Friday, March 25, 2005

School improvement and tenure battles

The Governor argues that we need an initiative to change teacher tenure, but there has been no evidence offered that this is a problem causing school failure. The governor’s proposals are in SCAXI, introduced by Senator George Runner (Republican- Antelope Valley. This bill, which the governor threatens to make an initiative, would create a merit pay system for teachers that would tie pay to student scores on statewide tests. It would also require a ten year probationary period for teachers.
We do not have evidence, that tenure is a problem. We have a few anecdotes from principals complaining about a few teachers. These principals were trying to explain why they were unable to turn around failing schools. This is not rational policy development, it is just scape goating, similar to Pete Wilson’s campaign for Prop. 187 blaming immigrants for the economic crisis of 1994.
We need to ask why the argument is made by the Governor and the Los Angeles Times that tenure is a major problem.
One source of repeating this message is the screaming on right-wing radio. A group has created an image that tenure is the problem. How is this position manufactured? This is, of course, only one of several ideological messages created there. See The Republican Noise Machine: Right Wing Media and How it corrupts Democracy, (2004) David Brock.
How is it that a group of editorial writers at the Los Angeles Times have adopted this position since there is no research to support the position?
We need to ask how did tenure become the issue rather than adequate school funding.
The author Barbara Ehrenreich describes a part of the manufacturing of this viewpoint in her excellent book, Nickled and Dimed on (Not) Getting by in America.(2001) She notes that most who work in the private sector of the economy work in a very authoritarian work place. It seems “normal” that bosses arbitrarily make decisions and even fire workers in many private sector jobs. Work life for many is dictatorial, not democratic. In the work life of editorial writers, apparently, this dictatorial work regime is “normal”.
Fortunately, through a decade of organizing and political work, teachers in public schools in many states in the U.S. have achieved the legal process of tenure. Teachers, working with others, established tenure to keep partisan politics out of the public schools. All tenure does is protect teachers from arbitrary dismissal. Poor teachers are dismissed. Quality principals at times remove poor teachers. Tenure does not prevent the removal of the incompetent teachers. It only provides procedural safeguards against arbitrary and capricious dismissal.
Why is this so important? Because arbitrary hiring and firing used to happen frequently. Hiring and dismissal of teachers was too often a petty, patronage based, unprofessional process by school boards and principals. Tenure is very important. It protects teacher’s freedom to speak and their basic citizenship rights. As a teacher you can speak out, make political statements, without having to fear that your school board or your principal is going to fire you.
Where is the evidence that tenure is a vital issue at all in school reform? Those making this case are confusing tenure at the college or university level with tenure in the public schools. They are quite different in their impact. Consider the just released report by the Harvard Center on Civil Rights on California drop out rates. California has one of the higher drop out rates in the nation, and our urban schools have a more severe rate than our suburban schools. Yet, there is no relationship whatsoever between states with high drop out rates and states with laws providing teachers with tenure.
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