10 Reasons Why Teacher Tenure Matters(TLDR?)

Almost every time I go to a party, a bbq or on a date,  people ask me what I do.   When I reluctantly admit to be a high school teacher,  they  say something like:   “The problem with education is that we can’t fire bad teachers—oh but I’m sure you’re  different because you’re a good teacher.”   While  I always ask how they can be sure(and they assume that I am joking)I am left to conclude that having due process before you’re fired is a foreign concept to most people.     Right now there’s a lawsuit in Los Angeles http://www.newsmax.com/US/California-lawsuit-tenure-teachers/2014/02/04/id/550924/ about teacher tenure.   In Vergara v California  a telecom mogul and a former solicitor general are arguing that  teacher tenure is a civil rights violation of low income students because it subjects them to bad teachers.   According to the Students Matter Website teacher tenure is bad because:

  1. Permanent status is granted after two years of service-right as new teachers are  finishing their beginning teacher support programs.
  2. There is no effective way to dismiss a teacher-they claim that only 91 teachers have been dismissed in California in the last ten years.
  3. The Last In, First Out(or LIFO) statutes are bad because they turn teachers into “faceless seniority numbers”.   They go on to say that ” The LIFO law forces administrators to let go of passionate and motivating newer teachers and keep ineffective teachers instead, just because they have seniority.” http://studentsmatter.org/our-case/vergara-v-california-case-summary/#sthash.qTRuukOd.dpuffaceless seniority numbers. The LIFO law forces administrators to let go of passionate and motivating newer teachers and keep ineffective teachers instead, just because they have seniority. – See more at: http://studentsmatter.org/our-case/vergara-v-california-case-summary/#sthash.qTRuukOd.dpu

Their assertions are misleading and patently false.   For example, while it is true that it is possible to get  permanent status (or teacher tenure) after only two years-in the current economic climate it is highly unlikely.    Many new teachers are hired as “Temporary” employees, not “Probationary”.      If a new teacher is hired as temporary,  their contract ends after a year and they don’t have to be rehired by the district.    Even if they do have probationary status,  new teachers are often laid off or pink slipped at the end of the year because of budget problems.  As there is no guarantee of a job,  they might look to another district-which means their tenure clock starts all over again.

As to the second point-this is just  false.    While I am guessing it is true that 91 teachers have been fired across the state for egregious conduct, what the number isn’t taking into account is how many teachers received non reelection notices.   When you are a probationary teacher,  you can be let go at any point, without cause.   It is called a “Non Re Elect”.   It just means that rather than granting  permanent status, the district is taking a pass.   I know that far more than 91 non re elects  have been issued in the last two years; they’re common.     Furthermore, what the 91 teachers number isn’t taking into account is how many teachers took the option of resigning rather than being fired-this option, except in the worst cases, is almost always offered.   The fact is that teachers can and are fired-after due process. Which leads to the question of why do teachers have tenure anyway?

1. Grades: there is a belief that teachers “give” grades to students-if a student fails-and can’t play their sport the next year, even though they’re a star player, or gets an A- and their parents think they won’t get into Harvard- it becomes the teacher’s fault.     Oftentimes, we are pressured to change the grade, or give the student more assignments to bring up their grade,  or assign an extra credit poster their parent can complete for them.   Really, this is a larger discussion about grades, and how the prevailing belief seems to be if a student does all the work they should have an A.  Nevertheless, parent pressure can be intense.

2. Older Teachers:  someone who has been teaching for a while makes almost twice as much as a first year teacher. No matter how good the more experienced teacher is, it’s more economical to hire new people for less pay.     There’s something inherently ageist about the way older teachers are characterized-which is surprising because we know how deeply valued and respected older women are in our society.     Maybe I am cynical,  but in my experience teachers are labeled “Passionate” because they never say no(because they want to make a good impression)  and “Motivating”  because they are willing to try any new scheme which is really an old scheme rebranded suggested by a consultant(because they are afraid of getting fired).     I have to say out of all the reasons against teacher tenure, LIFOs is the one that touches me the most.  I was laid off every year-for six years.    While I have always ended up with a job,  going on job interviews  and sending out resumes made for a stressful summer. I’d lay awake in bed and wonder  if this was the year that I would not find a teaching job.   My entire life would be up in the air for months. Never once did I think that I was somehow more deserving of job than my teacher mentor or the woman who had been hired a year ahead of me.   Nor did I see tenure as the problem.     However, what was/is the problem,  is a system that can’t figure out how it will fund it schools.   The cheapest solution is to have a constant revolving door of low paid teachers.

3. The contract: Many people view teaching as an interesting hobby-or like the teacher is a missionary-and not truly dedicated to their students unless they are willing to work for free.  I have no interest in sounding like a martyr,  but most teachers work for free anyway, grading on the weekend and on vacations, lesson planning in the evenings etc. We are not salaried employees, we are paid by the hour, and we are not paid over the summer. For additional work, teachers with tenure are able to say, “you know, that’s not part of contracted hours, and we should be paid” without fear of being seen as a troublemaker,  or that they don’t truly care about the children.  Imagine a Lawyer not being able to bill their hours-and then having someone say, “you’don’t really like your clients or believe in law because you want to be paid, maybe you should find a different profession.”

4. Politics- I know that many people see education as a bastion of liberal brainwashing. But, it cuts both ways, there are liberal and conservative teachers-there are teachers that wear hijabs, teachers that wear skullcaps-teachers that are catholic, teachers that are evangelical-my point is that teachers shouldn’t be fired for not absolutely reflecting the values or dominant religion of the community they are working in-which is how teacher tenure got started anyway.

5. The Union: I have many friends on facebook who don’t like unions-keep in mind that the teacher’s union fights for teacher’s working conditions-which are your children’s learning environments- the union consistently fights for smaller class sizes, librarians, speech therapists, special education programs, music, professional development and building improvements-all of which benefit children. If teachers don’t have tenure, they will not be able to participate in the union, without fear of getting fired.   Yes, the union does represent teachers who have been accused of terrible conduct.   However, that is part of due process,  and if they didn’t provide the representation, the Union could get sued.

6. It’s more democratic: The second thing that I love most about my job is the collaboration between teachers, administrators, students and parents. For the majority of my teaching career, I have been lucky enough to work with talented administrators, supportive coworkers, and dedicated parents. The local control of schools is based on a democratic model, in which interested parties come to decisions that are in the best interests of the students and the community. Yet, since I have been teaching, there has been a been a movement to a top down approach- in which appointed national officials, and people outside of the community and the classroom make sweeping decisions to change education. School board members, admin, parents, and educators are told what to do by people who are not part of the community.    How can you become an interested party, unless you have a vested interest and a history with the school?

7. Follow the Money: David Welch is funding this lawsuit- why would a telecommunications CEO be interested in teacher tenure? Could it be that his telecommunications company would benefit from more online schools with classes taught by teachers without tenure or even certification? So much of what is happening in education has very little to do with student learning or improving education, but has everything to do with privatizing education and outsourcing to tech companies who are looking for emerging markets.    A couple of years ago, I went to a talk about educational reform featuring Michelle Rhee and Kevin Johnston, tellingly sponsored by the UC Davis School of Management.    The business people there openly talked about how they could participate in this “market”.    One thing you  might not have considered about Common Core implementation is the money that textbook companies like Pearson(who funded the CC in part) and technology companies like Apple stand to make from “Reform”.    Since the new tests have to be taken on computers,  California is granting 1.25 billion dollars to buy computers just so students will be able to take the test in the same testing window.   http://edsource.org/2013/torlakson-calls-for-giving-school-districts-more-money-for-common-core/54407#.UykWVF5RHX0  Wouldn’t you love to be the  computer company that gets that contract?

8. Content vs Skillz:  The business leaders trying to change education today do not value content, but rather skill sets. While I know it’s important for graduates to be able to read workplace documents- I also value the life of the mind. Many educational “entrepreneurs” have a narrow, unimaginative view of what life will be like for graduates-a life in which they never pick up a novel, go to a concert, develop an interest in history, are moved by art, or watch a movie for an emotional experience.   In their thinking,  a scientist will never want to participate kin community theater, or play a musical instrument. A mathematician will never be interested in writing a poem. Apparently, almost everything I am supposed to do in an English classroom involves teaching “Skillz”(sic). It’s not about literature anymore, but whether or not a student can categorize information,  highlight documents  or repeat detailed instructions and arguments-it’s about distilling everything down to a basic function-because otherwise students will “never use it”.  While students may make better workplace drones, I am not certain they will make better citizens of a democracy.

9. It’s good for the community: I love living in the community I work for. I develop relationships with families and students. Sometimes, I have a teacher/parent conference in line at target. Overall, being known by families and siblings makes me a more effective teacher because I am not new every year. Stability in teachers at schools means that there’s continuity and trust.

10.  Teacher Retention:   Did you know that statewide nearly a third of teachers quit after the first four years and that in low income schools, that number is closer to 50%?   I would submit that the problem isn’t an overabundance of bad teachers, but rather a constant influx of overwhelmed,  inexperienced teachers who become demoralized and then quit before they can actually perfect their craft. If low income schools are already losing half of their teachers,  what is the impetus to fire even more?


……….They’re still not going to know how to write..Why the Common Core matters to higher education folk

Dear College Instructor,

Hello-I am a high school English teacher.    I am that person who didn’t teach your students how to write.   I am sure your students have told you that they never had to write essays in high school, that they just filled out worksheets,  wrote occasional journals, and wiled away their time with collages and spark notes, their “education”  punctuated occasionally by inspirational quotes and kitten hanging from tree memes.    I’ve been to your parties, yes yours Humanities PhD people,  in which you not only scoffed at the school of education for not REALLY being a school of study,  but you wondered why a sophomore in high school isn’t reading Walter Benjamin,  and then asked if I majored in Education(which no, I didn’t).
But I digress.

I am here to talk about an issue that you should care about-the Common Core.  I realize that you know nothing of national standards-because there are other things happening at the university level-but this is important.   Maybe you’ve heard about the common core on NPR-how bad the scores were in New York,  how teachers are mad about it,  how tea party members think it’s Obama taking over their child’s education-and all of this interesting to me and to people with children-but maybe not to you.   But I think you should care, because the way the Common Core is being implemented now  will not only mean that students will be even worse at writing a few years from now,  but they will be even worse at reading.

A Brief Summary:

The common core purports to make students college and career ready.    While the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation and Pearson contributed vast sums of money to the creation of them,  as far as I can tell,   very few college professors were consulted.     The main “architect” (an astonishing nomenclature he embraces) is a man named David Coleman,  who has never taught a day in his life, nor does hold a graduate degree.     He has spent the majority of his adult life as a consultant for text book companies and now heads the college board.  His most current innovation is taking the essay requirement out of the SAT.

I am providing a  link here to the common core http://www.corestandards.org/ELA-Literacy/CCRA/R/  so you read them at your leisure- but here is the goal:

The skills and knowledge captured in the ELA/literacy standards are designed to prepare students for life outside the classroom. They include critical-thinking skills and the ability to closely and attentively read texts in a way that will help them understand and enjoy complex works of literature. Students will learn to use cogent reasoning and evidence collection skills that are essential for success in college, career, and life. The standards also lay out a vision of what it means to be a literate person who is prepared for success in the 21st century.’

They seem to have a very different idea about what it means to be a “literate” person.     Literature-something that very few students read enough of anyway,  takes a back seat in favor of what are called “informational texts”.     For example, in elementary schools, it is decreed that students should read a 50/50 divide of literature and informational text,  by high school,  it is 30% literature to 70%   informational texts-which represents a 40% decline the reading of literature as they move through secondary school.

Why it’s Bad:

My main criticisms of the Common Core are as follows:  First, that it takes a weirdly quantitative approach to reading novels in that the standards are overly concerned with the structure of literature and the actual words on the page, not with tracing the development of symbols and metaphors.    In an article in scholastic,http://frizzleblog.scholastic.com/post/10-things-worth-doing-your-classroom  David Coleman provides ten helpful insights in how to teach novels the Common Core way. In number four he admonishes teachers to “ Only draw conclusions that can be substantiated by the words on the page. Scrape away terms like “metaphorical,” and talk as simply as possible. Once you bring up metaphor and meaning, kids are out of the game.”     So by David Coleman’s metric the mockingbird in To Kill a Mockingbird was just an annoying bird that would occasionally sing and was a sin to kill. Maybe the streetcar in a Street Car Named Desire, was just a streetcar -and Holden Caulfield just wore his hunting cap because it was cold outside, and Proust just went on and on about a cookie-for no reason what so ever.      If you think your students aren’t great at recognizing symbols now -imagine how much worse they will be five years from now.

This is no more evident than the obsession with what they call “Close Reading”.    Under the Common Core,  the activity of a “Close Read”  is reduced to a game of Gotcha where students are tested on their ability to be able to cite facts from inane and pointless  informational texts.    It begins in the first grade.     I swear,  the close read on the test is actually designed to be an exercise in how well you well you can tolerate relentless banality.     If you’d like to see what I am talking about, here is a link to a practice  test-try grade 11.  https://sbacpt.tds.airast.org/student/    .    If you were to take the test, you would notice that not only are the vocabulary questions unfair,  but that there is only one piece of literature in the entire test for the 11th grade.     I should point out that it is literature only in the loosest definition of the term-in that it is a short story about high school students who have to read “Much Ado About Nothing”  for a test-How  postmodern, right?

This leads to my second criticism of the Common Core- by constantly insisting that students engage with the text as an observer rather than a participant,  by treating a novel  or book as a document with “evidence”,  it reduces the act of reading to fact collecting and as a result-takes agency away from the reader/student.    Coleman, and by extension, the standards, prioritize the words, or what happened in the novel  over the ideas of the novel. In the same article he states “Look at it carefully, step by step, to see how it unfolds. Live within it. In a well-wrought work, each word is worth pondering.”   It’s not about the meaning of the text, of how a student might interpret the text, or have their own thoughts about the text,  but the book becomes an authority which students are not encouraged to question in meaningful ways.   I am afraid that the text becomes a kind of objective vehicle of knowledge that is above petty concerns of subjectivity;  reading becomes an act of internalizing your subordinate role in an existing power structure rather than an act of agency, liberation and joy.

Which is not only unimaginative, and misses the point of why people create art, but can be dangerous as well.      Take this standard:

Text Types and Purposes:

Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
Introduce precise, knowledgeable claim(s), establish the significance of the claim(s), distinguish the claim(s) from alternate or opposing claims, and create an organization that logically sequences claim(s), counterclaims, reasons, and evidence.
Notice that the standards aren’t asking students to evaluate the arguments that are being made-they’re not asked to be critical of them at all.    Under these 12th grade standards,    it would be within the realm of possibility that a student could write an essay about Mein Kampf and it would never once occur to them to be critical of Hitler.    The ability to evaluate ideas should be as important as the skill of tracing an argument.    What is the point of knowing someone’s argument if you can’t engage with it in some way?
I know that it’s important to strike a balance between the students’ limited experiences and the ability to actually cite examples from a text they were supposed to read.     But these standards are not teaching them how to ask interesting questions of their own about the text, the standards do not reward students for having interesting insights,   nor do they encourage students to develop confidence in their interpretation of things.    At their core,   the standards show an utter lack of understanding of the project of the  humanities.    As a result,  students will most likely struggle even more than they already in their intro courses-because they won’t know how to even begin to think about things.     While they will be really adept at explaining someone else’ argument,  they may not be able to think of their own thesis.