Tenure is Not the Problem

June 12, 2014

sam001

This article, my first in four years, is a response to an L.A. court judge’s ruling that teacher tenure is not only unconstitutional, but is also one of the causes of student social, academic, and professional failure.  The case was discussed in an article from the Huffington Post.  Here I exhaustively argue that tenure should be protected, and that the real causes of student social, academic, and professional failure have nothing to do with tenure, although they are systemic in nature.

It has been a VERY long time since I last posted here; I suppose I said all I had to say about the institution in those first several months, and, well… the educational system simply does not change all that fast.  In the interim, there hasn’t been much to incite me to a real rant, either. However, for whatever reason, a recent article in the Huffington Post has sent me on a textual tirade like I have not known in many years.  It’s still too early to tell if I’m “coming out of retirement” with this posting, but I simply cannot remain silent on this.  The article in question reports on a recent court ruling by a superior judge in Los Angeles, who attacked California teachers’ tenure as both unconstitutional and partly to blame for the struggles of our state’s educational success.  This is an old argument, and in this post I will weigh in, spring-boarding off the assertions of the Huffington Post article.  There are two main fallacies that need to be addressed in the article.  The first is that tenure is inherently bad because it allows “bad teachers” to stay in the system. The second is that “bad teachers” are the reason for students’ social, academic, and professional failure.

PART THE FIRST: “BAD” AND “GOOD” TEACHERS

We first have to ask: what exactly is a “bad” teacher? If we’re talking about someone who is mentally, verbally, or physically abusive to students, then tenure can’t protect them, plain and simple. They get fired. I’ve seen it happen many times. In fact, I’ve seen a number of teachers whose job was threatened or lost based on pure allegations of this kind of behavior, even when said behavior wasn’t true. Trust me: if students, parents, and/or administrators really want to fire someone, they find a way.

Perhaps a “bad” teacher is just someone who is mediocre in his or her performance or who doesn’t really search for newer or more effective approaches, or maybe this teacher just doesn’t explain things well or doesn’t really connect with the students. Well, I’ve had about a hundred of those. Haven’t you? I’m pretty sure I’m not a serial killer or anything, and the only reason my annual salary is so low has nothing to do with this overexposure to “bad” teachers, as this article asserts. In fact, it’s because I became a teacher!

Now let’s talk about “good” teachers. Think of the teachers you’ve had who stand out in your mind as “good.” Chances are they were innovative, outside the box, and got you to think about things in ways you never had before. They were movers and shakers. They probably broke the mold, challenged the status quo, changed the paradigm, and ten thousand other clichés that essentially boil down to one thing: they were non-conformist. The number of teachers you had like this is probably far fewer than the other kind, but then again, how many of those mediocre teachers can you really remember?  Again, the article asserts that one year with one bad teacher can damage a student’s earning potential by $50,000 (as if earning potential is the only way to measure the merit of a human being). The opposite is true: one year—hell, one SEMESTER—with one great teacher can transform a student’s life. And just because I like to get big and historical with things, let me throw it out there that the very foundations of this nation-state and all things that are good and decent in human society are based on the teachings and philosophies of non-conformists, such as Voltaire (who was jailed twice) and the Enlightenment Philosophers, George Washington and the Founding Fathers, John Lennon and the Silver Beatles, and Jesus Bleeding Christ. Now let’s think of some famous conformists: Communists and Nazis.  That’s right, I went there.

I digress.  Let me put sarcasm aside.  Who is your great teacher? Put him or her in your mind right now. Now imagine what your life would have been without that person. Taking away tenure makes it easier to fire bad teachers, sure. It would also make it easier to fire good teachers.  And good teachers, because of the sheer fact that they are non-conformist by nature, are regularly the target of witch-hunts by narrow-minded, nit-picking administrators and politicians who cannot or will not see that their authoritarian, cookie-cutter approaches to the profession simply do not work. Just imagine the specifics of your own profession, and think about how miserably things go when some middle- or upper-manager tries to tell you how to do it. Or imagine some judge or some elected official or the President of the United States trying to tell you how to do your job. They can barely handle their own jobs. These aren’t the people you want telling you how to do the job in which you are trained and experienced.  And you definitely don’t want them coming up with easier ways to fire you. Tenure is not inherently bad because it protects ten thousand “bad” teachers. Tenure is inherently good because it protects the few “good” ones who are out there.

PART THE SECOND: SOCIAL, ACADEMIC, AND PROFESSIONAL FAILURE

When children and young adults “fail to launch,” let’s call it, the contribution of “bad” teachers (barring outright abuse, which is not under discussion here) is miniscule compared to the three true culprits: (1) the afore-mentioned authoritarian approaches to education, (2) the socio-economic circumstances of the child in question, and (3) parenting.

Above I mentioned “authoritarian, cookie-cutter” approaches. What I’m talking about are all variety of programs and initiatives designed by politicians and administrators with the intent of somehow “reinventing the wheel” and miraculously repairing all the woes of public education in one bloated strategy with a silly acronym for a name. A few examples are the new “Common Core” movement; its predecessor, the “No Child Left Behind” movement; the standardized test approach; the project-based learning approach; a fanatical, near religious worship of the strategies of Robert Marzano… the list is endless. Any one of these methodologies has its pros and cons, and all of them have their benefits in certain aspects of teaching, but none of them is the one, seamless solution to all the struggles of educating a nation of diverse youth. As has been said many times in many ways: students are human beings, not widgets. Nevertheless, administrators and politicians continually insist upon whatever is the newest “six-sigma” model in the educational realm, and it has nothing to do with whether or not it actually works for the students. What it does have to do with is who is funding the initiative and who is receiving those funds.

Branded initiatives aside, we need look no further than the nationwide trend of disappearing vocational, art, and elective programs in schools.  Politicians and administrators would have us believe that the only knowledge sets worth having are those of abstract mathematics and the King’s English. It isn’t hard to imagine students becoming increasingly disenchanted and disinterested in the system when it so blatantly disregards all manner of things that are interesting and meaningful to their lives. Of course, if you are the teacher trying NOT to force-feed Shakespearian iambic pentameter down the throat of the next Jimi Hendrix or Frank Lloyd Wright, well then you’re just a “bad” teacher, because you won’t toe the party line.  With their blind allegiance to “college readiness” at the expense of all else that makes life worth living, conventional and authoritarian education has even less relevance to students in low socioeconomic communities. These children leave school and spend the rest of their day engaged in one or more of the following activities: raising their siblings while their parents work their second or third job; working jobs of their own to help support their household; wondering where their next meal will come from; and/or surviving the threats of drugs, alcoholism, prostitution, and gang warfare. They have no time or need for homework in the traditional sense, and even if a student has aspirations of college, he or she is unlikely to ever be able to have enough money to enroll.

This brings me to the second cause for a “failure to launch”: socio-economic societies (SES). The article asserts that low SESes are “dumping grounds” for “bad” teachers, and it further implies that “bad” teachers are in fact the reason that low SESes cannot rise from the ashes and become thriving metropolises populated by the scholar-gentry. As for the “dumping grounds” issue, I’ll say this: politicians and administrators run their school districts like businesses. They give their time, energy, and MONEY to the school sites that have the best chance of performing well on various bogus measures, especially the Annual Performance Index (API). And like private businesses, the employees who are in the bosses’ good graces (the conformists) get the nice offices with the windows. The non-conformists get the basement “offices.” Hence, “bad” teachers, which are actually the “good” teachers (the non-conformists) are remanded to that part of the district that is neglected by the elite, and then those same teachers are blamed for the poor performance of that part of the district.

As for this implication that teachers are responsible for the SES level of their community: this is pure nonsense. Socio-political science demonstrates over and over throughout history that a community’s SES level is the result of complex and massive political forces coming to fruition after decades or even centuries. These forces are far beyond the influence of individual citizens, short of banding together in full-scale revolution against a vastly superior politico-military force. Education can help them—yes—but it must be of a kind that is useful for that community in its present circumstances. A community like Compton, Los Angeles has no use for Shakespeare or quadratic formulas. These children need to be taught the dangers of drugs and alcohol, the importance (and behaviors) of responsible sexuality, and the skill sets required to be successful in the vocational fields in which they might actually be employed. Over great lengths of time—and we’re talking decades at best—the community might begin to prosper, and the citizens MIGHT be able to consider more prosperous jobs. The process can be accelerated by the injection of money from outside the community, such as through merchant/tourist activities, but this is no guarantee, either, and regardless, it is ALL out of the control of the teachers in that community, ESPECIALLY if those teachers are forced to teach the same irrelevant dribble to students in the poverty cycle as is taught to their snobby peers over in Beverly Hills. Across their academic careers, students from low SES households have increasingly less access to educational resources, and they get increasingly less practice at home, especially as the curriculum begins to outstrip their parents’ level of education. Thus, it becomes increasingly harder for a given teacher to bridge the knowledge gap for a student, especially when the number of students under each teacher’s purview continues to increase.

Finally, we come to the ultimate source of all student success or failure: parenting. A typical teacher (at the secondary level), even a “bad” one, spends less than one hour a day with a student, five of the seven days each week, and only for 36 of the 52 weeks out of the year. This is assuming the student has perfect attendance, which likely is not to happen with students who are struggling academically. Let’s go ahead and throw in the other five teachers and whatnot and say that the mandated school day is approximately seven hours (x) five days (=) thirty-five hours a week. That’s not even 1.5 full days out of each week.  For the other 5.5 days, and for all vacation time, the students are under the full jurisdiction of their PARENTS, for better or worse. And this is not to say that poor students come exclusively from poor parenting. Of course that happens, but equally likely in low-SES communities is that we have parents who love their children dearly and want nothing more for them than to send them to Harvard and then on to world domination, but these parents are INCAPABLE of helping their children in this way due to their own lack of education and resources. Like their children, they are victims of the poverty cycle and the complex and massive socio-political forces that have brought them to where they are. And when these parents talk to their children’s teachers, they thank them.  They thank them for everything they do—even the so-called “bad” ones.

PART THE LAST: CONCLUSION

Tenure cannot save those teachers who are truly destructive to children, and it does not provide a breeding ground for poor educational approaches.  Tenure is not the problem. Taking tenure away or making it harder to earn will not repair the complex socio-political forces that create low-income societies and struggling, illiterate families. It will not prevent the ineffective, authoritarian initiatives from infiltrating classrooms across the nation.  In fact, what WILL happen is administrators, politicians, and private business interests will have more influence over what gets taught in classrooms, and HOW it gets taught.  “Good,” non-conformist teachers will be excommunicated, and the curriculum will continue to move FARTHER away from what is relevant to the students, and the approaches used will increasingly DISCOURAGE students from thinking creatively and in innovative ways. The powers will have gotten one step closer to a massive, conformist educational system that preaches only the propaganda of the state and mass-produces mindless automatons as citizens. Such experiments have been tried many times throughout history, inevitably and repeatedly leading to the suffering of thousands or millions of people. Dissention and non-conformity are hallmarks of a free state and must be protected. Tenure for teachers is one small way to do so.

5 Responses to “Tenure is Not the Problem”

  1. A couple of questions from a reader (originally posted on Facebook):

    Just some quick questions that rise from reading your blog; Don’t unions, by their very nature and definition, also create a conformist teacher?…You failed to mention parent disinterest. This has always seemed to me a major cause for student failure. And disinterest can cross any SES level. ~Richard Ortega

  2. My response to Mr. Ortega:

    Richard, to the first question, I’d say unions TRY to create conformists, mainly in their politics, but this has nothing to do with the classroom practice directly. Every time there’s an election of any sort, the union will call teachers and try to convince them to vote a certain way, but I just blow them off. I think it’s a deplorable practice. At any rate, they’re attempting to influence the system at the political level, and we like to think they’re trying to put politicians in the seats who won’t insist on these stupid, authoritarian programs I mentioned, but, well… The teachers union is bloated and clumsy sometimes, like all unions are, but I will say that it does still serve the purpose for which unions were originally intended: to protect the workers from the unfair and unethical whims of the bosses. Remember again that students are not widgets, so measuring “productivity” in an educational system cannot be done in any of the same ways as your typical business enterprise. Nevertheless, the bosses insist that it can be, and they use their faulty measuring sticks to attack teachers against whom they have personal/political grudges. Trust me: this field gets personal, political, and PETTY really fast. The union has protected myself and my colleagues many times now in my short career from this pettiness, and they have NEVER tried to tell me how to run my classroom or teach my students.

    As for parent disinterest, yes, that is without a doubt a cause for student failure. I mentioned it briefly as part of my discussion on parenting, near the end of the article. The point I was making there went something like this: “bad parenting results in poor students, which kind of goes without saying, but even GOOD parents in low SES communities often cannot help their students the way they would like to, so the result for the student is the same.”

  3. Amazing job. Well versed and very informative. Cuts through the BS and gets to the root of the problem.

  4. Pam Arterburn said

    This is a good article, Geoff. I especially like what you said about administrators being the ones who decide which teachers are moved where, and that they give far more attention and focus to the schools that “perform well” than those that don’t.

    You are also right about the student’s socioeconomic status being a major determining factor in how well that student does in class. Families are in crisis when jobs are scarce and they must struggle for every dime they get. This ties into the child’s family; even the best teachers regularly lose students because the student’s parents are so unstable.

    Perhaps even the word “parenting” is inadequate, since so many children have been cast off by their dysfunctional parents and are living with grandparents or other relatives. In the student essays I read, many of my students try to succeed in school DESPITE their parents’ efforts to undermine them!! As they climb higher on the educational ladder, the pressures change; I have young women who are doing well in class yet their parents see them as failures because they did not marry and have children by the age of 18. Self-esteem problems are rooted in the way many of my students’ parents tell them not to try, because they will never make anything of themselves. That young people have to struggle against their own parents to improve their lives is so central to the issue of success in school that the notion that it’s all the teacher’s fault is completely off the mark.

    I don’t think many people really know much about students’ lives, and it’s politically popular to blame teachers, so they take aim and fire. Too bad the focus all along has not been on what is best for students rather than what fits an ideology or attitude about our schools. None of these problems will be addressed by taking tenure away. What it will do is give administrators even more power to make unilateral decisions that will hurt both teachers and students.

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