Friday, August 8, 2008

Tenure Uncovered


Tenure is a much misunderstood concept and the fact that the concept is under attack as a major cause of the so-called achievement gap is part of the business community and the Educational Equality Project's focus on the teacher as the problem.

Historically, tenure came into existence before teacher unions existed as a way to protect educators and education from political interference. And to give people the right to a defense. It was not designed to protect the incompetent and there have always been tools available to administrators to remove teachers. The length of the process has been under attack even though much of that has been due to the other factors (like few hearing officers.) For some good history, read "Blackboard Unions: The Aft and the Nea, 1900-1980" by Marjorie Murphy.)


An excellent discussion on tenure occurred a few days ago at the NYC Public School Parent list serve, which also includes teachers. That teachers and parents were involved is of some interest.

Note the point in Leonie Haimson's comment where she compares teachers in public and private schools, where there is not tenure, yet there are poor teachers there too. Leonie should know as she has children in both.

Leonie also points to the fact that tenure exists all around the nation - yet it doesn't seem to be under attack in the suburbs. This exposes the fault line in the anti-tenure argument as part of the attack on teacher unions.

The discussion was sparked by an article in The Chief, which pointed to the big rise in the numbers denied from 66 in 2006/7 to 164 in 2007/8 and the numbers extended for probation from 115 in 06/07 to 246 in 07/08.

Principals Tighten the Reins on Tenure, Deny It to 164 Teachers

New Department of Education figures have revealed that the denial of Teacher tenure more than doubled compared to last year, as Mayor Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein continue to push for stricter evaluations of Teachers up for long-term job security.

Still, 93% received tenure from principals under BloomKlein. So how will they blame teachers in the future when their own principals gave them tenure?

I’ll start in the middle of the debate where Jeff Kaufman (ICE), who was a NYC policeman and a lawyer before becoming a teacher, responds to Leonie's comment with the crucial point that there is another agenda going on.

While I don’t disagree about concentrating on issues of smaller class size and reducing the impact on high stakes tests the issue of tenure, unfortunately, due to political considerations, needs to be periodically addressed. Having worked for a few City agencies I don’t understand how tenure is singled out for teachers as such a “hot button issue” except that there is another agenda going on.

I have not heard any cries of the ruination of our other City departments because the line workers, for the most part, have tenure. Police Officers, Firefighters, Sanitation Workers and hundreds of other titles have probationary terms and tenure (only teachers call it that) which require that poor performers be granted hearings so that city officials must prove that they lack the skills necessary to carry out the job. A police officer who makes no arrests, goes out sick all of the time, has no summonses and whose response time is totally inadequate can be dismissed, not because his commanding officer doesn’t like him, but because he doesn’t perform his job satisfactorily.

It is amazing to me, as a teacher and parent of school children, that principals and some parents can “tell” if a teacher is any good just by their reputation. I have been in schools where the principal does not observe teachers and bases his or her opinion about the teacher’s performance on walks through the hall and the chatter of other staff members.

Teachers shouldn’t have to defend tenure any more than other public employees. If there is a problem a supervisor should be taking affirmative steps to correct it. Unfortunately there is little accountability in this area.


Parent Eugene Falik:

I think that Jeff has hit the nail on the head.

It is not possible to have incompetent teachers in a school without incompetent or lazy administrators.

It reminds me of a meeting that the Far Rockaway postmaster had with members of the community. There were all manner of complaints, and comparisons of conditions in the Rockaways to the Five Towns (nearby area of Nassau), as well as other areas of the city. The postmaster explained that all of the employees sent to work for him were stupid and / or lazy. All of the good workers were sent elsewhere! Possible? Perhaps, but not likely. Most of those present blamed management.

And keep in mind, Mayor Bloomberg has said that we should judge him by the results in the schools. I believe that we should take him at his word. It certainly will not be a favorable judgment in my opinion.


Eugene Falik


The above comments were to some extent sparked by parent Ellen Bilofsky:

Despite my strong support for teachers' rights, dare I say that this might not be such a bad thing? I would say that for both my kids, poor teachers was the biggest problem in their high school years. Of course, it's a complex issue, and tenure is only a small part of it. At the end of the article, Randi mentions the support given to new teachers so that they can become excellent teachers. Being able to get rid of tenured teachers who are simply burnt out (we have examples of teachers who were literally almost comatose in the classroom) is a big issue. Shortages of teachers in certain subjects is a big part of the problem, since a teacher can't be dismissed if there is no one to replace him/her.

Ellen


Leonie Haimson’s response to Ellen’s comment.

A bunch of different issues are being debated and I think confused here:

1- I believe that too few NYC teachers are denied tenure, when you look at the statistics. Why that is, I have no idea; whether the problem is lazy principals or the system of tenure itself.

2- Once teachers have tenure, it is very difficult to get rid of them, even for poor performance. I have heard that there are ways to “counsel” them out of the profession but don’t know how often that is done. Yet there are good reasons for giving tenure.

3- For one thing, teacher tenure exists in most if not all districts throughout the country; eliminating tenure in NYC alone would not only be highly unrealistic; it would further disadvantage NYC schools, by giving a powerful disincentive for anyone who would like to teach here.

4- I also imagine that many principals would unfairly base the decision to eliminate a teacher on low test scores or even retaliate against teachers for personal reasons – after looking at the situation with the rubber room, etc.

5- NYC principals now have additional incentives to get rid of experienced teachers any way they can, and if there was no tenure, would be firing them left and right, as they have to pay for their higher salaries out of the schools’ discretionary budget. This is a perverse incentive that Tweed has built into their “fair funding system” which is highly destructive.

6- I have had children in public schools and in private schools; the quality of teaching has varied just as much in private schools, where there is no tenure. In fact, some of my daughter’s worst teachers were at her private school. What was far superior were not her teachers per se, but the smaller classes, arts programs and extra-curriculars, facilities, and the underlying attitude that all students should get maximum help and be exposed to as many activities as possible, in order to reach their highest potential in all areas.

7- If we really want to improve teacher quality and effectiveness in NYC, the best way is not to get rid of the tenure system, but to support all teachers and kids so that they can be more successful, by reducing class size, and also put less emphasis on test scores and more emphasis on non- academic areas and activities like the arts.

8- Smaller classes and a smaller working load will also likely diminish teacher attrition, which is extremely high in NYC and results in a far less experienced teaching force, which also means a less effective one, compared to other school districts throughout the state.

9- I believe but cannot prove that class size reduction would also diminish teacher “burn out.” How would you feel if you had year after year of 150 students or more, that you could only get to know a few of them, and reach so few?

10- This is true even at elite public schools like Stuy. If you’d like more info on this, read Frank McCourt’s book about teaching at Stuy, in which he talked about wanting to toss all his students’ assignments into a trash bin. Here is an excerpt from Teaching Man:

“If you asked all the students in your five classes to write 350 words each then you had 175 multiplied by 350 and that was 43, 750 words you had to read, correct, evaluate and grade on evenings and weekends. That’s if you were wise enough to give them only one assignment per week. You had to correct misspellings, faulty grammar, poor structure, transitions, sloppiness in general. You had to make suggestions on content and write a general comment explaining your grade. …If you gave each paper a bare five minutes you’d spend, on this one set of papers, 14 hours and 35 minutes. That would amount to more than two teaching days, and the end of the weekend…that’s the life of the HS English teacher.”

It’s no wonder he retired early. And he was thought of as one of the best teachers there!


Leonie Haimson


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