Saturday, August 23, 2014

Is Getting Rid of Tenure the Answer? Or Should Teachers Stop Breathing?

I’m just a typical retired teacher. I probably shouldn’t let the flurry of attacks on public school teachers bother me.

But I do.

For that reason, I would like to pose a question that goes to the heart of school reform thinking: Why do so many experts sound so stupid when they talk about fixing our schools?

This question bothers me like a sharp stone in my shoe. I read about what’s “wrong” with American education and end up scratching my head.

Maybe I’m dumb! That’s a thread in attacks on public school teachers today. Supposedly, we’re not smart enough. Finland! Finland is the model we must follow. In Finland only smart people teach! In fact, according to education experts there’s nothing wrong with American education except all the bad teachers.

A typical editorial in the New York Times this week hammered on that point. According to Mike Johnston, who “spent two years with Teach for America,” bad teachers with tenure are the great stumbling block in the path of every child’s academic success.

After spending two whole years in a classroom, Johnston seems to think he learned everything there is to know about teaching. Then he spent six years working as a principal in a Denver public school. And what do you know! 

His school had amazing standardized test results.

(We will not mention here the numerous cheating scandals involving other “amazing” standardized test results. We will also not mention that all the amazing test results linked to No Child Left Behind have now been tossed out the classroom window onto the schoolhouse lawn. Nope. We will keep our teacher sarcasm in check.)

No Child Left Behind is dead. Long live Common Core, instead.

Frank Bruni, who signed the editorial, noted that Johnston’s mother was a public school teacher. Johnston isn’t a teacher hater. (So Bruni says.) Still, he “expresses the concern that we’re not getting the best teachers into classrooms or weeding out the worst performers.” That’s the first line that makes me choke on my morning toast.

You there! The physics teacher pointing out the solution to a complex problem on the white board. You! The one grading those eighth grade Language Arts essays! You! The one talking to the weeping third grader! YOU are not the best person for the job.

You are the PROBLEM. 

If we could get rid of you all children would excel. We can’t get rid of you though. You have tenure. You rat!

So what must be done? Johnston says we need to implement a tenure system that “means something,” a system based on test results. (Even bogus test results? Or results that no longer matter because NCLB is dead?) We can’t continue the system we have now that rewards teachers “just because you’re breathing.”

That’s the second line in the editorial that makes me choke on my toast. If I read this editorial right, asphyxiation is the cure for what ails U. S. education. We simply convince bad teachers to stop breathing.

Ironically, after trashing teachers in a general way, Bruni ends by exhorting readers to support good teachers everywhere. But this is one of many pieces of a similar kind that hint good teachers are few and far between. Hard to find. Kind of like Sasquatch. Or unicorns. “We need to pay good teachers much more,” Bruni adds. “We need to wrap the great ones in the highest esteem. But we also need to separate the great from the bad.”

Now a Colorado lawmaker, Johnston has the last word: “Our focus is not on teachers because they are the problem,” he says lamely, having already said the reverse. “Our focus is on teachers because they are the solution.”

That’s the line that finally makes me mumble a curse.

I loved teaching and had tenure most of my career. I knew what I did truly mattered. So I did the absolute best I could. But unlike the non-teaching experts—or the quick teaching quitters who go on to become “leaders” and politicians and critics—I learned that I wasn’t the solution. No teacher has ever been and no teacher ever will.

If every bad teacher in a classroom suddenly stopped breathing next week critical problems in all our schools would absolutely remain. (In Finland, to cite one example, 4% of children live in poverty. In the USA that figure is 23%.) Good teachers put dents in such problems. Good teachers do that every day. 

Nevertheless, our so-called leaders must face up to the truth. Teachers aren’t the solution and tenure isn’t the problem. H. L. Mencken put it plainly seventy-five years ago: “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”

The experts offer up simple solutions to complex problems, simple solutions that all to often prove disastrously wrong in the end. If we wish to improve outcomes in schools we have to rest school reform on a solid foundation of good sense. A society has a right to expect teachers to give their best. A society cannot, however, expect them to perform miracles with every child every day.

Teachers don’t need to be lectured, punished, or vilified by fools. They need aid in addressing terrible problems that seep into schools—problems rooted in neighborhoods and homes, problems not of their making, nor within their ordinary human capacities to resolve.


1 comment:

  1. You nailed it. Until the rich stop getting richer and the distribution is fairer our country will continue to flounder.