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Op-Ed: True Tenure Reform

In teaching -- as in baseball -- help the stars shine

Something called “tenure reform” is about to be enacted in the state of New Jersey. This is a result of an effort in the Legislature to cure a serious illness by applying a series of Band-Aids.

Unfortunately, there cannot be true tenure reform without taking some drastic steps and without an adequate reward system for the outstanding teacher.

I was a classroom teacher and educational administrator for 48 years. I taught at every grade level from fourth grade (in East Harlem) to university level in both New York and New Jersey. I taught in both the public and private sector. I was very involved in teacher evaluations.

In a nutshell, here are the two “reforms” that are really needed to improve education:

  • Create a rational system by which we can designate that someone is a “master teacher” -- and deserving of tenure.

  • Compensate master teachers on the same pay scale as school principals.

Only if we seriously try to identify outstanding teaching and reward it will we ever be able to “improve education.”

Yes, I do know how difficult it is to “evaluate good teaching.” I have personally observed many teachers at every level of the educational spectrum -- in an effort to help them “improve their teaching.” But because it is difficult does not mean that it cannot be done.

A Major Problem in Our Public School System

The public school system in the U.S. has faced a major crisis for many years and many people are not even aware of it. Some of the best classroom teachers leave the classroom every year -- even though many of them would prefer to stay and continue teaching.

This happens primarily because we do not recognize or honor (or compensate) good teaching in an adequate manner. It would almost seem that we want to encourage the best teachers to leave the classroom.

What is needed in our public school system is a true recognition of good teaching -- aimed at keeping the best teachers in the classroom (and not the lip service that we currently pay to this concept).

Take a look at the salaries of the public school personnel in any school in any district in the U.S. and see how many of the highest-paid workers are “classroom teachers.” You will find few, if any.

There is no valid reason why the principal of a school should be paid more than an outstanding classroom teacher who has been on the job longer. In fact, there is every reason why the good experienced teacher should earn more. It is the classroom teacher who carries out the essential job of a school -- instructing students.

Yet every year some of our best teachers leave the classroom for an administrative post in the school or in the district -- not because they want to -- but because they have to (for financial reasons).

A major fallacy in our current collective thinking is to consider the role of a teacher and the role of a school administrator as comparable to that of a clerical worker and a supervisor in a private work setting. The teacher/administrator dynamic is nothing like this.

A better analogy would be that of the players and the manager of a baseball team. Joe Girardi of the Yankees coordinates the on-field activities of the team. But Derek Jeter is paid much more than Girardi because he is more valuable.

Teachers and school administrators are similar to the baseball model. The teacher and the player are the real stars of their teams. The school administrator and the baseball manager are simply there to help the stars shine. Some coaches and administrators are needed -- but they do not play the game. On the field and in the classroom is where the game (of baseball or education) is won or lost.

The Master Teacher

In our present system, some of the best teachers leave the classroom each year in order to make more money as administrators (or in some other field). Where is the logic in that?

What is needed is a new way of thinking in regard to how we view (and reward) teachers. One step in the right direction would be to create a category (or job title) that recognizes the value of the best teachers.

For this discussion, let us call these teachers the "master teachers. " (And let us assume for the moment that we can put a process in place so that such teachers can indeed be identified.)

Some thoughts on the master teacher (MT):

  • One can become an MT only after seven years of outstanding teaching (at any grade level) plus a suitable master’s degree.

  • A teacher must apply for MT status -- it is not automatic. A good teacher may choose to continue to teach in a district for many years and never apply for MT status. And that is acceptable.

  • If a teacher is promoted to MT status, he/she receives tenure and is paid on a scale comparable to that of a school principal.

  • Only master teachers earn tenure in a district -- no other teachers or administrators.

This proposal really is not as “radical” as some may initially think. In fact, as most observers will note, there already exists a precedent for it (which works quite well) at the higher education level.

One immediate outcome of the master teacher concept would be to send the proper message to young teachers (and those training to be teachers).

And that message is: if you are a good teacher, then it will not be necessary for you to leave the classroom and the job you love in order to get the credit you deserve or the financial support you need for yourself and your family.

Instruction of students takes place essentially (but not exclusively) in the classroom. And any serious attempt at “educational reform” must begin with an attempt to keep the best teachers in the classroom.

Unfortunately, our educational system at present often gets an “F” in this respect.

Dr. Michael Hoban spent 48 years as a teacher and administrator at all levels of education -- from elementary school to university. He is Professor Emeritus at the City University of New York and is also retired from Monmouth University. He presently serves as senior educational consultant to Lakewood U.N.I.T.E.

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