Teachers, Tenure and Logic, Inverted.

Bad teachers. We all had our share in school. And we may even know a few in our adult lives – certainly, those with children have their strong opinions. But when looking for solutions to create better schools for kids, what are we to do about all these teachers who don’t perform?

Evan Dawson’s recent post on the 13WHAM blog points to one popular answer. That popular answer is that the tenure enjoyed by teachers as members of a Union fosters an environment where bad teachers are rewarded. Because it’s difficult to get rid of a bad teacher, there’s no reason for that teacher to improve. Tenure makes for bad employees.

The argument has a certain internal logic. And the handy thing about internal logic is the blessing of not requiring outside validation. But what if we invert that statement? Not having tenure makes for good employees. Does that sound right? Does that sound familiar?

My experience – nearly twenty years of working in factories, warehouses, stores and offices, nary a single Union shop in the bunch – does not provide any particular evidence for this theory. In fact, my experience is rife with examples of breathtakingly bad employees who are lazy, dishonest, irresponsible and even larcenous… ones that the boss knew as well as I did! How could they possibly have kept their jobs? Was it the tenure fight? No.

The truth is that hiring and firing is a lot more difficult than the “tenure/bad” canard would have you believe. You have to find someone who wants to do the job, that has the qualifications to do the job, that has the experience to do the job – no, those are not the same things – and finally that will actually…. do the job. Not one of those things is guaranteed – some people leave their first day during their lunch hours!

But once you’ve got somebody that’s stayed on for three years? Ask any employer how big a deal that is. And if you ask any employer, the one thing they don’t want to deal with is change in staff. Uncertainty in the basic elements of how the job gets done. Even a bad employee knows their job: the new guy will take time to train. They want you to stay on, they want you to be a part of the team.

Tenure rewards that commitment. It is not a magical talisman that suddenly makes teachers immune to firing: a really bad teacher or one who commits a crime will get zero support from the Union. Nor is the absence of tenure proof that the employee is any more likely to get fired. Which brings me to the quote that is the crux of Evan’s blog post:

“If I could get rid of tenure for 24 hours, I’d have a bus waiting at school tomorrow morning. That bus would take away all of the teachers I can’t let go because of tenure. I’d do it in a heartbeat.”…”We spend well over a hundred thousand dollars to get rid of one bad teacher,” he said, indicating that legal fees and other issues made the process prohibitive.

The superintendent in question can be forgiven for not knowing about the process to fire people in other industries, but trust me, you can’t just fire anyone you want in this state. Not in a school, not in a plastics factory. Nowhere. And yes, it is expensive: the reasons have to be well-documented, warnings have to be issued (obviously not for crimes) and after everything, the fired employee can absolutely lawyer up and sue.

And no, despite the bravado contained in the sup’s statement, Mr. Anonymous Superintendent of Schools would not just start firing people if given the chance. That’s an easy thing to say when you’re discussing hypotheticals which you know will never come to pass.

By Tommy Belknap

Owner, developer, editor of DragonFlyEye.Net, Tom Belknap is also a freelance journalist for The 585 lifestyle magazine. He lives in the Rochester area with his wife and son.

4 replies on “Teachers, Tenure and Logic, Inverted.”

The Nation (see above link) has a cool story on how the movie, Waiting for Superman, takes the facile road to easy criticism on the union tenure issue. Truths about charters schools conveniently avoided in the film include:
– Charter schools that are unionized
– any mention of the subpar success rate of charter schools
– any mention of excellent public magnet schools
– that unions actually support moves to get rid of bad teachers
– that unions have supported some charter school expansions.

This whole tenure tempest mirrors the petty attitudes about the Motts strike. People look at other folks making a living and get resentful and jealous (I’m working my butt off and I have no security and my pay sucks) but instead of supporting efforts of other workers to reshape the landscape of work they get their mouths in gear to pull down those folks who are pushing for worker rights.

Plus – American schools are actually doing a decent job – of educating middle class people in suburbs. We fall behind because we have decided its OK to have extreme poverty levels (and perhaps more importantly – high rates of neighborhood jobless density) – levels that folks in other industrialized countries would never tolerate. Then we’re supposed to accept that the antidote to that causative factor is more of the same – screw workers and skim the cream and leave the rest behind – making sure the Wall Street investors grab their piece. Brilliant.

There’s a limit to just how many issues I really want to tackle in a given article, but the part about jealousy and tearing down Unions is definitely a piece with what the basic idea of this article is all about. I’ll go you one further: I think that a lot of people carry their resentments from high school over well into their adult lives, which is why you see them moan about teachers and their forty-week schedules and the like.

But trying to go after that is a pointless excercise. I’m just trying to bat down a relatively narrow concept, just to have it said and especially because this subject comes up again and again in various venues.

The first teacher anyone has does not come from a school. Your first teacher is a parent, in some cases a guardian. Children dont go to school for three or four years, whose doing the teaching during this time. You cant blame teachers for the graduation rate, diplomas get handed out like candy.

We really need to do more to make sure young people have better employment opportunities in the city. Regardless of your education level you should be able to make a living wage.

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