Uncommon Sense

May 12, 2010

Teacher Tenure Not the Problem (Really!)

Filed under: Politics — Steve Ruis @ 2:22 pm

I read a newspaper editorial recently with the title “Teacher Tenure Must Go.” I imagine there must be a zillion of these by now and each and every one of them couldn’t be more wrong headed. In the author’s “throw the baby out with the bath water” world the apparent solution to hate speech is to eliminate free speech. Teacher tenure is not the problem appallingly poor management is. I won’t disagree with the opinion that the quality of many teachers is lacking. But conservatives always feel that what is needed is a strong “boss” to throw the bums out. Unfortunately the bosses can’t seem to tell which teachers are which.

Tenure was invented to protect teachers from arbitrary whims of management, like firing a teacher to free up a position for one’s nephew. (I didn’t make up this instance, I didn’t have to.) And tenure is still needed because of the paucity of management talent in school districts.

On top of this, teacher’s unions are accused of protecting the incompetents because that’s what they are for. On the contrary, teacher’s unions are required by law to defend all of their members. A teacher’s union who refuses to defend a member can and will get sued and lose. It is an absolute fiduciary duty of the union to defend any member requesting representation. But in conservative eyes, all unions are, by definition, bad and need to go because they infringe on management prerogatives, primarily the prerogative of bad management.

The characterization of teacher tenure as representing “lifetime job security” is another conservative “literary darling” that needs to be killed. All teacher tenure is is due process, a set of rules needed to be followed to remove someone from their job. And it works. I know this because, as a former teacher’s union president and chief negotiator, I have seen every aspect of the system work and work well when managers did their homework and did it well.

If the required steps are followed, the general result is a teacher retires or “leaves to spend more time with their families,” or some other such euphemism; it is rarely the case that a teacher sticks it out until fired. (Fired teachers rarely if ever get hired again. People are shocked that someone didn’t take the easy way out and persistent to the point of being fired.) As a union officer, I felt the umbrage of having to represent people who were known by all involved (by “all” I mean management, union, and the general population of teachers and students) to be incompetent. I suffered through the difficulty of trying my best for someone who wasn’t deserving. Union officials certainly don’t sit around in their offices cackling to themselves saying “Ah, another incompetent’s job saved.” As a ordinary faculty member serving on a “last” (pre-firing) review panel of a fellow teacher in my next to last year of work before retirement, I told my union’s steward, “Get her to retire, it’s her best option.” He did. This is how it works. The process requires that managers review teachers to document failings that the employee is given time to correct. Repeated failings merit further discipline including being fired. Violations of law, ethics, or board policies can get one moved to the front of the firing line. The ordinary process, if done correctly, can take a couple of years at worst. This is why tenure takes more than a couple of years to acquire.

But, if managers are lackadaisical and don’t cull poor teachers in the tenure acquisition process, it takes yet more work to get rid of them. Good teachers know this and they resent the bad ones. They resent the fact that the bad ones get paid as much as they do. They even resent their union defending the bad ones! (Repeatedly we had to remind members that we were required to represent each and every member.) But the good teachers support tenure, because they see that the quality of management is so poor and don’t want to be at the whim of that management.

This most recent editorial gave the impression that it is common for teachers to make $100,000 per year. I retired in 2006 as a professor of chemistry from a California community college. You know, California, with the lovely cost of living and astronomically expensive housing. (This is before the “housing bubble” burst and $645,000 fixer-uppers were common.) My final salary, after 35 years, was $72,000. Apparently I needed to be working in New York where all of the teachers make $100k. The author also makes the mistake saying that teachers get ample “vacations.” Calling it “vacation” is completely arbitrary. I could as well call it a “low season furlough” or “temporary layoff.” Teachers aren’t opposed to working through the summer, many do by teaching “summer school.” Often “summer school” pays less than “regular school” and often substantially less. (In my district it was about 65 cents on the dollar compared to “regular season” work.) How would you feel if you were laid off from your job for three months but your boss offered to hire you back, part time during that period for two thirds of what you made per hour prior?

In conservative circles, unions are always the problem, never management. If the military requires a court martial to kick out a soldier, is it to much to ask that there be some due process to kick out a teacher?

Blog at WordPress.com.