A reader writes:
Knocking teacher tenure is easy but simplistic. There would be some specific gains from eliminating tenure -- getting rid of (or re-motivating) some deadwood. But you're ignoring the real systematic costs. Tenure is a form of compensation: it gives teachers job security and some degree of classroom autonomy. If you already think that teaching is not attracting enough quality candidates, why would you propose cutting compensation? If you really believe in market economics, you have to grapple with the likely effects of making the job even less attractive than it already is.
There are also reasons why tenure should be attractive to anyone who is suspicious of big, centralized government. As far as I can see, tenure -- to the extent that it promotes classroom autonomy for teachers -- is one of the few things cutting against the movement to turn our schools into federally- directed test-prep centers. The relentless pressure to focus on short-term test-score improvement, even if it gives kids an impoverished understanding of what learning is and why they should ever want to pursue it, is killing my daughters' school. If tenure helps a few teachers resist that pressure, then more power to it.
Another reader adds:
I have to disagree with you on your position on tenure. It isn't that the tenure system is by any means perfect, but it is a fallacy to lay the problems of schools at the feet of that alone.I will concede that there are a ton of teachers that I work with daily that have no business being teachers, but what people tend to forget is that teachers aren't hired with tenure. Teachers have to earn tenure through the merit you are claiming they should have; we are scrutinized for three years before it is given to us. So if your taxes are going to a crummy school full of bad teachers, then why is it the union get all the blame and not the administrators who grant unqualified or incompetent teachers tenure? It is the obligation of the union to go to bat for any member, certainly, but administrators can give a series of honest, forthright evaluations that lead to termination before the fourth year. Administrators made the judgment to keep these people and have more far-reaching effect on the collective culture and goals of a school. Busting unions does not eliminate this fact. If an administrator won't eliminate a poor teacher when they can, how does giving them the opportunity to eliminate them when they normally can't suddenly solve the problem?As much as I am loathe to admit it, teachers are the worker bees in the grand scheme of things. You just as you wouldn't blame the soldiers for lack of discipline over his or her commanding officers, it might be worth looking into taking a look at how administrators manage and evaluate their staff.
The reality is that teachers are not dealing with adults or numbers on a spreadsheet or some sort of product. They are dealing with children, children with different levels of ability and different backgrounds that place varying degrees on educational success. It's herculean to separate what the class is capable of vs. the influence of the teacher. Not only that, it's counter-productive to children in order to do so. In the name of "accountability" teachers have been forced to "teach to the test" and have cut Art, Civics, and other subjects that are important in giving future citizens the depth of knowledge that they need to be well-rounded individuals. "Accountability" hurts the students.
My folks were upper-middling as educators - certainly not exemplary, but not terrible either. They enjoyed the job - though they frequently complained about their useless unions - but retired three years early recently due to the declining state of America's children. Both have agreed that in the last decade, their classes had become less manageable, ruder, less interested in education, and more grueling to work with at both the elementary and high-school level. The unions have nothing to do with that, and "busting" them won't make kids any more likely to succeed. It will simply expose teachers even further to the whims of unreasonable parents, fickle school boards, and poorly-implemented curriculum. Not get rid of the tiny minority of "dreadful" teachers that you seem to think are responsible for the decay of inner city schools.
Your demonization of teachers’ unions as a whole is off base. I live in the South, a decidedly non-unionized region, and my wife was a public school teacher. Yes, teachers’ unions are problematic. They make it very hard for new teachers to get jobs and make it too easy for terrible teachers to stay in their jobs. However, eliminating unions doesn’t really address the problem of accountability. The dirty little secret with public education in non-unionized areas is that terrible teachers stay in their jobs too, albeit with less pay and worse benefits. There are too few teachers available for all the schools with openings, so, although many administrations are quite capable of identifying bad teachers, they don’t have options for replacing them (ironically, their way of punishing them is often by removing them from advanced and honors classes, thus putting students who need the best instruction with the worst teachers). Yes, this may be even worse in unionized areas because they limit the available positions for new teachers who could possibly do a much better job, and yes, my wife has met teachers who came South because there were very few openings as a result of union agreements.
However, the unions help make sure teachers do not get taken advantage of. Teachers in the South never get paid overtime, even though they lose their planning periods (these are not breaks; these are times when teachers are supposed to be able to grade papers, plan for their classes, or catch up on other administrative tasks), are routinely asked to stay after school past “contract hours” (usually 3:30 or 4pm in most schools) for meetings, or are often “heartily encouraged” (ie required) to attend a certain number of student events during the course of the year. Teachers often lose their lunches for at least one week out of the month to either supervise the children at lunch or meet with parents. None of these things are written in to the contract per se, but administrators get to make requests of teachers under an “other duties requested by the school” clause in their contracts. Thus, administrators in non-unionized areas suffer from a lack of accountability, resulting in burned-out teachers.
Teaching is a service occupation, and any teacher who is good at and takes pride in his or her job must work outside “contract hours.” It is impossible to grade papers, even during planning hours, for five to six classes worth of children and prepared for the next class and contact parents of troubled students and do lunch duty. Papers get taken home, and teachers are not officially compensated for that time. Unions often help to make sure they are taken advantage of just a little bit less.
I completely agree with you that what is lacking in education is accountability, but simply suggesting that “busting” unions will fix that problem ignores that only comprehensive accountability, including students, parents, teachers, administrators, and superintendents, will really fix the problem.