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Mar 05th
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Teacher tenure and seniority: Two sides of the coin

appleteacher032211_optBY MARILYN ELIE

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.

BossTweedNast032511_optMajor 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.

Comments (3)
3 Tuesday, 05 April 2011 09:00
Private Worker
So what you are saying is if we eliminate tenure there will be mass firings and the educational performance will plummet.
I don't believe that simply eliminating tenure will improve our educational system, but it is a necessary tool. "Tenure plays no part in this situation except to determine who will be excessed. Last in, first to go. That is a time honored union practice for all working people." Again, I'll ask, how does this help improve the quality of education? Why aren't the best kept first? Or the most qualified (especially if moving to another subject)?
I never attacked the motivation of all teachers. I suggested that eliminating tenure would keep certain teachers more engaged and active. We all know of, and maybe have had, one of 5% to 10% of teachers who do as little as possible and just coast through collecting a paycheck. This is about eliminating a system that protects them and creating a system that either pushes them to improve or pushes them out the door.
2 Saturday, 02 April 2011 02:18
Marilyn Elie
First of all, all states do not have teacher unions. In states that do, unions rely on the tenure law in order to protect due process. Tenure is not contractual, nor should it be. If there is no law, there is nothing for the union to stand on in this regard. It is union support that holds up the standard of due process. If you want to see what happens without a union to fight for due process, look at the southern states that have the "right to work laws" or more accurately, right to fire laws. Those are the states at the bottom when it comes to educational performance.

Administrators and town officials are focused on budgets. They look for quick and simplistic solutions to complicated problems. It is very easy to come up with any number of reasons younger, cheaper staff should be retained and more experienced, expensive staff let go. It is very clear that is what is behind Bloomberg' all out attack on tenure in NYC. It is a way to cut the budget and keep more bodies in the classroom. Staffing our public schools with all inexperienced teachers is a recipe for disaster, not improvement.

You are also grossly mistaken in what motivates teachers. What you are suggesting is cut throat capitalism with employees trying to get one up on colleagues. Teaching is a cooperative endeavor. If you want to implement reforms, you want it system wide. Not horded in the classrooms of a few "stars". I suggest that you volunteer in a school setting for a while to get a more realistic picture of what goes on and how the educational process works. It is one of the most demanding jobs anyone can have. You go in a teacher and you retire a teacher. Tenure allows you to focus on teaching rather than moving up a corporate career ladder.

If enrollment drops or the need for certain subjects changes, teachers who are no longer needed are excessed. If there is no classroom for you, you get a pink slip. This has more to do with the particular teaching license or student population than anything else. Tenure plays no part in this situation except to determine who will be excessed. Last in, first to go. That is a time honored union practice for all working people. Everybody in the system benefits because it creates a stable work force that can plan for the future and not fear dismissal at a whim. Students benefit from this stable thoughtful system most of all.

And, by the way, tenure is an important protection for academic freedom. Many, like you, have not looked at the details or perhaps choose not to see them. Every system can be improved but first you have to have a deeper understanding that goes past the commercials and superficial headlines to offer something realistic. Improving our educational system does not mean eliminating tenure.

Marilyn Elie
1 Monday, 28 March 2011 11:01
Private Worker
First: If teachers are represented by a union, why the need for tenure? As you state, tenure was implemented before the growth in size and power of the teachers' union. Wouldn't they have the ability to represent the teachers who would find themselves "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".
Administrators and towns are focus on the cost and the performance of schools - so I doubt we'd see a mass firing/hiring of teachers who are performing well.
Second: "Eliminating tenure and seniority would be an open invitation to replace quality educators with the youngest, cheapest teachers available". Experience does not necessarily mean they are the highest (or even higher) quality; this is why there needs to be way to rank/evaluate teachers. Knowing that they could be replaced by younger, more aggresive teachers would go a long way to keeping certain teachers engaged and active in lesson plans and teaching methods.
Third: "Everyone, whether in the private or public sector, should be entitled to job protection that includes just cause and reasons for dismissal." What happens if enrollment drops or the need for certain subjects changes? In slow economic times the private sector worker is subject to wage freezes/cuts and/or losing their job based on market forces. Elimination of tenure brings it closer to the private sector.
At the end of the day, the concept of tenure does more to advance the cause of teachers and the teachers' union rather than improve the quality of education. It is designed to protect the worker, not improve the system, and this is why so many have voiced objections to the current system.

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