An occasional column on how everything is connected and how few things are as simple as they might first appear…
Teacher tenure has been in the news a lot lately. To understand why it is associated with the teaching profession you have to look back a bit in history. Here’s a historical perspective that provides a context for today’s debate.
Tenure was put in place in the early 1900’s, following a time of corruption graft and cronyism in American politics and education. Perhaps you remember the name of Boss Tweed from a class in American history? He was head of Tammany Hall, the corrupt Democratic Party political machine that played a major role in the politics of 19th century New York. You can read more about him at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_M._Tweed.
In those days it was common practice for politicians to reward friends, family and supporters with jobs. That’s how they stayed in office. Government offices and schools were filled with people who “had connections.” Ability played little or no part in who was hired. It was all about who you knew. The entrenched custom of the time supported the racism that was rife in American society and served to keep minorities out. Our civil service laws and academic tenure laws grew out of what would now be considered an illegal abuse of office.
Major reforms eventually followed and resulted in the creation of a professional staff that does the business of government through civil service and teaches America’s children free of political interference with the help of tenure.
Teachers unions got a powerful boost during the Viet Nam era when many more men entered the profession. It was a time of powerful unions across the country. Unions worked hard for better conditions, better salaries and a better life for their members. Most of that is gone now, not because workers no longer need it, but because of the barrage of corporation friendly policies and anti organizing laws which have been enacted over the decades. It is also true that some unions lost their sense of purpose and dedication to workers welfare and operated much like Boss Tweed’s Tammany Hall. Teachers constitute one of the largest bodies of unionized workers left in the country and because of that attract a lot of attention from anti union sources.
So, if unions have waned in importance why do we still need anything they offered? We need tenure, or fair dismissal laws, because human nature has not changed. Everyone, whether in the private or public sector, should be entitled to job protection that includes just cause and reasons for dismissal. That’s all tenure is — a contract that says you cannot be dismissed on the whim of the boss, to make room for someone’s relative or to allow a hard strapped administrator to make budget by firing you and hiring someone cheaper. That’s where seniority comes in. If dismissals are going to be regulated, what fairer way to go than last hired, first fired? There is a value that experienced workers acquire over the years. You want your doctor and your mechanic to have some experience before they work on either your body or your car. Eliminating tenure and seniority would be an open invitation to replace quality educators with the youngest, cheapest teachers available – and they would most likely be chosen based on the dominant political philosophy of the school board or principal, leading to a fracturing of public education.
I pay my school taxes in the Lakeland School district and well remember the time when Lakeland was best known for its practice of hiring teachers right out of college and training them extensively. As soon as they completed their probationary period they were let go and more brand new teachers were brought in at lower salaries to start the cycle all over again. At the time it was thought to save money and it was as short sighted then as it would be today. Those young teachers with a lot of on the job training paid for by taxpayers and three years of practice found employment in other districts which were only too glad to have them. And yes, in those days Lakeland, like other districts that did the same thing, ranked low in academic achievement. How could it not when the majority of professionals in the system were just learning their craft?
Eunice Pruitt, a Teaneck educator for 39 years and a principal for 18 reflected on her feelings about tenure from the both the perspective of a classroom teacher and that of a principal. As a principal, her concern about tenure centered on how to get rid of teachers who were not doing a good job.
Her conclusion was not to eliminate tenure: “We need tenure laws, otherwise education will get too political, just like county offices.” She stated that, “We need to do more to recognize teachers who are performing so that they don’t have to leave the classroom to get promoted. We need to find a way that teachers can get recognition and increased status and keep on teaching. This could include some performance based criteria; the details could be worked out by teachers and administrators in conjunction with the community within the framework of the tenure system we have now. ”
We need a strong public education system staffed by enthusiastic well trained enthusiastic professionals. Principals have the tools at hand to ensure this for their schools. Let them document their reasons when someone is not performing on the job, follow the rules for fair dismissal and elevate education for students and the community.
NEXT COLUMN: The coordinated attack on tenure.
Marilyn Elie retired from teaching after a 40-year career.