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.


Your Foot in the Door

I was just watching CNN a moment ago, marveling at the overwhelming volume of content that channel puts out in the morning, when they played a segment on jobs. The thrust of the conversation? Lots of people are out of work, but savvy job seekers are exploring part time jobs being offered by the same employers who were offering full time positions a year ago.

Let me see if I can summarize what’s wrong with this article in a metaphor:

“Lots of people are going without food right now, but savvy shoppers are beginning to explore dog food as an alternative.”

It’s a down economy and you gotta do what you gotta do. Who knows what my next career move might be? But the story is not that workers are getting creative with employment opportunities; rather, its that employers are getting creative with excuses to offer less security and benefits to their employees. This has been a trend for a very long time. In fact my industry, with it’s 24/7 help desks has been a key concept in shaping our expectations: people in professional industries with high-tech skills have been trained not to expect normal weekends of concurrent days or paid time off or a schedule that lasts more than a month because someone HAS to answer the phones at all times.

And since the rest of us expect that there will be people answering the phone at three AM on Sunday, the ideals of a proper workplace that unions struggled so hard to achieve are slowly melting away. With the new economic downturn, you can expect that slow melt to speed up quite a bit.