The truth about teacher tenure

A fight over teacher tenure is now raging because so-called education reformers have set their sights on destroying public education under the guise of saving it. In reality it is about blaming teachers for the failures of the education system. It is also about ending public education as we know it and turning it over to privateers, hedge fund managers and all those who want a piece of the billions going into public education.

History of tenure

Many of us do not know the history of tenure. Teacher tenure goes back to the mid-1880s, when the National Education Association called for political action to protect teacher rights. In 1886 Massachusetts became the first state to pass a pre-college tenure law. In 1909 New Jersey passed the first comprehensive tenure law. Finally, all teachers there, from elementary level through high school, had job protection. It wasn’t until the Great Depression that teacher unions fought for tenure rights and other job benefits. It took until the mid-1950s for the overwhelming majority of teachers to have tenure protection.

Is tenure lifetime job protection?

Today right-wing, anti-union advocates like Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, to name a few, have pushed to cast tenure as lifetime job protection for unqualified, incompetent teachers. Nothing could be further from the truth. But this view carries considerable sway with a public that unfortunately does not fully understand what tenure really means. Tenure simply guarantees due process rights to protect teachers from arbitrary and capricious administrators and superintendents.

Move to deny tenure in New York City

A recent New York Times article cites the fact that nearly half of new teachers in New York have either been denied tenure or had their probation extended one or more years. The article all but praises Mayor Mike Bloomberg for getting tough on teacher tenure. After all, the article goes on, almost 97 percent of new teachers received tenure only two years ago.

Those of us in education know the truth behind these statistics. The numbers of teachers who were denied tenure rose dramatically because of severe pressure placed on principals and superintendents by the Bloomberg administration. In fact, every teacher can recite cases where principals recommended tenure only to have that decision reversed by superintendents. Many cases exist where a teacher who worked satisfactorily for two years and transferred to a new school in their third year automatically had their probation extended. This past year a new tactic guaranteed that the percentages would be kept low – superintendents who approved tenure decisions had those decisions rejected at the chancellor level.

And the union has been stymied from developing a fighting strategy. It is understood that if a probationary teacher fights an unjust rating instead of accepting an extension of probation, he or she will be summarily let go. No due process, no real recourse.

What about the responsibility of administrators?

What is never stated in the tenure debate is that it takes three or more years to attain tenure. During that time new (probationary) teachers are observed in classroom performance numerous times. Shouldn’t an experienced principal or assistant principal responsible for making observations be able to make an educated evaluation of the support a newbie needs to become a proficient teacher? Shouldn’t a qualified administrator provide guidance and professional support to new teachers? Isn’t three years enough time to evaluate, help, and determine whether a teacher will “cut it” in the profession or not? Let’s not blame teachers, let’s put a major part of the responsibility where it belongs.

Recruiting and retaining teachers must be a major focus

Data regarding teacher retention shows that about half of all new teachers leave the profession within the first five years. Many new teachers quit due to the difficult conditions and lack of support from administrators. Focus must be placed on how to retain these new, dedicated educators who enter the field, so they can become the experienced teachers that are essential to quality education.

Another major issue that must be addressed is the recruitment and retention of minority teachers. A Center for American Progress report, “Increasing Teacher Diversity,” states, “The scarcity of minority teachers is not limited to any one type of school – in over 40 percent of public schools there is not a single teacher of color.” In New York City, research recently conducted by the United Federation of Teachers clearly shows that the number of minority teachers has plummeted since the Bloomberg administration took office in 2001.

Blaming teachers is happening nationwide

The “education reformers” are on the offensive. They have been for several years now, funded by major foundations such as Broad, Walton, and Gates. Of course the impetus to blame teachers and their unions has been greatly increased by the Race to the Top policy of President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan. That policy is now changing with states being granted waivers from the punitive No Child Left Behind policies of President Bush.

School systems are facing a great crisis including drastic cuts to school budgets, teacher layoffs and furlough days, salary cuts, and as important, a dramatic rise in class size in too many districts.

Still, educators and their unions must put forward winning strategies that unite parents and communities to fight for public education, debunk the charter school myth, reject blaming teachers, and counter the argument that good teachers can only be judged by students’ standardized test scores. At the same time unions, teachers, and parents must begin to address the critical question of how do we fight for a quality education for all children.

Michael Shulman taught high school in New York City for 36 years. He is a former vice president of the United Federation of Teachers and currently serves as an Executive Board member.

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