Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Bipartisan (and Union) Assault on Tenure

Last year, President Obama called for teachers to be rewarded for their “effectiveness,” a call he repeated last week in his State of the Union address. He propped up these calls with Race to the Top (RTTT), which offered states large bribes (which he euphemistically called grants) for facilitating privatization schemes and for undermining tenure and seniority by tying teacher evaluations to student achievement.

Republican Governors in Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Nevada and New Jersey have called for the elimination or dismantling of tenure, with anti-tenure bills in the works in those states and in several others. Michael Bloomberg has been pressuring Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo to dismantle tenure in New York. Democratic LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa wants to make it easier to fire ineffective teachers. Michelle Rhee, also a democrat, has made tenure abolition one of the cornerstones of her anti-education StudentsFirst movement, having advised the governors of Florida, Nevada and New Jersey. With debilitating budget deficits putting teachers unions on the defensive, many believe that such measures stand a good chance of passing.

Both national teachers unions, the National Educators Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) have declared support for some sort of tenure “reform.” The AFT, for example, endorsed a law in Colorado last year that made it much easier for administrators to remove tenured teachers and that tied teacher evaluations to student achievement. And many locals have also voluntarily given up tenure protections and/or seniority rights. Keith Johnson, embattled boss of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, recently negotiated a contract that gave up seniority rights. The Chicago Teachers Union, Illinois Education Association, and Illinois Federation of Teachers endorsed “Accountability for All” which links tenure to classroom performance, measured in part by student achievement.

It’s important to remember that tenure doesn’t guarantee a teacher’s job; it guarantees due process so they aren’t fired arbitrarily or vindictively, or because of their race, sex, political views or cronyism. Ironically, New Jersey was the first state to pass a tenure law back in 1909. Also, the entire debate about tenure reform is predicated on the false premises that there are a lot of bad teachers and that poor student achievement is caused by all these bad teachers. Tenure reform is a red herring.

They Really Want to Dismantle Tenure Because It Will Allow Administrators:
  •  to fire teachers they don’t like, who speak out against unpopular policies, who advocate for teachers or students, or who are active union organizers
  •  to fire veteran teachers who earn much more than novice teachers and cost more to districts
  •  to save money by stacking their staffs with younger teachers who earn less
  • to more easily push through unpopular, untested or ineffective reforms  because younger, less experienced teachers are more likely to buy into the reforms and more willing to put in the extra hours to implement them
  • to weaken unions by getting rid of union activists and supporters and replacing them with younger teachers who often have less class and union consciousness


  1. Great post! That last bit about the young teachers is so true. Many don't even see a need for a union which is kind of scary. Also, here in Michigan the state bought into what Obama wanted because we were hoping to get some of that "Race to the Top" money. We haven't won any money. We aren't on the list but now our evaluations are tied to some kind of measure of student achievement. No one is too sure how this is going to be accomplished. The administration had us teachers fill out a survey about how students could be assessed in our area. I don't know how they will do that "merit" pay but I'm sure that the people that rub elbows with the administration best will prevail. There is a possibility that it could be by school wide performance. However, this will make you laugh. A math teacher that I have lunch with was upset the other day. He had two students that just refused to take a test. He was able to make them stay after school to take it, but of course they didn't take it seriously because they just didn't care about it. He doesn't want his teaching performance tied to those students that act out like this. What politician would ever believe that a kid in a class could possibly be uncooperative? It must be the teacher's fault!

  2. I helped bargain a contract for teaching assistants at a university in Michigan. The administration wanted to tie raises to some sort of merit based increase. However, when we asked them to structure this and show us what they were thinking, they couldn't do it. I think they realized that it's very difficult to assess teaching effectiveness without actually sitting in the classroom and then relying on the opinion of another person to determine if you are a "good" teacher or not. There isn't some magic number to look at to determine if you are effective.

    Graduate teaching assistants are the worst for not caring as much about a union. Most of them don't realize how much the university is getting out of us for our sweat shop wages.

    Privatizing makes me laugh. They are quite content with paying a little less for a service without trying to determine what they are actually losing. My mom works in a school district that privatized the custodial staff and she said the quality of work went down considerably. The school district also hired a newbie architect to build this brand new school (I'm guessing this guy was cheaper) and the school has several features that make you scratch your head. So now they have this building that's certainly nicer than the previous crumbling building, but doesn't do much in terms of facilitating a more "effective" teaching environment. One example is that the building has windows everywhere, so there is almost no where to bring kids for a tornado drill/warning.

    So saving money has created a dirty and unsafe environment for kids to learn, but oh well -right- they got to save a few bucks. When that real tornado comes around, it will still be someone's fault at the school if a child gets hurt.

  3. What is your response to the demand that consistently underperforming teachers leave classrooms before a huge amount of money and time is expended?

    I guess you could claim there are no underperforming teachers. Unfortunately, every teacher knows that's untrue.

    "Just say no" is a slogan, not a strategy.

    What do you tell non-tenured teachers who are working their asses off but who, in bad economic times, are targeted for layoffs while colleagues who are phoning it in at the end of their careers are retained just because they've been there longer?

    How is that fair to the young teachers? How is that fair to the students? How is that defensible to anyone?

    The Illinois unions are trying to save public education.

    If the unions don't take ownership of their profession they will end up just like the UAW. "No" did them no good.