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OP-ED | Reformers Beware: Tenure Elimination No Panacea For Failing Schools

by Terry D. Cowgill | Jul 18, 2014 4:30am
(11) Comments | Commenting has expired
Posted to: Education, Labor, Opinion, Falls Village

Like a prairie fire in the middle of a drought, the movement to repeal or reform the nation’s teacher tenure laws is spreading rapidly. Emboldened by a court decision in California last month that ruled tenure a violation of the state constitution’s prohibition against discrimination, parent activists are mobilizing elsewhere to launch similar challenges, with one filed recently in New York and another in the works here in Connecticut.

But before conservatives and education reform advocates get too fired up, they’d be wise to ask themselves how much the abolition of tenure would actually help their cause. And whether they’d be willing to live with the precedent of an activist judicial branch doing their bidding.

There is no question that bad teachers make for bad schools. And the bad teachers not only drag down the profession but they lower morale. Ask any great teacher how much she hates sharing space in the profession with someone who simply sleepwalks through his entire day.

But that’s really the least of the problem. Not only is the presence of bad teachers maddening and demoralizing for colleagues, but it can have a devastating effect on a child’s education, which is precisely why student and parent advocate groups are making so much noise about tenure — a cumbersome due-process mechanism that makes it time-consuming and expensive to fire chronically underperforming teachers.

So even as a former high school English teacher — and now as a parent — I take a back seat to no one in wanting to see tenure and seniority-based layoffs relegated to the dustbin of history. That having been said, how much will the elimination of teacher tenure actually improve underperforming schools?

In some cases, it will make a difference. There’s a handful of sloppy, low-energy teachers at my kids’ local public high school, Housatonic Valley Regional, but I’d say the overwhelming majority of them are dedicated professionals whose students are their highest priority. It’s a small and solid regional high school with favorable demographics. The biggest obstacle to attracting good teachers is probably the far-flung location — not the learning environment or the lack of support from parents.

But in the case of the impetus for the successful lawsuit in California, we’re talking about schools in poor neighborhoods. Indeed, in his 16-page decision, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu ruled that tenure and the so-called first-hired-last-fired policy “imposes a disproportionate burden on poor and minority students.”

So if the bad teachers in a poor minority district are shown the door, who will replace them? It’s tough enough to find capable teachers to work in districts where poverty and social problems make instruction difficult and personal safety a question mark. Will the replacements for these troubled educators really be any better?

The problem with Judge Treu’s decision and those who filed the suit is they don’t get at the root of the problem, which is that the standards for hiring will always be lower in low-income districts. Firing bad teachers who will most likely be replaced by more bad teachers accomplishes nothing.

Gwen Samuel, president of the Connecticut Parents Union, which is preparing a similar suit over tenure, told the Associated Press that 200,000 children are stuck in low-performing Connecticut schools.

“Teacher tenure doesn’t ensure that those kids have an effective teacher,” Samuel said. “Guaranteeing a person a job regardless of their performance is irresponsible.”

Fair enough, but neither does the elimination of tenure “ensure that those kids have an effective teacher.” Implicit in Samuel’s statement is the notion that the replacements willing to work in places like Hartford, Bridgeport, and New London are bound to be better than those who were cashiered — and I’m not betting on that.

And if the uncertainty surrounding Treu’s decision wasn’t enough, hypocritical conservatives who typically object to “activist judges” are left applauding as a court decides a matter that rightly belongs at the bargaining table.

Here in Connecticut, teacher tenure is a matter of state law. Why this is the case I do not know. Why isn’t tenure a matter of negotiation between teachers unions and individual school districts? Did the powerful Connecticut Education Association really need to strong-arm the General Assembly to set the table for lifetime employment for its members?

Notwithstanding the recent scandals in Connecticut’s charter school community, reformers and conservatives would be well advised to focus on expanding school choice initiatives that will allow kids in failing schools to escape them. For the abolition of tenure won’t fix failing schools any more than the banishment of shoddy parts from cheap cars.

Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at ctdevilsadvocate.com and is news editor of The Berkshire Record in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill.

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(11) Comments

posted by: PWS2003 | July 18, 2014  7:40am

Terry, I not sure why you say that Mr. Samuel’s statement about tenure “(G)uaranteering a person a job regardless of their performance is irresponsible” is “(F)air enough.” Tenure does not do that and you should know that. It provides for due process in any termination proceedings and nothing more. In my experience many teachers have been terminated with tenure but they were given due process. First they were given a verbal warning, then a written letter detailing the wrong doing and a period of time to correct their wrong doing, and then a hearing to determine just cause for any final termination if the wrong doing persist. It would seem that your agreement with Mr. Samuel’s characterization of tenure just furthers the myth that tenure is a guarantee of lifetime employment. It is not, it just changes a teacher from an “at will” employee to one that is entitled to some agreed upon procedures after a four year period during which time the employee is required to show that they are competent. Any good school system should be able to determine in that length of time if a provisional teacher is competent. Any good administration should be able to follow this due process and terminate an incompetent teacher and most of the teachers I know would want incompetent teachers walked out the door.
Please correct this mischaracterization of tenure.

posted by: Terry D. Cowgill | July 18, 2014  10:34am

Terry D. Cowgill

PWS2003, I was a teacher for 12 years and my wife is a tenured teacher in NYS, so I do know what tenure is.

It’s actually not that hard to get rid of the worst teachers. The problem is the clever ones who do just enough to stay out of trouble but not enough to be effective in the classroom.

Tenure proceedings are so expensive and time-consuming that many administrators don’t bother to go down that road, so that tenure is, in many cases, tantamount to lifetime employment.

posted by: DirtyJobsGUy | July 18, 2014  10:40am

Good points.  You will get many comments from current teachers that reflect a nit-picking obsession with the current rules.  This a natural consequence of a unionized environment that grinds out any attempt at professionalism.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS | July 18, 2014  11:43am

This case in California is a waste of time. The teachers will win on appeal. Here is why. As you said. Here in Connecticut, teacher tenure is a matter of state law. Also some states negotiation between teachers unions and individual school districts. How about teachers suing for the lack of guidance at home.

posted by: Historian | July 18, 2014  11:49am

Everyone needs to accept that the average american is an expert on teachers - we spent at least thirteen years in classrooms with at least twenty plus teachers for months on end. We know what the kids today are dealing with plus resent the extreme protections put in to preserve ineffective teacher’s paychecks.
  We also understand that employment protection is needed for those teacher’s that stand out and out of jealousy, fear of competion or race, etc are threatened with firing. This is where the unions are are good guys. 
  Unfortunately this issue has become an easy target just like Common Cause for the extreme left and right..and common sense and simple steps ignored. 
  First reorganize the termination process.  NY city spends millions on wharehousing and paying teachers who are literally a threat to children due to “due process”. 
  Next we must recognize the education lobby has oversold their ability to deliver and accept a middle way to ranking acceptable performance and that includes differt standards for communities with students handicapped by language and tradition.
  The present situation allows to many excuses and too many expensive and failed “fixes”.

posted by: Terry D. Cowgill | July 18, 2014  3:39pm

Terry D. Cowgill

THREEFIFTHS, the fact that tenure is a matter of state law in CT means nothing in a courtroom. Courts overturn bad laws all the time.

I do agree with your overall point that it won’t happen here. I’m wondering, however, on what you base your confident assumption that the California decision will be overturned on appeal.

posted by: whatsprogressiveaboutprogressives? | July 18, 2014  9:08pm

Has anyone here ever known a teacher that never received tenure and was ultimately dismissed? Just asking because I have not.
Teachers, in addition to all public employees, at least here in CT, are a protected class because of two, well three things: 1. unions 2.collective bargaining 3. Dan Malloy.  How is it “bargaining” when teachers in a central CT town annually get what’s defined as three weeks of sick time? Notice it’s not pto time or called vacation time. Heavens forbid, that wouldn’t go over to well with the taxpayers. Better call it sick time. it sounds more compassionate. This for people who work 9 months out of the year. I’m allowed 5 sick days for a 12 month calendar. How is this the bargaining part of collective bargaining? Did the teachers union initially ask for 6 weeks sick time, but agreed to 3? I guess that would be bargaining, my bad.

posted by: whatsprogressiveaboutprogressives? | July 18, 2014  9:19pm

Contrary to my previous post, I do have empathy towards teachers in that to me, there is a perception that the public can have an open season on them for any and all issues. I do resent that politicians and parents seem it okay to lambaste educators for poor students performance especially if they come from horrible family/social environments. Children spend no more than 1/3 of their day at school, yet that leaves 2/3 or 16 more hours of the day remaining in a guardian or parents care. So why does society continually blame the education system when the majority of their time is NOT spent at school? Simple put, our culture and family unit have taken a serious turn for the worse, and the government can’t fix mastery test scores by throwing more money at it.

posted by: DrHunterSThompson | July 19, 2014  11:24am

DrHunterSThompson

Courts do not (or at least should not - that is legislating from the bench) overturn bad laws.  they overturn unconstitutional laws.

historian is correct when he says we are all experts on teachers, however, the onus is too heavily placed on teachers in my opinion for the total success of students.  certainly the student has the ability to excel as a result of their own initiative, however, the real problem in education is in early education, especially when it comes to parents.

why do students in affluent areas do better than those from poor areas? i would suggest the real reason is because parents become affluent because, in large part, due to their own education.  so they value education and begin reading to and with their kids at a early age.  they challenge them intellectually long before they hit the school system.

if we don’t fix parrenting and early education, nothing will ever change.

HST

posted by: Linda12 | July 19, 2014  4:46pm

Nationally close to 50% of teachers leave the profession within five years. I have known several teachers to be passed over and not receive due process rights. This can happen after the first year and up to the fourth year. In twenty one years at one school, I can recall about 8-10 cases. I also know of three individuals with due process rights who resigned or retired early when the process was started to get rid of them.  The number of teachers who leave when they are aware it is headed towards termination is never discussed. I also know building reps for the union who counsel them out.

We are not going to fire our way to Finland. Nationally teachers are leaving the profession in droves, but that’s the plan. Deprofessionalize teaching, bust the unions, create constant churn, cut down on high salaries, eliminate need for pensions (most will not stay long enough) and funnel the taxpayer money towards eduschemes.  Go reform! Go USA!

Sorry for any typos…on cell.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS | July 19, 2014  6:22pm

posted by: Terry D. Cowgill | July 18, 2014 4:39pm

I do agree with your overall point that it won’t happen here. I’m wondering, however, on what you base your confident assumption that the California decision will be overturned on appeal.


The teachers I know in California have told me the appeal will be based on How teachers across this country get tenure.And this is done based on collectively bargain with employees on all matters affecting their terms and conditions of employment.Also remember,The argument was that tenure entrenched poor teachers and produced mediocre schools particularly affecting minorities,Hard to prove.Also they can appeal on the grounds that If tenure is a problem in California schools then the State legislature is supposed to fix the problem not the courts.