Monday, April 28, 2014

Sell Your Tenure And You Sell Your Soul

As public education is increasingly pushed into the arms of private business, market-minded individuals seek to end tenure.  They argue tenure protects the incompetent and strips students of their civil rights.  The war against tenure is presently being waged in Los Angeles in the Vergara Case.  

Some argue if tenure doesn't work for private business, it can't work for public schools.  Small businesses cannot afford to absorb losses generated by inferior employees.  In general, the entire argument might go:  "What's good for General Motors is good for the country."  Of course, in defense of Charles E. Wilson, I would like to point out that he actually said something far more sensible and quite distinct from this.

People who frame the debate in these terms fail to understand that public education and private business are two very different birds, despite the best efforts of some to meld them into one.  Public education is a public trust.  No individual (or party of individuals) holds a monopoly upon the truth, or upon a single superior curriculum, not even Pearson with its Common-Core aligned standardized state tests, despite any product claims they may make to the contrary.  

Good teaching demands academic freedom. Teachers need to be able to broach a variety of topics in the classroom.  Teachers should encourage debate.  Students need to hear both sides of issues and learn how to make their own informed decisions.  If there is no student on the other side of a debate, the teacher must be that person who helps students understand how someone might think differently.

Teachers need to be able to stuff their schools' suggestion box, so to speak, without fear for their job security.  I can think of one example.  I remember a certain professor with a Princeton Ph.D. who questioned mandatory attendance of the college body at chapel services in the early 1960s.  Unforeseen divisiveness ensued. Without tenure, he was dismissed.  He moved onto a more open-minded academic institution.  I would hazard to say all turned out for the best.  And, of course, that original employer no longer demands attendance at chapel services.

Tenure protects teachers who hold their students to high standards.  During the Bloomberg years, I witnessed a significant lowering of standards in order to meet his demands for increased graduation rates.  If teachers did not have tenure, they might be fired for offering a more challenging course.  Given a choice of an easier teacher or a harder one, most students would choose the easier one.  Without tenure, teachers who ask for more might very well be fired because student demand is low. Adam Smith's supply and demand doesn't function well in this part of the public sector.

If teachers did not have tenure, principals might operate their school as a huge patronage system.  New principals might fire an entire staff and stock the school with their cronies, regardless of public interest.  As it stands now in N.Y.C., principals must pay for their staff out of their school budgets.  When it comes to hiring ATRs, this system, beyond a doubt, discriminates against older teachers.  

Teachers also need tenure to fortify any whistle-blower protections.  In public education, teachers are charged with the task of helping to protect and secure an environment which allows students to thrive, mentally and physically.  Teachers need tenure as an added layer of protection given the important role they play in protecting their students' interests and health.  Teachers do not need to face firing, disguised as something else, for pointing out potentially hazardous conditions.

I would argue teachers hold a job which in many ways makes them particularly susceptible to false accusations.  I would say the boldest of these assertions today is that teachers cause poverty.  Given that teachers may interact with upwards of 150 teenagers per day and are charged with the task of evaluating and grading their work, it makes them particularly susceptible to spiteful accusations.  Even as far back as 1934, Lillian Hellman exposed this concern in her play The Children's Hour. I also think of Arthur Miller's 1953 play, The Crucible, in which accusations by young girls fly across the Salem sky like imaginary witches on broomsticks.  

When teachers are accused of inappropriate behavior today, they are immediately removed from contact with children.  This is a "no brainer."  From all I've read, the next thing to happen is that Campbell Brown wants the teacher axed without due-process rights.  Tenure guarantees due process.  It doesn't guarantee perverts a job.  It does not protect the incompetent from being fired.   It only helps to protect those who are falsely accused. 

I am saddened that V.A.M. seems to be just another attempt to skirt teacher tenure. If my students do poorly on a test, I may be out the door--without much regard to the validity of the test or the quality of my teaching.  Petty administrators may stock some teacher's class with the worst test takers in the building and then sit back and smirk at the impending doom.  It could be a cheap and simple formula for dispensing with highly paid teachers.  A vindictive class of teenagers might decide to up and fail a test on purpose.  Currently in NY state, students know their high-stakes standardized test scores do not count against them.  They may put in next-to-no effort, unintentionally making a martyr of their teacher.

Despite the protections of tenure, many teachers are not retained.  Many teachers are weeded out during student teaching or during the years it takes to earn tenure. Others lose their jobs either because of incompetency or inappropriate behavior.  I have seen a number of teachers come and go in the space of my career, some for reasons I understand and others for reasons not fully grasped.  I realize it is costly and time-consuming to offer teachers their due-process rights, but it is better than summarily dismissing teachers without due cause.  It is intensely important for administrators to exercise good judgment when granting tenure.  It is important for teachers to be forced to prove themselves for a significant period of time first.  It is also important, however, to make teaching an attractive profession that will act like a magnet for the best and the brightest.  I would say right now, due largely to current educational reform, there are two negative poles in the profession.  

For those like Michelle Rhee who would seek to encourage teachers to sell their tenure for promises of possible merit pay, I say, "put down your pitchfork."  Sell your tenure and you sell your soul.  This is no private business.  This is the public's welfare at stake.  
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