Teachers, Unions, & Tenure
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.