Teachers, Unions, & Tenure

November 18, 2008

A recent New York Times article got me thinking about this topic. It begins by stating:

“Michelle Rhee, the hard-charging chancellor of the Washington public schools, thinks teacher tenure may be great for adults, those who go into teaching to get summer vacations and great health insurance, for instance. But it hurts children, she says, by making incompetent instructors harder to fire.”

A controversial issue.

Michelle Rhee is the relatively new head of the DC public schools, one of the worst districts in America. She started her career (many years ago) in Teach for America.

Part of her effort seems to be aimed against teacher’s unions — not necessarily a bad thing. To the extent that crummy teachers get in the way of improving crummy schools, unions and tenure aren’t helpful (and trust me, I understand that there are other problems that are even bigger, like parental and community support for education).

I was a labor organizer some years ago for a short time. I quit for a variety of reasons, but among them was the fact that I learned that unions aren’t all good or all bad and that sometimes unions do more harm than good.

As a matter of public policy, I believe that unions are most beneficial when representing low-wage and working-class workers (e.g., janitors, nursing-home workers). On the other hand, I think there’s less public benefit as union members are more educated (e.g., university professors, teachers, medical doctors), primarily because more educated workers who earn more money have far more bargaining power, as individuals. And there is less danger that more educated workers who earn more money will be exploited by their employers. Society also benefits when employees of institutions (e.g., university professors) must compete in a meritocracy, rather than be promoted through seniority alone.

But back to the the matter of teachers’ tenure.

We take it for granted that school teachers have tenure. But what is its actual purpose, other than protecting jobs? Does it benefit kids in some way? The same NY Times article quoted above had this to say:

“Teachers first won tenure rights across much of the United States early in the 20th century as a safeguard against patronage firings in big cities and interference by narrow-minded school boards in small towns, said Jeffrey Mirel, a professor of history and education at the University of Michigan.

“And the historical rationale remains good,” Dr. Mirel said, pointing to the case of a renowned high school biology teacher in Kansas who was forced to retire nine years ago because he refused to teach creationism.

“Without tenure,” Dr. Mirel said, “teachers can still face arbitrary firing because of religious views, or simply because of the highly politicized nature of American society.”’

This rings hollow with me. I cry bullshit. Why? Because anybody in any job can be theoretically fired for religious views or politics, though it would generally be illegal to do so. But even without tenure, teachers have just as much protection as any other worker in America — and more in some cases. And the only place where this commonly comes up is in high-school biology classrooms — not a sufficient rationale for tenure. In fact, Dr. Mirel’s reasoning doesn’t apply any more to teachers than doctors or lawyers or engineers.

The article goes on to give another possible rationale for tenure:

“Kerry Sylvia [a teacher], 38, said she opposed Ms. Rhee’s proposal. Although she is an award-winning world history teacher and works long hours to help students at her high school improve, Ms. Sylvia said that without tenure she would nevertheless feel vulnerable to arbitrary firing because she has publicly opposed some Rhee initiatives and speaks out about things like her school’s decrepit heating system.”

I still don’t buy it — for a couple of reasons: (1) Why should teachers be treated differently than any other worker? And since when was okay to publicly oppose your employer? Had I done so while working as a labor organizer, I’d have been out on my ass pretty quickly. With some exceptions (e.g., whistleblowing), insulting your employer in public is generally a no-no in life. (2) Teachers, as public employees, are already protected with respect to free speech to a greater extent than most workers.


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10 Responses to “ Teachers, Unions, & Tenure ”

  1. Lonnie on November 18, 2008 at 8:43 pm

    Oink– this could be the first practical application of my first amendment class! for this i owe you a lot of thanks.

    It’s more than a shame that you and Kerry Sylvia have both had experiences where being thrown out on your ass is the only outcome of speaking your mind. In cases like Pickering v. Board of Education and Connick v. Meyers, the court has ruled that if you are legitimately speaking out about a matter of public interest (and not airing dirty laundry or reacting to a bad office dynamic), then your employer can’t do shit. And if you aren’t whistleblowing, then why the need to screw up office functionality? First amendment law does not become precedent unless ballsy people are there to actualize it. If a teacher, or any employed individual, gets fired for legitimately working to enlighten the public about an issue of importance, then challenge challenge challenge! I do think that the first amendment gives adequate protection to teachers and that a system of tenure is needed for protection from the tyranny of administration.

  2. Lonnie on November 18, 2008 at 8:45 pm

    correction: system of tenure is NOT needed. funny how negatives change the meanings of statements, huh?

  3. MrOink on November 18, 2008 at 11:59 pm

    An interesting point, Lonnie. Even though I have a JD, I think you’re more the expert here on First Amendment law (actually, to be frank, Constitutional Law was my worst subject in my first year of law school. I sucked at it. I wanted to be good at it, but I’m not smart enough or something. It’s way too complex. I suck suckedy sucked at ConLaw. So, I’m not even going to attempt to make more then wildly general comments about First Amendment law).

  4. emcee on November 19, 2008 at 10:39 am

    All interesting points if this were a classic labor-management or First Amendment issue, but it is not. It is an education issue. What needs to be determined at the outset is whether there is a relationship between union contracts and the poor quality of our education system. There may be some indirect relationship but it most likely does not lie at the core of the problem. Thus wheter public schools grant tenure (a misnomer under most union contracts-in reality just the classic dismissal for cause clause) is not the root of the problem.
    We should most likely go back to Brown v. Board of Education to discussd the issue in more depth. The court said that all children have a right to an equal education. Had the dream been fulfilled, we might not be in the mess we are now. Instead schools throughout the country resegregated along lines such as gifted and ordinary and slow learners and set up model schools for some and let the rest of the kids fend for themselves. From that point on, the quality of education deteriorated.
    The current trend toward union busting is not an attempt to improve education but control costs, particularly in the metropolitan areas in the north. While it could accomplish that goal, it may do nothing to improve teaching. We disregard how hard it is to teach children in grades 1-12 in our vast public school systems. Sure without union contracts or with more realistic “with cause” provisions, we could get rid of ineffective teachers, but do we have replacements? Probably not. In the non-unionized south, school districts have relaxed or eliminated certification requirements and still cannot fill available slots. One reason is lack of qualified teachers nationwide, the other reason being that teachers won’t work in a non-union position. And it isn’t primarily because of tenure but because without a union, school boards won’t voluntarily raise taxes to pay teachers.
    Unlike other industries, this is far too complicated a problem to address just by looking at union contracts. That is a nice short term answer for superintendents who average three years on the job nationwide but it will not better educate our kids. We as a nation really need to look at what equality means in an education system and what need to be done to achieve it. This means finding ways to entice highly qualified people to enter the field of teaching and instilling a mission in those people. We once had it. There was a time when the most highly qualified people in the country flocked to the teaching profession. They of course were the women who are now lawyers, doctors, scientists, professors and CEOs. We must find their like again and then the union issues may go back where they belong -as collective bargaining issues and not educational issues.

  5. MrOink on November 19, 2008 at 1:15 pm


    You seem to agree with me that our current educational system is completely failing a whole segment of our population: mainly minority and poor communities.

    The question is what to do about it. We must do something. It’s a crime against millions of poor and minority school children to continue the status quo.

    I’m sure you’d also agree that this is a complex problem that requires a complex solution. There’s no one answer that’s going to fix this. It took us decades to get into this mess and it’s likely going to take decades to get out of this mess.

    That said, we have not made progress.

    So, what I’d love to hear is your solution to fix this. Just paying teachers more isn’t going to do it. Keeping the status quo isn’t going to do it. I’m sure you agree that we need radical change, but you haven’t said what you’d propose. And teachers’ unions have also resisted major change. They generally stop at increased compensation for teachers. Unfortunately, I feel that teachers’ unions have a much greater loyalty to teachers than students.

    Also, I wouldn’t characterize this as “union busting.” This isn’t an anti-union thing, per se. It’s not about being pro or anti union. We must get past ideologies. Before I worked for a union, I had this idea in my head that unions were all good and management was all bad, but that’s not reality.

    I don’t think the motivation is to control costs. I think the motivation is to improve students’ educational experiences by improving teacher quality. And one important way to do this is to improve the ways that we employ and compensate teachers. This includes finding a better way of compensating teachers based on merit (though not necessarily on something as overly simplistic as students’ test scores). And it means a departure from lockstep compensation based purely on senority.

    Finally, while I agree that there are areas of the country where we have teacher shortages, I don’t agree that the big problem is that there’s no union to attract them. The problems are far more complex. Many of these areas are fast-growing exurbs (high rent, few young people, rates of growth so high that it’s hard to build and staff schools quickly enough) or rural (where very few young people wish to live). And the problem isn’t restricted to the south. There are many rural parts of the west (e.g., Wyoming, the Dakotas), for example, that have problems with teacher shortages — where a major problem is being able to attract smart, young teachers who increasingly wish to live in urban environments. To the extent that the problem includes low pay, we can increase this without having the associated problems of unbreakable tenure and non-merit based compensation.

  6. Hardworking DCPS Teacher on November 20, 2008 at 12:33 am

    As a teacher in DCPS tenure does NOT protect me from getting fired necessarily. This is a myth that continues to persist despite being untrue. However, it does provide me with due process rights–something that every worker should have, but doesn’t. So if I am doing poorly in the classroom or fail to show up to work on time, I can get fired. It’s on the books and is called the 90-day plan.

    However, if I disagree with the principal on a new policy or with the central office, I still have a job. As the NYT article states, tenure protects teachers from being arbitrarily fired.

    Rhee wants to make all employees of DCPS at-will. That means you can get fired for any reason or for no reason (except of course for discriminatory reasons–i.e. religion, race, age). What has resulted is an atmosphere of fear and low morale.

    Every day we get warnings from our principal that teachers are being “monitored” from central office. While I am all for accountability, I do not think this creates a healthy work environment. I know of hardworking people in the central office with documented success, who are looking for another job because they have no job security and work constantly in a state of fear. Working on nights and weekends even though you have kids is not an option under Rhee. She has shown that she does not value people who question her.

    Too many people believe that tenure means a guaranteed job and/or look at the current situation in DCPS in the abstract. For those of us in the trenches, the reality is very different. The problems of DCPS can’t be simple reduced to lazy and incompetent tenured teachers who can’t get fired. While I agree there are teachers who must find another line of work, getting rid of basic due process rights is not the answer.

  7. MrOink on November 20, 2008 at 2:25 am

    I certainly agree with you that the problems at DCPS are complex. I realize that the tenure system, lack of merit-based pay, and ineffective teaching are only a few of many challenges that DCPS must face. I also recognize that the vast majority of DCPS teachers are excellent.

    That said, DCPS would benefit greatly with if they had certain abilities:
    (1) merit-based compensation;
    (2) higher than average pay for teachers in high-need subjects (e.g., math, special ed);
    (3) an efficient and practical system for terminating ineffective teachers.

    This isn’t about being for or against unions or for or against teachers. It’s about designing a system that creates incentives for excellence in instruction and for getting the right teachers where they’re needed (especially in high-need subjects).

    I disagree with you about the 90-day provision. It’s been around for years, but there’s a reason it’s not commonly used: it’s simply not practical. It’s an enormously time-consuming and bureaucratic process. It requires a ton of paperwork, countless conferences with teachers (where if one is missed, the entire process must restart), and a series of classroom observation. Ultimately, the burden of evidence that an administrator must build against a teacher is unreasonable.

    You say that teachers shouldn’t be able to be fired at will. But that’s the reality for any other professional (e.g., engineers, doctors, lawyers). Why should teachers be treated differently? I get irked at this because I hear teachers often complain that they aren’t treated or paid like other professionals — but it seems that teachers want all the benefits of being treated like a professional but none of the drawbacks.The fact of the matter is that other professionals don’t get due process. If your boss thinks you’re incompetent, he lets you go — and that’s that.

    In any case, I think there’s a middle-ground between the current tenure system and pure “at-will” employment. My sister is a teacher in Virginia and they have such a system where she teaches. Basically, it’s a 90-day plan, but with far, far less bureaucracy. I think it’s called a “plan for improvement.” And if the teacher doesn’t improve, the school can terminate the teacher at the end of the school year. While it’s true that a teacher has less due process, it’s not an at-will system either: administrators cannot fire teachers without cause and teachers do have a reasonable opportunity to improve and stay employed at the district.

  8. MrOink on November 20, 2008 at 2:46 am

    You know, for all that I just wrote, something just hit me while I was in the shower.

    One aspect of teaching does separate teaching from other professions: the fact that there’s typically one public school district in any given geographic area. This means that it’s pretty hard for a teacher to just go across the street and get another job at another place if the teacher is fired. And it’s not like a teacher can just open up shop for herself, like a doctor or a lawyer could.

    I suppose this is one good reason to have due process rights for teachers. Because unlike other professionals, losing a job as a teacher could be a potentially career ending event.

  9. Matt Erickson on January 30, 2009 at 2:29 pm

    I do not understand this idea of “merit-based pay.” Merit based on what?

    I’ve taught at a lot of schools. When I had good students, I was a good teacher. When I had bad students, I was a bad teacher.

    When I teach rich kids, they do everything you ask them to and even a few things you don’t. When I teach poor kids, it’s pulling teeth just to get them to pay attention for five minutes.

    There is a larger cultural momentum at work here that is much much larger than any handful of teachers protected by tenure. And no, it isn’t a recent crisis – this has been happening, and extensively written about, for at least 50 years. And I don’t see Ms. Rhee changing much, no matter how much she bribes the students to do their worksheets (which she wants to do).

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