified, then perhaps ideal policies for reform may be realized.

    I will also say, however, that a large part of the problem is not just in the classroom, but also on the home front. Parents must support their schools and teachers, help their children learn, and encourage them to take school seriously.

  • Mike Hoffman says:

    Fortunately, there will still be due process protections for teachers (and everybody else) if “tenure” is taken off the table for teachers. So, remove the union contract language and get ready to face more EEOC compliants. Dealing with human beings using coersion almost never works in the long run and creates more bureaucracy and administrative oversight, not less.

    In fact, the term “tenure” is more appropriately applied to higher education and professorships, who have been protected as you describe. K-12 teachers who are granted “tenure” are really just put on a track where the due process procedures are generally more stringent requiring more documentation of remediation (hmmm… helping people get better, novel idea!). Of course, this requires that site administrators are engaged with their teachers and understand what ‘good’ teaching entails and can help a faltering teacher improve or take decisive steps to remove those that won’t or can’t improve. The mechanisms for teacher removal are already in place. They are just poorly utilized at times.

  • Catherine says:


    Somebody has to say it: so if a child has parents who don’t help their children learn and encourage them to take school seriously, that child is out of luck?

    I say that as a parent who is not capable of “helping my child learn” physics or calculus.

  • Catherine says:

    Sorry – comment didn’t format.

    I was responding to Lauren.

  • Anthony Manzo,Ph.D. says:

    With a bit of Mea Culpa Teachers must lead the Next Educational Reform
    Only we know that Teacher Preparation and staff development are seriously flawed, and often painfully inane. There is no real market place in proven ideas, in some ways Teacher Education is controlled by well intentioned but misdirected interests that can include Schools of Education, publishers, self-important foundations, and yes, by weak professors and teachers who get a net gain from generations of ambiguity about our critical mission, powerful professional teaching. Current Teacher Preparation is a mishmash of competing whims and untested practices with no continuity or coherence across the profession. Every other profession has a common core of principles and PRACTICES that everyone is expected to know. Of course, there are outstanding teachers and teacher Education programs but this is random when it needs to be highly replicable.
    Join the dialogue to raise awareness of this critical problem ironically it has an easy, inexpensive solution. The goal is to craft a system for identifying and refreshing a core curriculum of Best Instructional Principles & Practices as opposed to mere “standards.” Teaching is about doing. This would lift the entire profession since there is no other profession that has not done this in some shape or manner. The absence of preparation in a core curriculum makes teacher education impossible, and therefore, evaluation of teacher effectiveness and accountability based on student outcomes illogical, if not irrational. While there is no consensus on core principles and practices to guide instructional decision-making there has been a pretty remarkable, though unheralded progress in pedagogical science made in the last 50 years; it could be called a Cambrian Period as when many new life forms began to appear on planet earth.
    The aim to better regulate teacher preparation may only appear to reduce professionalism, but it is in fact next-generation professionalism; especially now when information is massive, but distilled knowledge still thin. For example it is now widely acknowledged that pilots make many fewer errors when they follow the industry wide constructed check-off lists before takeoffs and at landings. Similarly, life threatening errors have been reduced by a considerable degree when surgeons and support staff have carefully followed check-off lists before, during and following surgery; the more error prone surgeons have been made less so, and the more skilled ones even more so. Ideally, and most likely, as teachers are guided to better instructional decisions, an overall enhancement in decision-making, and strategic thinking are also likely to follow.
    All stakeholders can now be more easily involved in identifying Best Practices, and in the ongoing process of providing field-based guidance of where these choices falter and/or simply need a bit of tweaking or customizing. The effort would take place on the web where all could see and participate, and to that extent would be a transparent and tangible exercise in science, conflict resolution and participatory democracy

    See:http://teacherprofessoraccountability.ning.com/main/invitation/new?xg_source=msg_wel_network And…http://bestmethodsofinstruction.com/
    Or our newest site featuring advanced teaching methods for and concerns of Professional Teachers: http://anthony-manzo.blogspot.com/2010/05/race-to-top-accountability-leaves.html
    Anthony V. Manzo, Ph.D. Professor Emeritus

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