Thursday, November 13, 2008

Tenure, Tee-shirts and Triangulation: School Reform In The News

Michelle Rhee, the superintendent of schools in the District of Columbia, is moving to abolish tenure for teachers. Because tenure is the third rail of public education, she claims she isn't. But she is. Rhee is in charge of one of the most troubled systems in the country -- or perhaps just the most visibly troubled, since the collapse of public schools in the nation's capital are a particularly vivid barometer of the terrible state of urban public education more generally. Her current plan is to reduce the number of tenured teachers in the system by offering salary incentives for teachers to give up their tenure and simply teach well.

Rhee's approach to change doesn't help sell what is actually a sensible plan: if you have followed her career, you know that she reacts to dissent in the ranks with the polish of your average despot. Her rock 'em, sock 'em administrative style makes her a lightning rod in a world that combusts regularly over the latest plan to educate millions of children without liberating public schools from the property tax funding system that gives rich public schools to the suburban rich and poor public schools to the urban poor. Rhee is controversial, not just because of her aggressive advocacy of free-market solutions, like charter schools and for-profit providers, but because of her youth, gender and -- what few people ever comment on -- that she is a Korean-American executive officer of a black system, in a city that is funded (or not, depending on how you look at it) by a very white Congress.

So Rhee occupies the third corner of a triangulated racial relationship, and is a referee in a pseudo-colonial struggle between the Federal government and the District of Columbia. You've got to wonder why anyone would take this job. For this reason, and my ongoing interest in progressive education, I am always eager for news of her latest battle with those who failed to resist standardized testing or No Child Left Behind but do resist anything that actually might create better schools, the American Federation of Teachers.

To give some ground to her enemies, Rhee can be breathtakingly nasty. On September 8, 2008, I heard an interview with her on National Public Radio's All Things Considered in which the interviewer raised the question about whether nurturing a collaborative relationship with the teachers' union should be more of a priority than aggressive new pay policies that bypassed the union and rewarded teachers regardless of seniority. "Where has that gotten us so far?" Rhee shot back acerbically. "Being collaborative and holding hands and singing 'Kum Ba Yah?'"

But criticizing Rhee for her lack of tact and sensitivity begs the question of whether, in a failing school system, tenure should be an absolute value, even though -- importantly -- it protects teachers who are actually working for politicians. Is tenure in the secondary school system a different animal from tenure in higher education in some regards, and thus more disposable? Perhaps: the differences are certainly greater than the similarities from my perspective, particularly since, for better or for worse, it doesn't seem very difficult to get a job teaching secondary school. But there are other differences. There is no particular status to obtaining tenure as a public school teacher, as there is with a college or university job: it merely signifies that you have been judged minimally competent in the classroom and have not given the system any reason to fire you. It awards job security, and puts the teacher on a seniority ladder. That most teachers are also unionized means that the tenure system and union membership are almost coextensive with each other. And unfortunately, what this means is that wonderful, creative new schools springing up in urban school districts have to give priority in their hiring to old, tired, burned out teachers who are available because they have failed at other schools (or helped other schools fail) rather than to the energetic, young teachers who will invest in the school's success.

So why do we have tenure in secondary schools at all? Mostly, it is the legacy of Joe McCarthy and the Red Scare: it ensures that teachers are not fired for political reasons as they were in the 1950s, and well into the 1960s. But unfortunately -- assuming that people more or less doing a good job who are not controversial don't need to be protected -- tenure, at the level of secondary education, has more of a tendency to safeguard the lazy and incompetent than those advocating for radical forms of social justice. Ask Debbi Almontaser, for example. The same Randi Weingarten who has opposed Michelle Rhee's plan to overhaul the teaching staff in the D.C. schools and claimed that ending the tenure system will create "highly paid, transitory teachers who will spend much of their time looking over their shoulders at one another" is the same president of the AFT who threw tenured principal Almontaser under the bus for defending an Arab-American women's group that printed a T-shirt with the slogan "Intifada NYC."

Almontaser didn't make the T-shirt, she didn't sell it, and she didn't wear it: she merely explained publicly that intifada has a more complex history than those focused on contemporary struggles between Israel and the Palestinian resistance might be aware of. In other words, she defended the right to free speech, and as a consequence was reminded by schools chancellor Joel Klein and her union president that as a tenured principal she has no free speech. Almontaser, a rising star in the school reform movement and a skilled interfaith educator, was removed from her school, the Khalil Ghibran International Academy. She is now riding a desk down at the school board, where she does nothing every day in the company of teachers who touch children inappropriately.

So what we can conclude is that Michelle Rhee is a danger to free expression because she has questioned whether tenure is serving her school system, while Randi Weingarten and New York Schools Chancellor Joel Klein (who pressured Almontaser to resign from her school and was recently mentioned as a possible Secretary of Education in the Obama administration) reenforced a chilling environment in which pro-Arab speech has been effectively suppressed. Their support for tenure seems to mean that a teacher or principle has the right to be paid indefinitely after her career is destroyed for purely political reasons.

And that has nothing to do with teaching, learning or free speech, does it?


Anonymous said...


I'm a huge admirer (longtime lurker, first time poster), but I feel like you're talking about a particularly egregious and nasty case and using to generalize about all teachers' unions.

The truth is, tenure exists in part to protect teachers from "political reasons," but it also protects teachers from Cowardly Administrators and the Parents Who Hound Them.

The day you eliminate tenure for teachers is the day that every complaint from a parent (their kid got a low grade, their kid has a personality conflict with the teacher, the gadfly parent takes issue with the teaching style) becomes pressure on administrators to fire that teacher.

Sure, in principle I'm in favor of the idea of firing incompetent teachers, but as with tenure for higher ed, the issue would be: who does the firing? Administrators who haven't seen the inside of a classroom for years? A politicized school board? The parents? Your own colleagues?

This idea of eliminating tenure always collapses for me whenever someone says "the devil is in the details." Well, exactly.

JackDanielsBlack said...

So, TR, when you say "tenure, at the level of secondary education, has more of a tendency to safeguard the lazy and incompetent than those advocating for radical forms of social justice" I would agree with you, but add that based at least on my experience, this is also true at the college level.

Tenured Radical said...

Fishy: I get your point -- and then, when it becomes clear that tenure is a major stumbling block to getting and keeping hte workforce you want in the schools, isn;t it time to figure out how to address those problems without tenure? I think part of why we don;t is that it is such a huge job.

Jack: I only have my small pond to judge from. But *most* of my Zenith colleague are hard working and productive, and then a minority case problems. But as I said to Fishy -- college teachers, adn even administrators, are incredibly non-confrontational when it comes to someone's behavior causing a problem. People talk *about* them -- not to them. And it's rare (like never) that anyone really thinks about what it would mean to re-engage someone who is disaffected -- or take steps to deal effectively with someone who refuses to re-engage.


Anonymous said...

I don't know anything about DC schools, but I'm suspicious of arguments about education that assume the problem comes from lazy, incompetent teachers. Aren't *most* secondary school teachers also 'hardworking and productive' like your Zenith colleagues? The ones I know (not in DC, but in similarly difficult parts of the US) certainly are.

I'm in the UK, where we've had a long period of 'school improvement' which has resulted in massive overtesting of children. Along the way it has created a myth of the lazy, incompetent teacher, and removed trust from teachers as a profession. There are probably a few such teachers in any system, but doesn't the real problem come lack of funding and the burn-out that results from working every day in crisis mode? Will making people fear for their jobs help?

Anonymous said...

Should I end up tenured, I would like to discuss school reform with you someday (meant positively).
-Wes prof.

Unknown said...

TR, most of the elementary and secondary school teachers that I know are just as if not more hardworking and productive as the professors I know. They also confront racism, poverty and social injustice a hell of a lot more often than do the faculty at my university.

Tenured Radical said...

Hey! Why the snarling that I am dissing teachers? I am not -- and if you read the piece carefully, it is far more complex than that.

Let me just said that I never said that public school teachers in general were lazy or incompetent, or that they do not labor under burdens, or that university faculty are more deserving of protection. What I said was that the institution of tenure in each location is different (which it is -- and I only make that point because I am more of an expert and have written more on university tenure.) What I also said was the following:

And unfortunately, what this means is that wonderful, creative new schools springing up in urban school districts have to give priority in their hiring to old, tired, burned out teachers who are available because they have failed at other schools (or helped other schools fail) rather than to the energetic, young teachers who will invest in the school's success.

This is not a condemnation of all public school teachers, or even a large minority of them, but rather a point that those teachers who are in motion in a system are often in motion for a reason.

I think that ethically - and as a reflection of reality -- it is a real mistake to assert that all failures of public education are caused by bad teaching, and my piece points to many causes. But I also think it is wrong to defend the retention of people who do not belong in the classroom any more as a strategy to defend the workplace rights of the majority. It is simply not a defensible claim that all teachers currently teaching are good at what they do, any more than it is defensible to say they are not.


Anonymous said...

Wow TR what is this side battle with a pseudo-anonymous poster?

Just one quibble with your post, you seem to leave some doubt as to whether the DC schools are adequately funded. I would like to see someone argue that they should get more money, isn't DC the most expensive district in the country per student, somewhere north of $20K/year?

Jarrod Hayes said...

I think TR is onto something here. The function of tenure in primary/secondary school differs from the function in postsecondary education. One acts as a buffer against administrative/parental abuse, the other functions to protect the ability of scholars to do potentially controversial research (of course these are not pure categorizations, tenure serves other purposes in both cases). What I think is critical here is reconsidering the role of tenure in primary/secondary school. Are there other ways to protect teachers from administrative/parental abuse without generating the negative side-effects we see today. In higher education we have to jump through some hoops to get tenure, not just keep our heads down and do nothing to warrant dismissal. Perhaps something similar could be done at the primary/secondary level? Or, rather than give teachers long-term tenure, give them what I might call meta-stable tenure: periods of tenure-like protection bookended by performance reviews. Here, the performance review would have to be more than test scores...e.g. in class evaluations by impartial teaching evaluators, anonymous student reviews, maybe even tracking how students do as they progress through the system (students who went through teacher X's class did really well before his/her class, but their performance dropped afterwards). Of course, all these things require funding to achieve, and recruiting top notch teaching talent also requires funding (this is not to say that teachers recruited under the current poor pay system are not excellent, but lets face it, would someone with massive debt accumulated from going to a top 25 school be able to seriously consider teaching even if they were so inclined?).

Anonymous said...

There clearly needs to be a wholesale re-thinking of public education in this country, and we should all work our butts off to make the new administration do some real heavy lifting on making this happen. That re-thinking MUST happen with teachers as full participants and decision-makers. The last thing teachers in this country -- some of the hardest-working, lowest-paid folks we have -- need is to have their ability to collectively bargain over the terms and conditions of their work taken away. The AFT has had its problems, to be sure, but it remains one of the most important and vital advocates for students AND teachers that we have. We need more organized workers in education, not fewer.

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