Like a prairie fire in the middle of a drought, the movement to repeal or reform the nation’s teacher tenure laws is spreading rapidly. Emboldened by a court decision in California last month that ruled tenure a violation of the state constitution’s prohibition against discrimination, parent activists are mobilizing elsewhere to launch similar challenges, with one filed recently in New York and another in the works here in Connecticut.
But before conservatives and education reform advocates get too fired up, they’d be wise to ask themselves how much the abolition of tenure would actually help their cause. And whether they’d be willing to live with the precedent of an activist judicial branch doing their bidding.
There is no question that bad teachers make for bad schools. And the bad teachers not only drag down the profession but they lower morale. Ask any great teacher how much she hates sharing space in the profession with someone who simply sleepwalks through his entire day.
But that’s really the least of the problem. Not only is the presence of bad teachers maddening and demoralizing for colleagues, but it can have a devastating effect on a child’s education, which is precisely why student and parent advocate groups are making so much noise about tenure — a cumbersome due-process mechanism that makes it time-consuming and expensive to fire chronically underperforming teachers.
So even as a former high school English teacher — and now as a parent — I take a back seat to no one in wanting to see tenure and seniority-based layoffs relegated to the dustbin of history. That having been said, how much will the elimination of teacher tenure actually improve underperforming schools?
In some cases, it will make a difference. There’s a handful of sloppy, low-energy teachers at my kids’ local public high school, Housatonic Valley Regional, but I’d say the overwhelming majority of them are dedicated professionals whose students are their highest priority. It’s a small and solid regional high school with favorable demographics. The biggest obstacle to attracting good teachers is probably the far-flung location — not the learning environment or the lack of support from parents.
But in the case of the impetus for the successful lawsuit in California, we’re talking about schools in poor neighborhoods. Indeed, in his 16-page decision, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu ruled that tenure and the so-called first-hired-last-fired policy “imposes a disproportionate burden on poor and minority students.”
So if the bad teachers in a poor minority district are shown the door, who will replace them? It’s tough enough to find capable teachers to work in districts where poverty and social problems make instruction difficult and personal safety a question mark. Will the replacements for these troubled educators really be any better?
The problem with Judge Treu’s decision and those who filed the suit is they don’t get at the root of the problem, which is that the standards for hiring will always be lower in low-income districts. Firing bad teachers who will most likely be replaced by more bad teachers accomplishes nothing.
Gwen Samuel, president of the Connecticut Parents Union, which is preparing a similar suit over tenure, told the Associated Press that 200,000 children are stuck in low-performing Connecticut schools.
“Teacher tenure doesn’t ensure that those kids have an effective teacher,” Samuel said. “Guaranteeing a person a job regardless of their performance is irresponsible.”
Fair enough, but neither does the elimination of tenure “ensure that those kids have an effective teacher.” Implicit in Samuel’s statement is the notion that the replacements willing to work in places like Hartford, Bridgeport, and New London are bound to be better than those who were cashiered — and I’m not betting on that.
And if the uncertainty surrounding Treu’s decision wasn’t enough, hypocritical conservatives who typically object to “activist judges” are left applauding as a court decides a matter that rightly belongs at the bargaining table.
Here in Connecticut, teacher tenure is a matter of state law. Why this is the case I do not know. Why isn’t tenure a matter of negotiation between teachers unions and individual school districts? Did the powerful Connecticut Education Association really need to strong-arm the General Assembly to set the table for lifetime employment for its members?
Notwithstanding the recent scandals in Connecticut’s charter school community, reformers and conservatives would be well advised to focus on expanding school choice initiatives that will allow kids in failing schools to escape them. For the abolition of tenure won’t fix failing schools any more than the banishment of shoddy parts from cheap cars.
Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at ctdevilsadvocate.com and is news editor of The Berkshire Record in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill.