The Tenure Debate: A New York City Public Educator Perspective
by Marcus Brandon McArthur
This is a personal statement by a member of MORE. It may or may not represent the official view of the MORE caucus.
The state of policy debate around improving public schools in the U.S. continues to disappoint. Discussions on how to improve the system continue to be dominated by monied interests purporting to be the bearers of the 21st century “Civil Rights” torch. Much of their analysis on the state of public education is simply political noise and a carefully crafted public relations campaign that blankets public education in a cloak of comprehensive failure. In particular, the tenure protection for teachers, has been squarely in the crosshairs of their policy agenda. The debate on tenure has been nefariously framed by focusing exclusively on the caricatured imaginary “bad teacher” that looms large for many Americans. The phrase “bad teachers” is mentioned so often we are led to believe that 98% of teachers are deemed ineffective each year, not the 2% that actually are. The ruling in the recent Vergara v. California case, which effectively eliminates tenure for public school teachers in California, has spurned a wave of copycat lawsuits seeking the same fate in other states, most prominently, New York. These lawsuits are carefully marketed as being initiated on behalf of poor black and brown children and all those “good teachers” whose profession is debased because of the proliferation of “bad teachers” that have an irrevocable “job for life”.
These lawsuits are not about improving public education. They are not about broadening opportunity in America. They are not motivated by benevolent concern for black, brown, and poor children. These lawsuits are an unequivocal extension of a generation’s long elite reconstruction of the American social hierarchy to further concentrate the economic, social, and political capital of the United States into the hands of a powerful unelected few. The vision commands an economy in which, labor unions and their long-established political advocacy on behalf of the middle class and the poor, cease to exist.
Tenure is not a barrier to success in public education. Actually, it is indispensable. Virtually all high performing nations have teaching staffs that are unionized and award the tenure protection after successful completion of a probationary period. If in fact, tenure were a barrier to educational success, public schools in Finland, Canada, South Korea, and Singapore, would not be leaders in international educational achievement. Often left out of the debate on tenure is the perspective of the public school teachers, that are actually on the ground, in the trenches, doing the teaching, planning, social work, guidance, counseling, tutoring, mentoring, coaching, disciplining, caring, calling, feeding, clothing, and everything else that teaching in the most unequal society in world history commands.
This is a New York City public school teacher’s perspective on why we need tenure.
- Pedagogical Freedom
The U.S. is a nation of fads. From the latest fashion, to music, to food, the societal tastes of the day vacillate in the ebbs and flows of the moment. Education is much the same. Those that have taught for many years can tell endless numbers of stories about how instructional expectations have changed ad nauseum. From teaching phonics, to balanced literacy, to sustained silent reading, to cooperative learning, to differentiated instruction, to common learning standards, to the Smart Board revolution, and IPads in the classroom, bureaucrats and politicians sanguinely trumpet these developments as the next “game changer” in advancing public education, yet, they never live up to the hype.
Tools such as sustained silent reading, cooperative learning, and the utilization of educational technology are already, too often, unilaterally imposed on classrooms around the country regardless of if the teachers believe it is in students’ best interests. Teachers have been aligning instruction to the Common Core Standards going on four years now. I do not believe that many would argue that the “game has been changed” in U.S. public education by utilization of any of the aforementioned techniques. Instructional tools do not microwave student achievement quick, fast, and in a hurry, and their unilateral imposition on classroom teachers is a recipe for failure. Instructional decisions need to be made based on the teachers’ dynamic and evolving assessment of their class’ academic and social needs, ideally in constructive collaboration with fellow teachers and a competent administration.
Teachers need pedagogical freedom. This cannot be emphasized enough. The development of sound, rigorous, and effective pedagogy is a complex and personal process. It is not something that is microwaved overnight. Much like the innovation that occurs in the dynamic sectors of any economy in the world, development of effective pedagogy requires experimentation, personalization, collaboration, autonomy, and at times, failure. Pedagogical freedom makes teaching a highly skilled profession. It is also what makes classrooms around the U.S. interesting, dynamic, creative, and unique. It is what has and will help to keep great teachers in classrooms despite the whims of the electorate and political malarkey of the day. The attack on tenure is an attack on the pedagogical freedom of teachers across the country.
From a curriculum standpoint, the delving into complex and controversial issues will become significantly less prevalent in public schools if tenure ceases to exist. Teachers will be less inclined to challenge local political and cultural orthodoxies, in exercise of critical thinking, for fear of reprisal from complaint that will inevitably arise when nonconformist ideas are explored in an educational setting. In absence of the tenure protection, instructional and curricular autonomy will cease to exist. Some of the high profile charter school networks in NYC, and around the country, already reveal a dispiriting picture of what the future of pedagogical freedom might look like in an untenured context. Every classroom is, for all intents and purposes, the same. Pedagogy is derived from Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion. Lesson plans are the same for teachers of the same grade level. Teachers are forced to handle disciplinary issues in the same way, even if they sense that it might not be the best approach for supporting a child. If you deviate from the mandates, you’re pushed out.
- Advocacy on Behalf of Students
The relationship between teachers and administration is supposed to be aligned in that both parties should be working respectfully, collaboratively, and unequivocally in the interests of their students. Unfortunately, the relationship between these parties can not always be characterized as such. In school environments in which such a culture exists, the tenure protection becomes crucial in ensuring that teachers are able to advocate on students’ behalf when their needs are not being met, or mandated services that are supposed to be provided are not being made available.
In particular, this is of the utmost importance for special education students, which often constitute a large percentage of high needs schools. Special education services are an extremely tricky issue for many schools, since students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) are mandated by a legal document to be provided with very specific services. These services include supports such as smaller class sizes, classes with two teachers, educational technology devices, modifications to assessments, extended time on tests, counseling, and physical therapy. In schools with large numbers of high needs students, understaffed school personnel, and a long list of priorities for school administrators, students with disabilities often get lost in the shuffle of paperwork and the pressing concerns of the day.
In the absence of the tenure protection, teachers will be more reluctant to speak up and advocate on behalf of students. Keep in mind that education bureaucrats are piling administrators’ desk sky high in “compliance” related paperwork. Being in “compliance” with the mandates of state, local, and federal government is becoming one of the most labor intensive aspects of the administrator’s job, and it pulls them away from teachers and students occupying classrooms and hallways, into the solitude of the principal’s office. The weight of these mandates place intense pressure on administrators to ensure that they are met. Some will cut corners with respect to servicing students to achieve the required ends. Some will be unaware that students are not receiving required services. Some will not care. Whatever the circumstances may be, teachers must feel secure that there will not be reprisal for advocating on behalf of students, and in certain instances, whistleblowing if circumstances justify such action. Remember, more often than not, a teacher will be the one to identify when a student’s needs aren’t being met by the school. We should not make it more difficult for teachers to execute this aspect of their jobs. Dismantling tenure makes it unnecessarily more risky for teachers to do this work.
- Insulation from the Whims of the Day’s Political Idiocy
While no sector of American society is completely insulated from the mediocrity of America’s political class, the public education system greatly benefits from its relatively stable labor force. Both of America’s dominant political parties have demonstrated that they are capable of fashioning and executing radical agendas with respect to education policy. Schools are a contested political terrain over which the nation’s broader social, economic, and political battles are fought. These fights are often volatile, acrimonious, and rarely yield a popular consensus. This fact underscores the need for stabilizing mechanisms within public schools to ensure that education will not be radically reconstructed every time there is a new mayor, chancellor, superintendent, CEO, or other bureaucratic hack that passes through the chambers of power in a given locality or the White House.
Former NYC Chancellor, Joel Klein, reported to the New York Times in 2009 that if he had it his way, he would reduce the teaching force of NYC by 30% to improve its quality. He went further in the interview, outling a vision in which students went to school some days for clubs, sports activities, and drama, but, for the most part, academic coursework would be done in isolation at home online. Besides retarding the social and emotional development that comes with peer and adult interaction, many educators working with high needs students would argue that online coursework for K-12 is highly limited in its ability to effectively engage students and improve their educational achievement. There are so many factors that influence whether a student will be able to effectively engage independently with online coursework that by no means is it a panacea for the learning issues of students today. I doubt all of those students attending online charter schools in office parks in Pennsylvania and Arizona are jumping up and down with excitement over the fact that they are going to sit silent in front of a computer reading and writing for six hours a day.
These ideas characterize the current state of policy debate in U.S. public education. While teachers, administrators, and policy experts alike would attest to the vast amount of damage he did to the system over the course of 12 years, he was not able to execute labor reform as radical as his vision of reducing the teaching force by 30%. The biggest policy obstacle to such radical reform is the presence of a unionized and tenured teaching force in New York City. If tenure were eliminated and no barriers remained to at will employment for educators, undoubtedly such radical reform would be judiciously executed.
There are also important economic rights that need to be considered when understanding why tenure is needed to help isolate teachers from local, state, and federal politics. Teachers are notoriously underpaid for the difficult and invaluable work that they do. The low pay has traditionally been offset, in part, by a dignified retirement package that typically includes a modest pension and health benefits. In addition, starting salaries for teachers are low, but as teachers put years into the system, salaries become more amenable to supporting a middle class existence. The politics of taxation have shifted such that it has become a bipartisan consensus to vehemently oppose levying the requisite amount of taxation to support the salaries and benefits of veteran teachers. Instead, politicians have initiated the process of reconstructing the system with a financially cheap, young, and transient teaching force instead of maintaining one that is professional, experienced, and solidly middle class. As a result of this consensus, politicians are deliberately failing to levy appropriate levels of taxation to support an experienced teaching force, contribute revenue to maintain healthy pension funds, and target teacher benefits for cuts despite the fact that teachers made the commitment to the profession with the understanding that they would be able to retire in dignity and decency.
In the absence of tenure, veteran teachers would constantly be vulnerable to termination. Veteran educators command salaries twice that of new teachers. In addition, termination of a veteran teacher before they serve the required number of years to receive a maximum pension benefit, shaves tens of thousands of dollars off of a teacher’s pension check every year for the rest of their lives. These benefit structures provide great incentive for administrators and politicians to discriminate against teachers that have served students for many years. Currently, administrators in NYC are disinclined to hire veterans teachers, since they can hire two brand new teachers for the price of one veteran teacher. On the other hand, politicians are incentivized to find ways to push out or terminate veterans teachers, since it will yield vast amounts of long term budget savings through reductions in pension obligations and healthcare benefits. The only protections standing between the incredible ticking time bomb of age discrimination are tenure and the seniority based layoff system.
The misguided debate over tenure has already done immense damage to the teaching profession and public school system, overall. In NYC, the tenure process has become one that is deleteriously politicized, unnecessarily nebulous, and has little to do with merit, strong pedagogy, and even the principal’s recommendation. Currently, the tenure process disincentivizes teachers from working in schools with significant numbers of high needs students, since factors outside of their control such as administrative dysfunction, truancy, and large numbers of students that are below grade level will result in lower classroom passing rates and standardized test scores than in schools that are better run and have a lower percentage of high needs students.
The tenure debate is a complete red-herring. Ending tenure in public schools will damage the teaching profession in the United States for a generation, and students will suffer the most as they are taught by a transient and robotic teaching force that won’t have any incentive to get better, since they know that the job is a mere pit stop onto their real career. This is the time for the proverbial “lightbulb” to go off in the collective consciousness of the American public. Which side are you going to ride with? The people that have got their hands in the dirt and are planting seeds of knowledge and personal growth everyday? Or, with the “Johnny-Come-Latelies” who kick their feet up in the neighborhoods of the 1% pontificating on reforming an education system that they have never gone to school in, worked in, or would ever be caught dead sending their children to.