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?