Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Ravitch defends educators' due process rights

Another reason to appreciate Diane Ravitch: She understands the need to protect educators' due process rights.

Now that I have a blog where I can write what I want, when I want, I have the luxury of revisiting some good and bad ideas. In this post, I will revisit a really pernicious idea that appeared about a month ago in The New Republic. You see, the odd thing about our culture is that it is so attached to the present moment that anything that happened or was written about a month ago tends to disappear in the ether. But this editorial was so outrageous that it still annoys me, and I want to explain why.

In an editorial called “Making the Grade: The Case Against Tenure in Public Schools,” the editors argued that it was a fine idea to remove any job protections from public school teachers because they don’t need them. In making this assertion, the editors of this once-liberal magazine were giving support to the far-right Virginia legislature, which was at that moment not only trying to strip teachers of tenure but to require women to have “a trans-vaginal ultrasound before having an abortion.” The editorial of course condemned the latter as harsh, but thought that the far-right effort to remove job protection from public school teachers as a “halfway decent idea.” Indeed, the editorial went on to decry teacher tenure as “the least sane element” in our country’s education system.

Let's be clear about something: Educators in public schools today do not enjoy the "tenure" that college and university professors enjoy. I don't know when and where these two concepts got confused and combined, but they've been used synonymously, inappropriately, for a very long time. Maybe "tenure" was easier to say, or to explain to others, than "due process rights."

Whatever the reason, here's the distinction: College and university professors enjoy "tenure," a career designation awarded usually to instructors who reach a certain benchmark of experience, and usually awarded by a vote of the faculty, at least the faculty in a particular department. In this case, "tenure" usually implies that the instructor may hold his or her position for the rest of his or her career. The designation gives such a professor a sense of freedom to pursue academic pursuits -- research, for example -- without fear of being fired arbitrarily by an unscrupulous administrator.

In the case of educators in K-12 public schools, this kind of "tenure" does not exist. No one has a guaranteed position-for-life in a public school. In the place of "tenure," educators who earn satisfactory evaluations throughout their probationary period earn "due process rights" under the law.

Remember, South Carolina is a right-to-work-for-less state, an at-will state. This means that during a teacher's probationary period -- their first few years in the classroom -- an administrator can fire a teacher for any reason or for no reason. Once the probationary period is over, then a teacher's "due process rights" kick in. After that point, an administrator has to have "cause" to fire a teacher; his decision to fire a teacher cannot be "arbitrary and capricious," to use the jargon of the Fair Employment and Dismissal Act.

Other states have established very strong due process rights for teachers. But we live in South Carolina; educators are public employees, and public employees have won due process rights that are pretty pale indeed.

Still, it's due process. If an administrator wants to fire a teacher, he has to explain why. If it's for just cause, he has to demonstrate the cause, which means he has to make a case, collect and present evidence, and be ready for his decision to be challenged and appealed.

That's all that educators in South Carolina's public schools (who have survived their probationary periods) have; they don't have real "tenure." Don't be misled by anyone claiming that they do.

The editorial claimed that after a few years, teachers get job protection that “makes it extremely difficult to fire them for the rest of their careers.” The source of this claim is the conservative National Council on Teacher Quality. TNR goes on to say that university professors deserve tenure because they are “our country’s idea factories,” so they must be free to explore unpopular ideas and to be protected from “ideological or intellectual retribution.”

By contrast, the editorial maintains, K-12 teachers need no such protection. They don’t create ideas, they don’t delve into controversial subjects. Their job is so important that they should be fired if they aren’t doing it right (let us assume for the moment that “doing their best work at all times” in Virginia means teaching what the Virginia legislature wants to hear and not teaching what it finds abominable).

The Virginia bill was not perfect, sniffed the editors, because “it allowed teachers to be fired for any reason,” and predictably those darn Democrats, so “beholden to teachers’ union,” were able to block the measure. So, for the moment, until Virginia elects a few more conservative Republicans, Virginia teachers still have tenure. The editorial, sorry to see their position embraced mostly by far-right Republicans like Rick Santorum and Chris Christie, called on President Obama to join them in calling for an end to tenure for public school teachers.

What’s wrong with this argument? First of all, tenure for teachers is not lifetime tenure. It is not analogous to the job protection enjoyed by lifetime professors, which is almost beyond challenge. Teacher tenure means the right to due process, nothing more, nothing less. After a teacher has served satisfactorily for a period of years, depending on state law, an administrator decides whether the teacher should receive the right to due process. If administrators are awarding due process to incompetent teachers, then we have an administrator problem.

Once a teacher has the right to due process, she cannot be fired capriciously. She is entitled to a hearing before an impartial administrator, where facts are presented about her performance. If the arbitrator agrees that she should be fired, she is fired. There is nothing comparable in higher education, where tenure means lifetime job protection.

Is there too little turnover of teachers? Not at all. Some 40% or more of those who enter the teaching profession are gone within the first five years. No other profession has the same degree of turnover. Some were fired; some left. That suggests to me that we don’t do nearly enough to support teachers and help them get better at their job.

But why do teachers need due process rights? Are they merely transmitters of information or do they too deal in ideas? I would argue that teachers must be free to teach and students must be free to learn. In the states trying so hard to eliminate teacher tenure -- and in those that long ago succeeded -- teachers put their jobs in peril if they teach about evolution, abortion, global warming, or many of the other hot-button issues of the day. If they teach a book that offends community values (and the American Library Association has a list of the 100 most-challenged books of the year, which includes Harry Potter books), they can be fired.

The New Republic should be pleased with the law pleased by the law passed recently in Louisiana. Bobby Jindal’s Legislature stripped tenure from the state’s teachers. It is odd to see a once-liberal magazine echoing the principles of the far right. And disheartening to hear the claim that public school teachers need no academic freedom.

The beauty of blogs is that readers can respond, and Ravitch's readers in the public school community have certainly responded to her note. Their points of view are just as enlightening.

Askteacherz writes,

Tenure allows educators to stand up for what is right for students and their learning. Many times this means confronting those that have the power to eliminate their employment. Without tenure the public will leave all students’ best interests unguarded. Tenure is NOT the great evil in education; it’s the great leveler in education. It allows a checks and balance system to function. Thanks again to Diane Ravitch for bringing attention to the woes and misconceptions in US Education.

NYCEducator adds,

I couldn’t agree more. Thanks for saying out loud what what sleepy reporters can’t be bothered to research. In fact, high school teachers are subject to being fired for ridiculous personal vendettas, and I’ve known people who faced dismissal for bringing plants to school, or using the school fax machine to report malfeasance on standardized testing. Teachers should be role models and ought not to be fired for reasons having nothing to do with their competence or lack thereof.

Demagogues like Bloomberg would enjoy nothing more than shutting us the hell up and having us do nothing but prep kids to be Walmart associates.

Amen, brothers.

Jennifer I. Smith notes,

Thank you so much for this. It is an unpopular position now no matter which side of the aisle you are on, and it is frustrating beyond belief. I have had to repeat ad nauseum even to some people in my own profession (teacher) that eliminating “tenure” (which, as you correctly stated, doesn’t even truly exist for us) does NOT mean getting rid of the “bad” teachers and keeping the good ones; it means that for every “bad” teacher who is gotten rid of, at least one good teacher will also be thrown out, for any number of reasons…test scores that are not within her control; speaking up about school/district policies she knows are not good for kids; daring to teach, as you said, about controversial topics that may not be popular with the administration or the state; having political beliefs that do not coincide with the administration’s or the district’s; being too young, too old, too fat, too thin, gay, a single mother, black, white, Hispanic, any number of reasons that could constitute grounds for a discrimination lawsuit. “Tenure” helps weed out the unjust firing procedures before they become lawsuits (or civil rights statistics).

One of the most common rebuttals I hear after giving such an answer is, “Well, in the private sector, you can get fired at any time for any reason…”

My answer to THAT one is always: Just because it is so, does that make it right? How many people think it is OK for their bosses to fire them for no reason having anything to do with the quality of their work? I’m willing to bet not very many. Yet they deny it would ever happen to a teacher…or, that because it is allowed to happen to others, instead of changing that system we should just make it so that it can happen to anyone.

Thank you for your comments and the effort you have made to clear up the difference between tenure on the university level and the K – 12 level. The unfortunate thing about all of this is the general public can not make the distinctio between tenure and due process. I have witnessed many good teachers lose their jobs because their due process rights were denied. Some have been fortunate enough to get teaching jobs in other systems and ironically become teachers of the year because our system requires and pays for extensive professional development, other left the teaching profession altogether. At a time when we are supposedly not keeping abreast with the rest of the industrialized world in many fields, many of our state legilative bodies are passing bills to guarantee that the public education system fail instead of improve. This is extremely unfortunate because most of our citizen can not afford the cost of private school and we have allowed for profit groups to persuade us that our systems does not work. This being the case, how do these legislators expect to recruit the best and brightest students into the field of education in the future?

We need not worry about the enemy at our gate, when our public educational system is destroyed, it will not be an enemy that causes our country to lose its status in the world.We will have done the job to ourselves.

And reader Daniel added yesterday,

Teacher tenure is a must in the bureaucratic environment of schooling. In other forms of professional employment, when a boss wants a worker gone, and there is legitimate reason, then that worker gets fired. However, teaching is a craft, an art form, for which there is little objective judgment. We attempt to quantify it often, especially as of late with VAM, however it is impossible to judge a teacher purely by test scores, graduation rates, or student surveying. Because of this inability to judge such a subjective art form as teaching, it is difficult sometimes to exactly defend a “legitimate reason” for why a teacher should be fired, other than the obvious inappropriate actions. This makes teaching different than other professions in which it is simple to judge worker output. It is not ethical that an administrator be able to fire a teacher because they required a Rembrandt rather than a Picasso.

Another reason why teacher tenure is so important is that teachers are mostly employed by the very people they serve – students and parents. Parents pay the bills and we ultimately work for them. Money talks, bull crap walks. We are employed by parents to do what is best for their children in much the same way we would do for ours (in loco parentis). We need the right and ability to make sure children are being treated fairly by the system, and we need that right and ability to voice our respectful opinions in a way that will not result in us getting canned because somebody up top does not like our input.

Schools are not corporations. A Bill Gates does not exist the system of schooling, although he is seemingly running it more than any other person these days. Schools have multiple stakeholders, of which the teacher is perhaps the most important. We have a vested interest in how schools should be run, whereas an employee of Bill Gates has no right to necessarily be heard and considered. We have EVERY right to be heard and considered as we also pay taxes that keep the lights on and the doors open.

I agree.

What do you think?

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