25 April 2010

Teachers, Tenure, Transformation

A decade ago... well, more... I knew this new English teacher hired by North Muskegon (Michigan) Middle/High School. She was a wildly creative, brilliant educator, who, almost immediately, was not just teaching various grades in English classes, but was advising the school's student newspaper, the yearbook, and running the drama program.

North Muskegon has been a classic symbol to me of all that is wrong with our ways of measuring school achievement. Serving a mostly wealthy and upper-middle class white population, the tiny district has long claimed the top standardized test scores in the area, while, in the words of a friend and former school board member, "preparing students for good jobs in their daddy's companies." But that's not entirely fair. The mommies often own companies too.

Anyway, I saw it as a place offering a mediocre education to kids who, mostly, would have done fine if they never stepped into a school, and a lousy education - and brutal social environment - to those who didn't fit in to the sports-first, wealth-rules environment. Even today, under much better leadership, the district lists its sports coaches right after its board in its web directory, from kindergarten forward, you didn't want to not play football or be a cheerleader in this school if you wanted to be treated well by faculty and community.

But this new teacher was different. I was coaching boys' soccer at this school back then, and she was one of only two staff members who came to more than one game, watching different students play a sport. She supported a lot of the students who lived "in the shadows," those from the small percentage of poor families, kids with miserable home lives, kids who had withdrawn because of tragedies, and frustrated middle-schoolers who wanted "something more" than the worksheet driven curriculum. Age, status, previous academic performance made no difference in who she gave responsibility to, or who she helped.

When the principal doubted that "these kids" could handle performing Shakespeare or Aeschylus in theater, she ignored him, and directed magnificent performances with casts and crews that crossed every divide, which engaged all kinds of learners, which made great successes of kids who had never heard anything positive about themselves. From the kid with CP running the backstage operation to the "juvenile delinquent" on the follow-spot, to the football star playing one role, to the geeky kid with few friends playing the lead, well, it all worked.

Everything she did worked, and worked for all kinds of students in all kinds of situations. In a school of "good enough" she was brilliant.

And after three years, instead of receiving tenure, she was fired. The problem? She "didn't fit in with the rest of the staff."

Now, when people talk tenure and teacher hiring and firing, they think of New York City's "Rubber Room," but I think of Kathy Jo Tully, one of America's great educators. And I think of Gerry Crane who taught about 50 miles south of North Muskegon until they found out he wasn't "heterosexual enough" to be in the Byron Center schools. And I think of Susan Barker of Riverside, California.

Tenure, in my mind, and the teachers' unions which help police and enforce hiring and firing, do indeed sometimes protect bad teachers. But far more often they do exactly what they were intended to do, protect great, innovative teaching, protect difference, by ensuring that teachers, and humans, are allowed to take risks. That they are allowed to alter practices, to support students, to do more than be the robotic test prep machines so desired by Arne Duncan, Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee, and Bill Gates.

I have not been a great fan of most teaching in America. I think we need much better - very different - teacher training. I think we need to give all teachers far more ongoing training and support than we do now. I think we need to attract more creative, more different, people to teaching and hold on to them. I think we need to pay teachers a lot more and expect a lot from them.

But I know that teachers cannot be great if they fear being fired "at will" every time a school board election happens or a new mayor is elected.

Do you really want Mike Bloomberg deciding who gets hired and fired the way he decides who'll get other city jobs? Do you really want Michelle Rhee, who thinks poor kids have no right to arts, music, or creativity, making those decisions? How about the politicians of Utah, now all up in arms because the Alpine School District wanted to teach kids about "democracy." Oh I know - you're hoping the Texas State School Board decides who's in the classroom with your kid!

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No, I wasn't raised to be neutral about this. My Ma got her first teaching job back when unions had little clout and teachers earned minimum wage with no planning time or breaks. She was one of the early people in on developing an AFT local in her district, which fought for rights, for decent pay, for educational innovation. And I'm too much the historian of education in America to not understand how power works in American schools, and how it would work without effective unions.

But even without that background, I know I'd come down on the side of tenure. I tend to trust people, and I tend to trust the people who see kids everyday - at least over politicians who run against kids and schools, and surely over those who've never spent 30 seconds trying to work with a complex group of students - you know, our experts, Bloomberg, Duncan, and Gates.

There's a simple fact at work here - when the teachers' unions operate "negatively" it is usually because they are acting like an industrial union. And they are acting like an industrial union because the work environment is, unfortunately, industrial in too many ways - and becoming more so by the minute at the hands of the very people who dislike the unions (under Duncan's regime teachers will be punished for any "defective" products which reach the end of the assembly line. See Rhode Island).

Change the environment, empower teachers, allow them to be the professionals they are, help them to get better, give them the tools they need, pay them like other professionals, and the unions will change too, as they respond to a changed work environment.

"The latest statistics put the average teacher's salary at about $46,000; some teachers earn a little more, some a little less (the average teacher's salary—not the starting salary—is $38,000 in Kansas, $36,000 in New Mexico, and $32,000 in South Dakota). Overall, that's about the same that we pay pile-driver operators ($45,980) and about $8,000 less than the average elevator repairman pulls down. Meanwhile, a San Francisco dockworker makes about $115,000, while the clerk who logs shipping records into the longshoreman's computer makes $136,000." (2004)

But don't mess with tenure. It protects our best... far more often than it protects our worst.

- Ira Socol


Lisa Parisi said...

Wow. Thank you. This a brilliant post highlighting exactly why we need tenure. I have one more reason. I would be fired in a second if I didn't have tenure. My board is very interested in saving money. I am at the top of the salary schedule, having worked for 25 years and taken 60 credits over my Master's. And I make extra district money running two clubs and teaching staff members through the teaching center. I am a very expensive teacher to have in a district and, when money is ALL that matters, I am expendable. I am grateful I have tenure every time our union meets to talk about how many teachers we will be losing next year due to budget cuts.

Paul Bogush said...

If there was no tenure, I would still be teaching out of a textbook and not have been willing to take chances, risks and experiment to push myself and students.

Interesting the first comment is from Lisa...if there was no tenure I would never have done the collaborative activities our two classes have worked on in the past because for me they don't quite fit into the "official" curriculum.

The reality is that around here there are methods of removing those that are "bad" teachers. Yes, there is a paper trail that has to be created, but it is simply never used.

Monise L. Seward, Ed.S. - CEO of Me said...


Thank you. Not just for this post, but for going to bat on all the other issues where 'non-educators' or people from affluence are dead wrong. I wish that Georgia had a teacher's union; I would probably still be teaching if I had that support system in place 3 years ago. For those of us who have spent any amount of time in classrooms and in buildings around kids, we know that unions protect more good and awesome teachers than bad ones. The anti-union propoganda has gotten out of control and we need more people who are willing to take a vocal & visible stand.

Jose Vilson said...

I'm going to bookmark this page and just write "THANK GOOOOOD FOR TENURE!" People have such small memories or such limited literature that they forget what it was like before worker's rights, like we're supposed to trust that the aforementioned boogeymen might do right by us. A couple might, but the grand majority of these seedy characters won't. Thanks for the reminder.

Camilo Acosta said...

Very enlightening post with great links. It is truly infuriating how low teacher salaries are and the local level problems are a real issue that I don't yet know how to solve - but I don't think tenure is the answer. Also, Rhee is sticking her neck out and desperately trying to pay teachers six figure salaries but I don't see you highlighting that - or the fact most DC teachers support it but the union leaders refused to bring her first plan to a vote for fear it would pass and become a national standard. Sometimes it doesn't seem like the unions are acting with the interests of their members in mind.

I think teachers should be fired for cause - not randomly at will like the folks you mentioned.

I also think we need to professionalize the teaching field. Right now most teachers come from the bottom quartile of college graduates - in Finland, only the top 10% of college graduates are allowed to teach. Even the Newsweek article you linked to said, "the average SAT of would-be elementary-school teachers taking a popular licensing exam is significantly below the national average for all college grads." If we want the best schools we need to have the best people leading our classrooms.

On another note, I think you should learn more about Rhee before making false accusations that she thinks "poor kids have no right to arts, music, or creativity." In fact, the best arts high school in DC - the Duke Ellington School for the Arts - is a majority low-income, black school.

irasocol said...

Lisa, Paul, Monise, Jose - your frontline reports really add to this.


First: ""People say, 'Well, you know, test scores don't take into account creativity and the love of learning,'" she says with a drippy, grating voice, lowering her eyelids halfway. Then she snaps back to herself. "I'm like, 'You know what? I don't give a crap.' Don't get me wrong. Creativity is good and whatever. But if the children don't know how to read, I don't care how creative you are. You're not doing your job."

Well, I'd argue that creativity is just as much for poor African-American kids as it is for the rich daughter of a UMich doctor. It is creativity and making school and education matter to kids which will make education more than just the chore Rhee (with her vast experience in the classroom) hopes it to be.

Yes, Rhee sees money as a way of buying teacher compliance. Like most raised-rich colonialists, she is sure that trinkets - $100,000 salaries for teachers and better test results for AA parents (though she has delivered neither) - will buy off the local cultures and garner acceptance of school as a conversion process into "almost white people."

But let's talk about "fired for cause." All of the above cases were "for cause" - "collegiality concerns," "moral influence on children" "insubordination." You've said that you view unions as "the thing" blocking education reform. I, yes, coming from a different class and a public school experience, see America's power structure (which is lined up behind Rhee) as the block. The people who hang around Rhee, who celebrate her, have zero interest in educational equality, in giving poor kids what rich kids have. In fact, if I run down the guest list of her soirees, she surrounds herself with people who never let their kids walk into a public school (outside of Bronxville, NY).

So I ask you to take a look at who thinks Rhee and Klein are "great." Rupert Murdoch, Bill Gates, Newt Gingrich, etc. What is their agenda for America? What are their motivations?

- Ira Socol

Lisa Parisi said...

Just one more thing..for Camilo...I am a six figure salaried teacher. That figure came with added hours, days, and staff development. It also came with a salary step freeze for one year, which will cost me thousands of dollars in the long run. The union actually fought against the pay raise to no avail. Once the public found out what we were being offered, we had no chance of support from them. Money is never the answer. What we wanted instead was respect from the administration. By adding 5 minutes to each day...yes 5 minutes..we didn't get the respect. Just a lot of animosity and more money.

Debbie said...

My mom taught high school French and Spanish. She developed the first and perhaps only bilingual program for her French speaking Haitian students. Unfortunately her program was taken away from her and given away to a man. Because she was nearing the end of her career, she decided to put in for a transfer instead, and ended up at a very good high school. I imagine she could have had the union intervene, but given overall circumstances, this was a very good career move. Hard to know what would have happened if she hadn't had tenure.

Chris Fritz said...

Thanks Ira, for giving me something to think about! I always enjoy reading your thoughts. I'll admit, I wasn't convinced of the usefulness of tenure before reading this post. Now I'll concede that it's necessary for good teachers to survive in a horrible system.

But what about some day, if we finally restructured the way schools are lead, funded, and fundamentally work. I know we agree for the most part on what school should really look like, so let's say the education system - at least at the state level, had its priorities straight. Then imagine also that we got rid of school boards or severely limited their power (you might enlighten me with a higher purpose they serve, but I don't understand it), then cut mayors out of school politics with this alternative power structure I'm about to suggest.

I'm thinking schools report to something similar to a superintendent for the area, and we should fund schools similarly to how they fund schools in the Netherlands, where each student is worth a certain amount of points according to the cost of resources they need to succeed. For example, students who don't speak Dutch as a first language are worth more points, students from low-income families are worth more points, etc. Then each school gets funded according to their needs. If a school is failing students, they can request additonal funds with a specific plan to use them. The school, as I understand it, almost always gets these funds and tries their plan. If it doesn't work, something similar to a superintendent stops by and talks to the leaders in the school, discussing what went wrong. Often, people will get let go or moved around, and the school may get more money and/or will then be told how to use the money they have. Consultants may also be brought in and none of this stops until the problems are solved.

I know that plan is still vague, but do you think if we ever get this better system, where schools can't get away with mediocrity and not serving certain groups of students, that we'll need tenure? Or will it at that point be out-dated?

irasocol said...


Wow. OK, I'm not a Marxist (not believing in historical progress or inevitability, or dualism for that matter), but I do think that educated, empowered workers can make great choices, and I surely think educators can be "educated, enlightened, empowered workers."

So, I think, as I suggested, that as structures change, all worker/educator ground rules change, and unions will change and tenure could be more of a flexible idea, though I still don't want the unpopular teacher, scholar, etc fired because they challenge the status quo.

Universities began in Italy and France with students hiring teachers, collecting tutors who would support their learning (of course the Anglo/German systems did NOT start that way), and perhaps that becomes part of our future model. I know that in my Postman-designed alternative HS students were part of all teacher hiring interviews and all teacher evaluations. Sometimes messy, but it worked.

Anyway, yes. If we can change the system (and no, I have really not found anything of value done by the elected American local school board - as a systemic whole), we can change many things. Humans respond to their ecosystems, and the ecosystem teachers live in now - as Lisa points out - sucks.

- Ira Socol

Camilo Acosta said...

"The people who hang around Rhee, who celebrate her, have zero interest in educational equality, in giving poor kids what rich kids have. In fact, if I run down the guest list of her soirees, she surrounds herself with people who never let their kids walk into a public school (outside of Bronxville, NY).

So I ask you to take a look at who thinks Rhee and Klein are "great." Rupert Murdoch, Bill Gates, Newt Gingrich, etc. What is their agenda for America? What are their motivations?"

Why evidence do you have of this? Are you saying I have no interest in education equality? Because I have hosted fundraisers in her honor. And you're right, there's not a snowball's chance in hell I would send my kids to the public schools we have here. Why would I? The education is abysmal and crime rampant. Why demonize those with means? I don't understand why you try to instigate class warfare.

Also remember Rhee was appointed by a black mayor (with kids in public school) and her contract was unanimously approved by a majority black city council representing a city that is mostly poor. Are these black politicians "colonialists," as you like to say?

Rhee is the first public official I've ever heard say that what is happening to inner city black kids "is a crime." A stronger crusader for social justice and advocate for inner city minorities I have not met.

And yes, it is more important that a kid learns how to read before we focus on his/her arts education. This is stressed in rich schools, too, so I don't know why you think it's different for rich kids.

Mike Ritzius said...

This is for Camilo - I and my colleagues have built one of the most innovative programs in NJ. We integrate everything vertically and horizontally and empower the students to take ownership of their learning like never before. Along the way, we have had to confront, oppose, and sometimes even ridicule many of the administrators in our school because they did not have the vision to see the benefits of such a program. I am an innovator, teacher and NJEA president. Tenure has made this all possible.

Monise L. Seward, Ed.S. - CEO of Me said...


It's obvious you have much to learn about American history, especially as it relates to African Americans. Rhee is not the first person to publicly state that what is happening to Black children is wrong. I believe that was the impetus behind Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the ensuing Desgregation Orders of the 1980s. Furthermore, Marva Collins is one of the pioneers in going against the grain and educating kids in a different way. Unfortunately, Collins is an African American woman (no Ivy League pedigree), who lived and taught on the Southside of Chicago (before Obama). Critics called her crazy and told her that she would not be successful in educating little poor Black kids...well, needless to say, she proved them wrong. The difference: Collins did not resort to accusing colleagues of being mediocre or abusing kids. She knew what she had to do and she did it., without the backing of major heavyweights such as Klein, Gates, and Bloomberg.

What happens when other African Americans try to do what Collins did? They are discouraged by ludicrous financial expectations and unspoken rules that state African Americans are not qualified/intelligent enough to educate their own. You don't believe me, look at the boards of KIPP, TFA, and any other Ivy League for-profit start-ups masquerading as non-profits.

I think I've said enough. Lay off the colonial Kool-Aid.

irasocol said...

Mike illustrates the power that unions can bring to the party, unions and tenured teachers are far more likely to drive innovation than top down imposition by a "leader" with zero experience or even academic training.

But Camilo:

Why Class Warfare? Because it is class warfare. Besides the first obvious question - why the hell does a Superintendent of Schools need anyone to fundraise for her? Rhee is the rich kid creation of a rich kid program in which a certain group of Ivy League elites have decided that - though they need the best in their private schools - "anyone" who grew up with money is capable of teaching poor kids.

It is missionary work. It is the British colonial school system rewritten for America's urban colonies. And just like the British colonial system, there will always be missionaries arriving, there will always be collaborators (who get to "pretend" to govern), there will always be apologists, and there will always be the claim that no knowledge can be gained in anything without the language of power being enforced.

But as for the laughable "first" claim, I guess you missed Eldridge Cleaver, Whitney Young, the people who fought for schools from Topeka, KS to Selma, AL, to New Rochelle, NY in the 50s and 60s.

What the powerful were doing then was rightly called a "crime" then, and what the powerful, including Rhee's "contributors," are doing now is also rightfully called a "crime."

- Ira Socol

Camilo Acosta said...


Are you saying that Michael Lomax and Beverly Daniel Tatum are white? I hope you know they're the CEO of the United Negro College Fund and the President of Spelman College, respectively, and both sit on the board of TFA. Or are they "colonialists," too?


I don't see ANYONE these days, except Rhee, calling the current situation a crime. The leaders of yesteryear are dead. Who's going to stand up for TODAY'S kids? Obviously, people have come before her - but I don't even see you saying that education is a civil right being denied to inner city black and Latino kids.

Dan McGuire said...

Bad administrators protect a lot more bad teachers than unions. The administrators usually don't want the scrutiny of their supervision which comes when someone is fired; it's easier for the administrator to pass the teacher on or find some excuse to blame the 'contract.' Firing teachers who've been on the job for at least three years should be hard work, but competent administrators know how to do it.

Monise L. Seward, Ed.S. - CEO of Me said...

I wouldn't call them colonialists, more like tokens. After all, how much power and input do they really have? Look at all the teachers in KIPP schools. How many are African American? Look at the principals in KIPP schools. How many are African American? Hmmmmm. Same with TFA. I have had about 10 (minority) people tell me they were not selected for TFA. How can you claim to be concerned about the educational needs/outcomes for African American students when they do not see themselves in positions as teachers and school leaders.

You might want to clean those rose-colored glasses. I don't see TFA or KIPP doing massive recruiting efforts on HBCU campuses...I'm just sayin....

irasocol said...


I'll say it. People make all sorts of excuses for collaborating, to themselves and to their communities. The history of colonialism is, sadly, filled with the stories of really smart people who chose collaboration over revolution. The "oh just let us have a parliament and wear our powdered wigs" crowd. That's harsh, but it is true. The Brits never had problems filling colonial legislatures with their "good natives," and the South African apartheidists found those who ran their "native homelands" too.

But OK, no one holds fundraisers for me, I don't get paid for speeches and I don't earn six figures. But I'll stack up my fight for the rights of kids left out with just about anyone. I've fought all kinds of school district administrations, governments, and tax-dodging corporations, trying to not just "claim" rights but to make the right to education a living, breathing thing.

You may think giving Rhee cash is the way to change kids' lives. I have a different idea of how to do that.

- Ira Socol

Camilo Acosta said...


I completely agree that we need more black teachers in TFA, KIPP, etc. There are many problems here at work beyond the control of these organizations though.

1. They only recruit from top schools, like the Ivy League, which aren't minority-heavy. There's no reason why they should recruit anything less than the best and brightest.

2. Until very recently, many of the best minority college students weren't going into teaching. And why would they when you can make $100K+ on Wall Street straight out of the Ivy League?

That's changing though. Last year, 50% of black seniors at Harvard applied to TFA. Finding exceptional principals and teachers (because KIPP does not accept mediocrity) is hard - adding a racial element is harder simply because there are LESS minority teachers to begin with, so even less amazing ones to pick from. There are simply more white people, which means proportionately more good white teachers. I think things are changing for the better now that we have 50% of black seniors at Harvard applying to TFA - its a good trend.

Camilo Acosta said...


The bottom line is you shouldn't demonize someone who is fighting on behalf of poor black kids for the same reasons you are. She's just going about it in a way that doesn't suit you. That doesn't make her evil any more than your interests make you evil. I say this because I know her, I've talked to her, and I know first hand how passionately she wants to make life better for these kids.

Call her misguided, if that's what you think, but she is doing more to fight inner city poverty in DC than anyone has in recent memory - so, respect and acknowledge that.

irasocol said...


Wow, so the only smart kids in America are at Ivy League schools? Holy S***! are you brainwashed. You are so committed to white-superiority it is really sad. People need not just be "white" - they must be the "pure-white" in behavior and world view which the Ivies embrace.

And thus, these pure white kids (of whatever physical color) go out and simply "represent" whiteness to our poor, disadvantaged black and latino kids, and their blessings will wear off, at least enough to train compliance.

Your statements could have been written by Benjamin Disraeli (I'm hoping you know who that was) about colonialism around the globe at the height of Victoria's age. In fact, Kipling wrote a poem about your "best and brightest" (if you even knew American history you'd have picked a less loaded phrase):

Take up the White Man's burden--
Send forth the best ye breed--
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives' need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild--
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child.

- Ira Socol

Camilo Acosta said...


I think we're going back to our different ideas on the purpose of education and what kind of culture we do/should live in. I think a major benefit of education is success in our free market capitalist system. You think that means "acting white" and that we should have a different socio-political and economic structure. We'll never agree on that.

And I said "like the Ivy League" - aka those aren't the only good schools.

Mike said...

This is directed at your blog post....not the conversation going on.

I found it funny that this was the second blog post about tenure I read today.


The post points out, and I believe correctly so, that tenure is on the wrong side of the argument. Not so much in it's effectiveness, but that the vast majority of people in the US do not have tenured jobs. They have no tolerance for tenure and do not understand why teachers can be guaranteed a job for life. It concludes that there isn't a whole lot teachers can do to get tenure on the right side of the argument (above post excluded of course :-) ).

My problem with tenure actually puts your argument on it's head. It's been my experience that tenure has stifled innovation.

(Maybe I haven't taught long enough, or I was in the wrong schools, but it's been my observation nonetheless.)

Yes tenure protects both the innovative teacher, and the despicable teacher. But it also protects the clock-punching teachers. The teacher that hasn't changed a lesson plan in 15 years. The teacher that is trying to stumble over the line to retirement. The teacher that will keep his or her job during budget cuts over a great 30 something teacher because of seniority. It protects the teacher that has never done anything wrong, but hasn't done anything right in a while.

Tenure provides security. It's wonderful when teachers, like you Ira, take that security and use it to take risks and push the boundaries of the curriculum. But the problem is most people are risk adverse.

Very few teachers can bring the energy, enthusiasm, and the drive to be the best teacher they can be for 25 or 30 straight years (hell, it's hard enough to do it for one) Now some certainly can, and they are marvels. But tenure protects the coasting years of teachers who just don't have it anymore.

What do you do with a teacher who goes through the motions day in and day out? A teacher that has no interest in changing anything year after year? A teacher, who is counting down the years/months/days until they get their 80%? This is another problem with tenure, and it's a much bigger one than protecting the terrible teacher IMHO.


irasocol said...


As I think a number of the commenters above indicate, the biggest role tenure plays is in protecting those who challenge the status quo, and those who invest their lives, and massive amounts of education, in becoming better educators. The protection of the clock-punchers, of those "stumbling toward the retirement line," is mainly a function of administrative inertia - and a system which prefers clock-punchers to innovators.

For it is vital, to discuss your thoughts, to recognize that the purpose of education in the US is to reproduce society as it is, not to change it, so those who do the minimum are prized in ways those who seek to find success for those traditionally "left behind" will never be.

One of the essential problems in America - with America - is a long-time disbelief in the value of education, and a disrespect for the educated, including teachers. It is not just that the US is perhaps the only nation on earth where one could be considered "too intelligent" or "too well educated" to be President. It is ingrained in the myths of the uneducated, self-made individual. It runs from Sarah Palin's supporters to the Ivy League supporters of Teach for America (who never quite explain why, if teachers need not go to school to learn to teach, why should kids go to school at all?). It includes the odd concept that the only taxes Americans are given a direct choice on are school taxes. It's so unimportant to Americans, it can always thus be "the first thing cut."

Now, yes, tenure seems "odd" to many Americans. Of course tenure is the secular balancing formula. European teachers came with tenure too, because they're origins were as Priests, Monks, and Nuns. These positions came with respect and life employment. In the US, teaching was established by Henry Barnard as a low-paying, short term occupation, fit for women waiting to be married. That's capitalism, of course, but it left the US far behind. And, as the Dangerously Irrelevant post forgets to mention, the initial push for tenure in America was made crucial in the 1920s by the Scopes trial. The nation saw what happened when politicians could fully control how and what knowledge was transferred to their children.

We already know that teachers are, both at start and at median, the lowest paid of the "professions." This expresses the American belief that teachers are less valuable than lawyers, doctors, accountants, and others who must exceed a Bachelors Degree for a job. They are, of course, much less valuable in the American sense of the world than the bookies who wear the expensive suits on Wall Street. Yet, up to this point, teachers have made a deal, they've given up wealth for a certain level of security and autonomy. If those are taken away via scripted instruction, mandatory curricula and test prep, and the loss of tenure, you will either need to bring teacher pay to the physicians' scale, or your recruiting will become a nightmare.

Now, I'm hardly pro-bad teacher. Hell, I've written a book that heavily discusses bad teachers - http://www.amazon.com/Drool-Room-Ira-Socol/dp/0615165443 - but I also know what I see. First, I know plenty of "lifetime" great teachers. Some have commented above, and as they say, without tenure they probably wouldn't be teaching, and if they were, they surely would not be taking the chances they are. Gov. Christie tells me - directly on Twitter - that Mike Ritzius is "selfish and wrong" but he is leading a revolution for the benefit of his students. Lisa Parisi is not just a brilliant teacher, but an example who make thousands of teachers better every year. If Mike Bloomberg were in her town and had his way, she'd be gone, way too expensive, replaced by one of Camilo's TFAers with six whole weeks of "lectures on teaching" behind him or her, and kids, especially the most vulnerable, would be huge losers.

(see next 1/2)

irasocol said...


So, yes, its a political struggle. The US seems quite determined to undermine all levels of its education system. As Yong Zhao points out, we are going away, in K-12, from all we did well, to embrace nothing but compliance training. Meanwhile we have taken every possible step to disinvest in what was the engine of our success, our public research university system. So, convincing Americans to do the right thing regarding education is much harder than, say, convincing them that the Earth is 5,000 years old, or that global warming is a myth, or that nations with unions can't export goods, or that Canadians face death panels when they go to the doctor.

But, if I'm to claim any status as an educator, I have to believe in the power of education to transform. And so, against all odds, I'll keep trying to explain it.

- Ira Socol

Mike said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mike said...

Ira, you did a brilliant job of defending your stance. And in fact, you did change my opinion slightly.

You convinced me that now, as things are, tenure cannot be taken away. And for all the bad it does, it probably does just as much, if not more, good.

So yes I agree. As things are right now, education would cease to work if tenure ended.

However, tenure in a hypothetical completely revamped educational system would still yield the same results; protecting the good, the bad and the mostly mediocre. And that is not fair to the kids.

So my questions is, is tenure the right fight to pick?

I think you'll agree with me that we, as a country, need to hit the reset button with the current educational system (and if you don't, I apologize for putting words in your mouth).

I believe the US educational system is broken beyond the point of repair. Whatever chance it had of being fixed was crushed 8 years ago by NCLB.

We've entered an age where Standardized Tests are now the precedent to all evaluations. The people who believe standardized tests are the way to go, are the politicians running the day (who believe it DOES prove proper educational achievement because they did well on those tests. But we both know better).

Look, I am anti standardized/all or nothing tests. I am against privatizing education. I am against politicians who think they know what's best for education who have never set foot in a classroom. I am against TFA'ers pushing out veteran teachers (I was a first year and I know how much I sucked as a teacher that year). I'm against teachers being second class citizens. We probably agree on a lot Ira.

My problem is, like I posted with the Dangerously Irrelevant blog, teachers are on the losing side of the tenure argument, for better or for worse. You can blame an uneducated populous. You can blame inept admins and politicians. You can blame the tax payers. But the fact is, the more you defend tenure, the more those people will want to take it away. And quite frankly, teachers are simply out numbered.

So why not change the argument?

I believe there can be a system put in place that evaluates teachers fairly. I don't know what that system would look like (and no, I'm not barking up the test tree). But I do know that if I watch 5 different history teachers for a month I could probably pick out the best and the worst ones. So there has to be a fair way assess teachers.

I just feel, it's more productive for teachers to get ahead of the evaluation argument, rather than pontificate about tenure. Regardless if you think evaluating teachers is a good or bad thing, that day is coming. And the more you fight it, the more teacher evaluation is going to look like something excellent teachers hate.

(*sorry, I did edit this. I wrote it in a pinch and was abhorred by what I read.)

Scott McLeod said...

@Mike: My post over at Dangerously Irrelevant wasn't meant to describe why or why not we needed tenure. What I tried to do was outline why I think teachers have an uphill battle defending it to the public at large. So far, as you note, I think teachers are losing dramatically in the court of public opinion...

Sean in 60 said...

Are your familiar with the Equity Project Charter school? http://www.tepcharter.org/

They are doing exactly what you suggest. Paying teachers a lot more! $125,000 to be exact. But, this project doesn't get to another one of your shining points. We need to attract different people to the teaching profession! In this charter school, they are only paying the best and brightest teachers with the best resumes. If there was a school that paid even $70,000 to start you'd attract a whole different, potentially better crop of teachers.

When you think about the point of school, in my view it is to create independence. In this economy, what makes one candidate different from another with the same credentials? Furthermore, if school is there to help everyone reach there potential, does that mean that everyone should be the same, or some should be "better", and some should be "worse"?

My K-12 school career was defined by the Arts, whether it be orchestra, choir, musicals, etc. These things are undervalued, no question. Should they be the basis of education? Probably not, but I digress.

Sean in 60

Mike said...

@Scott, It wasn't my intention to put words in your mouth. If you felt I have done so, I apologize.

I read your post as snapshot (and I think accurate one) of the tone tenure has on the American public at large.

You post lent itself for one to draw their own conclusion. And I did.