Opinion: Blaming Tenure May Be Free But it's a Cheap Shot

Wednesday, June 18, 2014 - 12:18 PM

The big buzz in education circles is the recent decision in California by Judge Treu eviscerating tenure for teachers on the grounds that it is discriminatory for poor and underprivileged students.

It got me thinking about what else the esteemed judge could have struck down.

For example, he might have decreed that since poverty is the single greatest detriment to a student’s educational achievement, the wealthy would have to shell out new tax dollars to even the score. He also could have ruled that poor students would receive free healthcare and increased SNAP benefits to ensure they are well and well fed enough to take full advantage of the educational opportunities afforded them.

But Treu didn’t do any of those things to  improve the lot of children in California. He struck down teacher tenure. Why was tenure singled out when so many other societal factors weigh so much more heavily on educational outcomes for impoverished students?

The highly varnished version from the group Students Matter is that nine students, none of whom look older than 14, decided on their own that tenure was the bane of teaching, and battled those nasty teachers’ unions to secure their right to a fair education. The truth is that these kids appear to be pawns in an attempt by millionaire David Welch, founder of Student Matters, to snatch away the Holy Grail of education reform: teacher tenure.

Tenure is widely misunderstood. It is a right that teachers earn, and that is conferred upon us after a lengthy period of at-will employment. Once earned, tenure is difficult, though hardly as impossible as reformers like Welch would have it, to revoke. It does not guarantee teachers lifetime employment; it confers the right to a hearing before termination.

It ensures that teachers cannot be terminated for capricious reasons, for teaching controversial material, or for the sin of climbing up the salary scale and making too much money.

That last reason is, in reality, where David Welch and other wealthy education reformers come in.

Their purpose is to weaken teachers’ unions, perhaps the strongest remaining bastions of vibrant unionism still standing. If the wealthy reformers can accomplish that, then the earnings floor is snatched away from all workers. The rich will get richer, and the ordinary laborer will compete for whatever crumbs are left.

If you doubt this, ask yourself what the real upshot will be if tenure is eliminated. Effective senior teachers will be jettisoned in favor of lower paid temporary replacements. Teachers who stand up for students’ rights will be shown the door, and those who fight for academic freedom will be labeled troublemakers and fired. Teaching will become an even lower paying profession than it is now, driving our best and brightest college minds into other, more lucrative fields.

Those nine students and others like them won’t be miraculously cured of the societal ills that plague the disadvantaged and keep them from a quality education. Rather, they will be taught by underpaid, disgruntled temporary employees who will teach them that Jesus tamed the West while riding a dinosaur, if that’s what the state mandates and what will keep them their jobs.

By all means, we should attack the societal ills that prevent young people from attaining the education they deserve. But this salvo against tenure will not feed a single hungry child, nor level the playing field for the poorest of our kids.

Blaming teachers may be free but for the wealthy reformers it also could be immensely profitable.


Tim Clifford


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Comments [7]

John Giambalvo from New York City

Responding to commenter "Julia Bator from NYC"; A careful read of the facts behind the case will show that the law was just this year revised -after the beginning of the case- to reflect that. Certain teachers, who had began their career in a classroom environment outside of a public school, were granted six months worth of credit. That is far from the 18-months you claim teachers be granted tenure.
Just briefly to address your opinion that California's law needed to be revised: It was. Laws are often revised. They are revised by legitimately elected professional legislators. If the law needed to be revised, the legislature of California was the place to revise it. A court, nor a piece of research, does not reflect the will of the people the way a duly elected legislature does.
Finally, there are no grossly ineffective teachers in California. That label does not exist. Of course, there are bad ones. But how many do you think there are?

Jul. 20 2014 03:30 PM
Tim Clifford from New York

Dear Not Wealthy, What your "stats" forgot to mention is that almost half of all teachers never make it to their fifth year. Many quit because they can not do the job, and others are forced out for the same reason. Do you know of any other profession in which half the members leave or are forced out? Doctors? Lawyers? Anyone? No, of course not.

Those who can not do the job don't stay. If there are some "grossly ineffective" teachers out there, it's because a principal did not do his or her job properly. Even in CA, a school has two years to fire a teacher for any reason before tenure kicks in. Do you honestly believe that any reasonably competent principal would keep a teacher who was "grossly ineffective"?

Once a teacher invests, as I did, seven years in obtaining the education credentials and degrees necessary for certification, the onus should be on the school to prove incompetence. No one in their right mind will go into teaching if all their hard work can be rendered useless by a principal who wants to fire higher paid teachers or teachers who advocate too loudly for their students' rights.

Jun. 19 2014 07:05 PM
Not a wealthy person from OHIO

Tim, you write "It does not guarantee teachers lifetime employment; it confers the right to a hearing before termination."

That's hilarious. The hearings basically last a lifetime anyway in most states, thanks to a number of archaic union regulations. Who has 830 days to devote to the dismissal process? That's how long the average tenured teacher termination effort takes in some states. I think principals have more important things to focus on.

According to the Wall Street Journal (FYI, it's owned by some wealthy companies/people too, so you'll probably dismiss these stats outright since wealthy = automatically bad, in your mind), "Fewer than 0.002% of California teachers are dismissed for unprofessional conduct or poor performance in any given year compared to 1% of other California public employees and 8% of workers in the private economy."

"L.A. spent $3.5 million between 2000 and 2010 to fire seven teachers for poor performance. Yet only four of the seven were ultimately dismissed. Two received large settlement payouts, and one was retained. Chief of Human Resources Vivian Ekchian testified that the district employs 350 grossly ineffective teachers it hasn't even sought to dismiss."

Jun. 19 2014 04:36 PM
Tim Clifford from New York

Lashing out? Your organization is funded by people who are looking to destroy teachers' unions, and you think I am lashing out?

Do you seriously expect anyone to believe that 9 children decided that tenure was the reason their education was subpar? No, it was a fabulously wealthy ed reformer, like the ones who pay your salary, who brought the case and found children they could use as puppets.

You want to talk about facts. Well, here are some:

FACT: The term "grossly incompetent teachers" is one made up by ed reformers like your bosses. It has no actual meaning behind it. It is merely a way to demonize teachers.

FACT: Tenure only gives teachers a right to a hearing before they can be dismissed. It gives us academic freedom and the right to unionize--NOT a lifetime position.

FACT: It is school officials who either grant or deny tenure--not teachers nor our union. They should never give tenure to someone who they think is "grossly incompetent". If you have a complaint against tenure, you should be fighting the people who grant it.

FACT: Tenure is NOT the reason why students are poor, abused, hungry, and generally unprepared to learn. Those are societal issues and can not be solved by trying to destroy unions.

FACT: Your organization takes a great deal of money from very wealthy people who want to do away with teachers' unions.

FACT: The vast majority of incompetent teachers either leave the system or are forced out before they can be granted tenure.

Those are the facts.

Jun. 19 2014 03:28 PM
Julia Bator

Mr. Clifford, I prefer to stick to facts rather than lash out at people and organizations. Fact: The DEFENDANTS testified in Vergara that CA's early credentialing is a “real problem” and agreed that 1-3% of CA teachers are (to use their OWN term) “grossly ineffective,” meaning that there are 2750-8250 such teachers in CA. Fact: the DEFENSE testified that dismissals are “extremely rare” because people believe them to be “impossible” and only 2.2 teachers are dismissed for incompetence, on average, in CA every year. Fact: A body of nonpartisan research shows clearly that 3-5 years is an appropriate window for evaluating teacher competency. Final fact: I am also an experienced public school teacher and have spent my career working on behalf of the public schools --- but that doesn't entitle me to a soapbox or a halo. It’s not union bashing or demonizing anyone to say that California’s laws need work.

Jun. 19 2014 01:58 PM
Tim Clifford from New York

Ms. Bator, I always like to know whom I am dealing with, and it seems you are associated with an organization that is funded by the very people who bash teachers on a regular basis. For example, the "Fund for Public Schools, for whom you work, names Mort Zuckerman as vice chair. Zuckerman publishes the Daily News, which regularly demonizes teachers and our union. It also names someone from Goldman Sachs, who stands to benefit greatly if unions and pensions are destroyed.

My agenda is that I am a public school teacher who wants the best for children. What's yours?

To address your question, I have read the facts of the case. It takes California 18 months, at minimum, to grant tenure. As an experienced teacher, I can tell you that I can spot an ineffective teacher in 18 minutes. Are you seriously suggesting that principals in CA as so incompetent that they don't know who their good and bad teachers are? If so, THAT is what requires reform.

I'm not going to even address your "lightning" comment, as it's pure hyperbole and clearly a made up statistic. What is a "grossly ineffective" teacher, anyway? Is it determined by the principal who granted tenure in the first place? Or is it, as I suspect, a new ed reform buzz word that people like Mort Zuckerman would like to hang on teachers?

BTW--did you know that, statistically speaking, you are more likely to get struck by lightning than to get a straight answer from an ed reformer who funds charter schools?

Jun. 19 2014 01:01 PM
Julia Bator from NYC

Mr. Clifford, you write: " a right that teachers earn...after a lengthy period of at-will employment. Once earned, tenure is difficult, though hardly as impossible as reformers like Welch would have it, to revoke." Have you not read the facts of the California case?? In California, teachers can be granted tenure after only 18 months --- before the state's own 2-year onboarding process and despite extensive research showing 3-5 years to be a useful timeline. Furthermore, numbers provided during the case show that it is more likely for a grossly ineffective teacher in CA to be struck by lightning than to be dismissed. it's not that tenure is never ok, it's that California's laws need major revision. Don't try to frame this case as union bashing. It's about students.

Jun. 19 2014 12:16 PM

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