Thursday, April 10, 2014

Parents and Tenure

As battles over tenure across the country heat up, teachers will keep encountering parents who are in favor of ending job protections for teachers.

We teachers have our favorite pro-tenure arguments, the long list of bad reasons that teachers in non-tenure districts lose their jobs. But those arguments are most compelling to us. They speak to our professional concerns. What can we say to parents that means something to them? I have a suggestion.

Tell the parent to imagine one of the following situations:

You have to drop your child off early on a wintry morning, and the doors are locked. You'll have to leave them there, freezing and alone outdoors, but you can see the child's teacher just inside the door. Could she please let your child in just this once?

Your child is being bullied by one of the children of a powerful local figure, maybe even a school board member. You've thought about calling the principal, but you're afraid it won't help. Could your child's teacher please intervene to protect your child?

Your child has been through a tremendous personal loss-- maybe the death of a family member-- and she's not coping well. You know your child's teacher has suffered grief as well. Could she perhaps spend a few extra moments counseling your child through this personal crisis?

School officials are picking on your child, forcing your child to deal with educational demands that are just too tough and wrong. They've decided that your kid needs to be toughened up, so they are riding him hard. Could your child's teacher step in to take some of the heat off?

Your child's teacher is using materials that only make your child confused, frustrated and depressed about school. You know this material is bad for your child, and you also know that the teacher didn't support choosing it. Could the teacher please find a way to use the material less, or at least lessen its impact?

And then tell the parent to imagine that the only answer they can get for these or similar problems is this:

I'm sorry. I'd like to help your child. But I could lose my job.

Tell me again why getting rid of tenure and due process will make schools better.


  1. I like the approach here, Peter. An excellent way to communicate the real issues related to tenure.

  2. Those are great strawmen.

    Here are a few reasons:

    Aryeh Eller has spent 13 years in the NYC rubber room and collected $1M for not teaching. The city spends $22M per year on rubber room occupants.

    High-performing organizations base employment decisions on performance not seniority.

    The Urban Institute's study (CALDER) that concluded that "experience matters but more is not always better."

    Senioriity-based employment results in many teachers of the year being laid off.

    You can have due process without seniority-based employment. For example, some private schools that do not have tenure have contractual due process rights for teachers.


  3. If they were straw men, they would be presenting scenarios that could never actually occur. That is not the case. These are not imaginary or exaggerated situations.

    You don't need to kill tenure to fix the rubber room situation.

    High performing organizations of what sort? Schools aren't businesses, aren't anything like businesses, cannot be successfully run like businesses.

    Yes, some teachers of the year were laid off. Do you imagine that they would stick around if you said, "We've managed to keep your job by firing some more expensive teachers. We will probably fire you as soon as you get too far up the pay scale." And you could as easily blame their layoffs on budget cuts and put your energy into demanding that school budgets not be cut back.

    You are correct that tenure and seniority-based employment are two separate items (only one of which is actually discussed in this blog piece). I support due process because it's right and fair and maintains an atmosphere of freedom in a school. I support seniority-based employment because it fosters stability in a school and helps attract the best people. I support administrations that take the necessary steps to get rid of incompetent teachers-- and neither tenure, due process, nor seniority-based hiring make that impossible or even, outside of politics-encrusted urban schools, particularly difficult.

    We have plenty of history of areas that run schools without any of these protections. They are, without exception, the states with the lowest performing education systems in the country. The best school systems are in the states with unionized and job-protected teaching forces.

  4. They are the very definition of straw men. X is teacher tenure is net beneficial. Y1 is misplaced parent priority or bad school rules, Y2 is ineffective principal or ineffective parent, Y3 is inadequate access to counseling, Y4 is abuse by school officials, Y5 is poor curriculum or poor teaching. Can we focus on X, please?
    How do we fix the rubber room problem without addressing tenure? The essence of the problem is that these people are unemployable as teachers but cannot be fired.
    Schools are run like businesses now. There are plenty of businesses that have union employees and tenure or similar rights. Do we want high performing schools or high seniority schools?
    If the pay scale is a problem, let's fix that. Would merit pay solve this problem? I agree that public schools are underfunded (and that charter schools and Pearson et al. are to blame).
    Here are the best states for K-12 education according to Education Week (2014) and the states' quintile for strength of teacher union according to a study by the Fordham Institute (2012):
    MA 3
    MD 3
    NJ 1
    NH 3
    VT 2
    MN 2
    FL 5
    PA 1
    WA 1
    CO 4 and VA 5 (tie)
    The average of the quintile scores is 2.7, so I am not seeing the strong correlation you assert. I suspect using income as an independent variable would be much, much stronger.

    1. 1. The issue is not the subjective "strength of teacher union" but the presence of tenure. These are not the same measure you can't treat them as such.

      2. You do not get meaningful data from averaging quintile scores.

      3. Using income as a variable with a very high correlation. But the point here is that there's no evidence anywhere that tenure is detrimental to performance, and there is some evidence at least that it has a positive impact.

    2. That should say "...would likely show a very high..."

      I really should avoid commenting from my phone.

    3. Peter makes the claim that the best states are unionized with job protections for teachers. The study that assessed strength of teacher union by state had over 30 indicators. If you need a proper academic study for a blog comment, recommend a better data set. Or do you prefer assertion and anecdote?

      Sure, averaging quintile scores isn't great data. Do you disagree with the conclusion? Anything objective to offer to counter it?

  5. Matty, strawman doesn't mean what you think it means. Aside from that, let's look at one of your points (I don't have anything more to say than Peter already did in his reply on the others).

    The rubber room. As Peter said, the rubber room could easily be addressed without touching tenure. But, here's the thing. Can you tell me any other places that have these rubber rooms? Because whenever I see someone bring up the rubber rooms, it's always NYC. So, the thinking is since there's one city in the U.S. that utilizes these rubber rooms, we should get rid of tenure everywhere? Here's an idea. If the people of NYC are cool with the rubber rooms, let's let it go. If that's how they want to spend their money, that's their business. If they don't like it, they can elect people who will change it. In the land of the free, can we allow the various locales the freedom to do things as they see fit, or do we have to control them all?

    1. Straw man means exactly that:
      Person 1 has position X
      Person 2 ignores key aspects of X and instead presents superficially similar Y.
      Person 2 attacks Y to conclude X is wrong.
      I did the favor of identifying X and Ys.

      I don't think other districts have rubber rooms. I don't think people in NYC are ok with it there. Please explain how the problem is solved without addressing tenure. I don't understand how.

      I'm fine with putting teacher tenure to a vote or letting the states decide. It's a debate worth having.

    2. Yes, I saw your second post after I had posted; response to that is below.

      My point with NYC is that it's a local problem and not conducive to a national discussion. I also think that too often we want to make other people do what we want to do. Conservatives want leftists in blue states to live conservative lives; leftists want conservatives in red states to live leftist lives. Could we not just let the other live how they want to live? I'm sure there are people in NYC who don't like the rubber rooms, but apparently there's not enough who are sufficiently upset about it to do anything about it. Something like that would never fly in a red state, not for very long anyway. As for how it's addressed without addressing tenure, I couldn't tell you specifically because I don't know the specific policies that put the rubber rooms into being in the first place, but the rest of the country operates in a world where tenure exists but rubber rooms don't, so I'm thinking there's a way for NYC to get rid of the rubber room concept without getting rid of tenure.

      In regards to letting the states decide, the states already do decide. No one imposed tenure on them to begin with. Few things in life are set in stone, and tenure is not one of those few things. At any given time the people of a state can decide to do away with it.

  6. Above list with quintiles by state median income (2011)
    MA 1
    NJ 1
    NH 1
    VT 2
    MN 2
    FL 4
    PA 3
    WA 2
    CO 2 and VA 1
    Average = 1.8

  7. Ah, I see, you missed his point completely. All of those scenarios Peter gave happen all over the place, and like it or not, it's usually the teacher who is in the sole position of being able to either step up and take care of the problem. Without tenure, though, all of those scenarios become potential job losing scenarios (y1: not following rules/insubordination; y2: influence/power/money trumps doing the right thing; y3: potentially counseling without a license; y4: insubordination; y5: not following rules/insubordination). All of those scenarios show that tenure is beneficial, and he was just scratching the surface.

    You seem to be under the impression that there are tons of incompetent teachers running around who whip out their Tenure Card whenever an administrator looks at them askance which sends said administrator whimpering back to their office. The reality is that A. it's not very hard to get rid of a teacher if they are truly incompetent and B. most of these incompetent teachers weed themselves out within the first 3 years of their teaching careers. It's not enjoyable to do something that you're not good at and have no hope of being good at.

    1. Those are hypotheticals. I could just as easily cook up five stories of teachers with tenure having their kids watch movies all day or who show up drunk. Does that make tenure bad? What if I assert "it happens all over the place?" Does that make it a stronger argument?

      Why don't we make it easier to keep good teachers whatever their seniority is and easier to get rid of bad teachers whatever their seniority is?

      I don't know how many incompetent teachers there are. I suspect most are pretty good at it.

    2. Teachers who show up drunk are fired, with or without tenure. If teachers are showing movies all day then you need to look at administration first to why this is continuing. Teachers who ignore administration directives will also be fired, with or without tenure.

  8. Yes, they are hypotheticals that he used as better arguments for parents than the arguments that teachers typically used. And, yes, you could cook up any number of stories of teachers having kids watch movies all day long or showing up drunk to work. Both sets of hypotheticals are based on events that do actually happen and have happened, so they are not far-fetched or purely theoretical. The difference between them is that in the case of the movie watching/drunk teachers, there are already procedures in place to remove them from the classroom. In these cases, tenure is not blocking their removal; failure to go through the process of removing them is blocking their removal. In Peter's hypotheticals, tenure allows the teacher to "do the right thing" rather than do the self-preservation thing. As for "happening all over the place" making it a stronger argument, in my opinion, yes, it does make a stronger argument. If one teacher comes to work drunk somewhere, I'm not feeling the need to make any nation-wide, sweeping changes to anything. But if teachers coming to work drunk reaches epidemic proportions in many states, I 'm thinking something does need to be done on a national level. Frequency matters.

  9. That's an incredibly weak argument to support a process that is completely useless. If your readers don't know what a 3020a is they should read up. I am a school board trustee in NY and without doubt the single most detrimental thing in our educational system is the tenure process. Teachers deserve no more protection than any other worker under the law in the US. With a strong union there is zero -- zero -- chance that a teacher could get fired for protecting a student against an overbearing administrator. Parents would lawyer-up, rally to the next board meeting and the administrator would be sent packing. Eliminating tenure is not the elimination of due process -- it is the elimination of the educational mafia/cabal that protects its own incompetent membership at the expense of students and tax payers.

    Tenure may have a few benefits --- but it produces thousands of problems.

    1. There are plenty of states in the US where there is no strong union, and every scenario I used as an example represents a real event in which someone gave firing the teacher a good, hard shot. Can I know for sure that, absent tenure, the teacher would have lost the job? No. But I can know that there wasn't anything else protecting them.

      If tenure is creating that many problems for you, it can only be because your administrators are doing a lousy job. Teachers' unions do not protect incompetent members-- they protect the process, and insure that we don't switch to a system in which any teacher can be fired for any reason at any time. I don't know of a teacher contract in the country that doesn't allow the district to fire incompetents-- it just requires the district to offer some proof other than "I want him fired."

      The entire education system benefits from tenure, just as hospitals benefit from the existence of good (albeit costly) liability insurance. Without those protections, only a fool would enter the field and employers would be scrambling to find enough fools to hire.