As a parent of public school kids and a vocal opponent of what I like to call education reforminess (the corporate-style, data-driven, high-stakes-testing-loving brand of education reform being foisted on the nation by everyone from Bill Gates to Chris Christie to Arne Duncan), I have a confession to make: I feel deeply ambivalent about teacher tenure.
Tenure reform is one of the key planks in the reformy platform. I have no doubt that this is primarily an anti-union measure driven by big-business interests that hate all unions generally and want to privatize education in particular. The Waltons, Kochs, and Gateses of the world would have us believe that American schools are failing in large part because tenure is protecting the jobs of lousy teachers.
This is absurd. Where schools are troubled, kids and their communities are poor, and they’re not getting the support they need. More affluent schools are doing just fine, and the tenure rules are the same in the best-performing and worst-performing schools. To blame the underperformance of troubled schools on tenure is like blaming World War II on Romania. The Allies couldn’t win the war by defeating Romania, and you can’t improve troubled schools by reforming tenure.
But that doesn’t mean tenure isn’t problematic.
I fully appreciate that, as public employees tasked with a job that depends heavily on many outside factors and that is subject to political pressures, teachers need job protection. I also understand that the “tenure is a job for life” argument is a myth, because tenure allows for dismissal after due process. And I believe wholeheartedly that teacher assessment based on students’ standardized test scores is a stupid, stupid idea.
But there seems to be general agreement that the “due process” provided in New Jersey and elsewhere under tenure is burdensome in the extreme. If you can’t nudge a teacher out some other way (and more often than not, you can), and you have to go to the formal process, it’ll take way more time and money than most districts are able or willing to expend in most cases.
Why does this worry me? Because, like most parents of kids in the public school system, among the dozens of wonderful, caring, competent, hard-working teachers my kids have had, I’ve encountered a tenured teacher who was really not cut out for the job. REALLY not cut out for the job.
I know what a lot of people will say: As a parent, I don’t have the whole story. As a parent, I’m not objective. Job termination is not necessarily the right answer. Professional development and/or transfer to a more suitable position might be viable options.
All true. I could be wrong. But I could be right. If I’m not right about this individual, someone somewhere is right about another teacher - someone who isn’t doing the job well and isn’t fired because it’s simply easier and cheaper not to.
Again, let me emphasize - I don’t think this is a systemic problem that is destroying public education. I don’t even think it happens much at all. And I certainly don’t think, as Perth Amboy superintendent Janine Walker Caffery implied in a recently published column, that kids are endangered by druggies and abusers who remain in the classroom because of tenure. In no way do I want to contribute to that brand of “education in crisis” reformy hysteria.
So what to do? The NJEA has made a very sensible tenure reform proposal: Add a fourth year before tenure is earned, and streamline the process for removing a tenured teacher using an arbitration process. It seems to me that this would address my concerns quite well. Unfortunately, in the current highly charged atmosphere in which teachers are under attack from politicians and the Billionaire Boys Club, it must feel to teachers like capitulation on the part of the union. I fully understand their resentment. The way things are these days, if it were me, I’d be the Fox Mulder of teachers and trust no one.
But I hope that, at some point, we can move beyond the grandstanding and mistrust and do the right thing. It won’t affect the big picture, but every once in a while, kids in a particular classroom might be spared a few hours a week with an unqualified teacher. That would be a good thing.