by Ralph Scharnau
Public schools are required to educate all people, and they embody the hard-won principles of equity and inclusion. Public school teaching has become the most controversial profession in America. No other profession operates under such a high level of scrutiny.
The mainstream press, wealthy self-proclaimed “education reformers,” and many on the right portray teacher tenure and unions as practically the sole causes of underperforming schools. What roles do tenure and unions actually play in our public schools?
Tenure for K-12 teachers, granted by administrators, is often laid out by state law and school district policies, then enforced by unions. There is no such thing as automatic tenure. During the probationary period, usually two or three years, teachers can be dismissed for any reason or for no reason at all. After the probationary period, they cannot be dismissed without evidence of misconduct or poor performance. Tenure is not easily given; it is earned.
Tenure was designed to protect professionals from undue political interference and encroachment on classroom inquiry. It also ensures that teachers are not dismissed for their race, ethnicity, sexuaI identity, or for holding certain political, religious, or social views. It guarantees them academic freedom to teach according to the best practices in their field of expertise.
Teacher tenure does not mean a job for life. A teacher can be terminated—for cause. If teachers violate policy or fail to do their jobs, it’s up to administrators to make a case to remove them. That’s what due process means.
Unions make sure that teachers have rights. Backed by collectively bargained contracts, unions provide a defense against those who want autocratic administrative control over assigning, rewarding, punishing, evaluating, or removing their employees. They also lobby state legislatures for adequate school aid, professional development funding, and decent class size. So teacher unions, like the NEA and AFT, protect teacher rights, support teacher professionalism, and check administrative power.
Today education reform in the guise of fixating on testing, narrowing curriculum and pedagogy, pushing vouchers, and establishing for-profit charter schools impedes learning by ignoring the truly pressing problems of segregation by race and class. While reformers promote testing and privatization, these also do little to address other sources of school problems, constant budget cuts, swelling class sizes, and diminished educational services.
Evaluating teachers largely on how well students perform on standardized tests, moreover, ignores the influence of class size, curriculum materials, availability of specialists and tutors, and student attendance. The outside challenges in students’ lives often have the greatest impact. In 2013, for example, about half of the students attending public schools lived in poverty.
So-called education reformers have so vilified teachers and their unions that one gets the impression that tenure only serves to protect bad teachers. Rather than bad teachers, however, the biggest problem we face today is the high turnover rate.
We are losing somewhere in the neighborhood of a half million teachers a year. Fifty percent of new teachers leave within five years. Excessive teacher turnover harms student learning and development. We need to stop talking about tenure, and start talking about retention. We should talk about how to help teachers and give them the confidence to be the best they can.
Because high-stakes standardized testing takes on such outsized importance in modern American education, teaching to the test creates a toxic environment that erodes teachers’ discretion and autonomy, spontaneity and creativity. No wonder many teachers feel overworked, underappreciated, demeaned, and exhausted.
Good teaching is an art, not a mathematical formula. We should rely on teachers to test their students, not corporations. Schools are not businesses, they are more like families. To succeed, students should become thinkers, not just test-take.
January 29, 2015