The California Tenure Decision, Part 1: Systems Failure

Educational equality is about more than teacher-seniority rules: It is about making the schools that serve poor children more attractive places for the smartest, most ambitious people to spend their careers. To do that, those schools need excellent, stable principals who inspire confidence in great teachers. They need rich curricula that stimulate both adults and children.

Dana Goldstein in the Atlantic, 11 June 2014. Author of The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession

The California Tenure Decision

On 10 June 2014, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge, Rolf M. Treu ruled in the California Tenure Case that the tenure laws “impose a real and appreciable impact on students’ fundamental right to equality of education,” he wrote. “The evidence is compelling. Indeed, it shocks the conscience.” US Secretary of Education, Arnie Duncan, agreed, and called it a mandate to change similar “laws, practices and systems that fail to identify and support our best teachers and match them with our neediest students.”

There will be years of appeals before this action will take effect and some will argue that the California tenure laws have particularly weak standards and the arguments in this case are  not applicable to other states. But it is a serious signal to teachers’ unions and school systems that traditional methods of protecting teacher job security will have to be replaced with methods that also protect students’ rights to the opportunity for equal education.

I doubt that any person familiar with our public schools would question that the differences in quality are shocking, and not just in teacher preparation and commitment. In a school in New York City on Manhattan’s Upper West Side where the top floor was unusable because the roof was falling in, a teacher said, “You’re talking about computer skills and programming. I need rulers and pencils. Scissors.” Some schools in the same district have state of the art technology, plus rulers and pencils and scissors.

When teachers spend as much time as possible in the teacher’s lounge talking about how bad their students are and making fun of them, there is no recourse in the current system. As the California Judge learned, uncommitted and incompetent teachers are just shunted to the schools where the parents are too overburdened with poverty and lack of education themselves to complain effectively.

There are procedures for firing failing tenured teachers, but it is a long, time-consuming process to prove lack of performance. In New York City, teachers charged with misconduct are sent to reassignment centers nicknamed the rubber rooms where they just sit for months and years, on full pay, to keep them out of the classrooms. According to the Los Angeles Times, one defense witness in the California Tenure Case testified “that 1% to 3% of teachers in California are grossly ineffective.” That is 2,750 to 8,250 teachers.  According to estimates, firing this number of tenured teachers would take 12 years.

The tenure system is a holdover from an era when public school teachers — almost all women — could be fired for getting pregnant or wearing trousers instead of a dress. It was intended to protect teachers from petty bureaucrats with personal vendettas, or meddling parents trying to dictate what goes on in class.

Sandy Banks
Los Angeles Times

The Problem Is Not Tenure

The tenure system began in 1909 and has outlived its usefulness. It is credited with making the schools worse because it attracts those who are more interested in job security with summers off than in education and intellectual curiosity. Tenure is a lure that keeps those who would be happier, more productive somewhere else.

With or without  tenure, poorly performing public schools will be the same unless other reforms were made. Good teachers are hard to find and keep when core deficiencies are unaddressed. Among them:

  • opportunities for ongoing professional education,
  • better workplace conditions,
  • professional respect,
  • student support services, and
  • higher pay.

Professional Disparity in Education, Medicine, and the Law

Teachers need and often have professional educations on a par with doctors and lawyers, but the working conditions are much worse than professionals in other fields would accept. No matter how much they love healing patients, there would be a serious health crisis if doctors were asked to work under the same conditions. Purchasing their own surgical supplies, using surgery facilities and techniques they know are not the best, and paid starting salaries 30% lower than other college graduates. Even with years of experience they would be paid 10% less than other professions.

In local school administration, the expertise of teachers is routinely disrespected when decisions are made about their classrooms and students. They are on the bottom of the heap when it comes to control over education, but are blamed for all its failures.

When Michelle Rhee took charge of the Washington DC school system, one of the lowest performing school systems in the United States, she fired hundreds of uncertified teachers and teacher aids. One of the fired workers’ complaints was, “Why didn’t they give us some training? No one has ever said what we should be doing. Just that all the sudden we aren’t good enough.”

One could blame the teachers for not knowing their performance and expectations of students were far below average but that begs the question. How were they to dig out when the system was rigged against them? These problems are systemic, not the fault of teachers alone.

Our Education System Is Upside Down

In education, one absurdity is that teachers are given responsibility for educating students, but teachers have no decision-making power.  They can choose bulletin board materials and furniture arrangements, but the school principal is given autocratic authority over all decisions that affect school performance—hiring, firing, textbooks, supplies, scheduling, budgets, and within any external standards, the curriculum.

Sometimes the school board, which is not chosen for experience in the classroom, will make these decisions for a whole district, listening to textbook sales people rather teachers. Perhaps a token teacher will be on the board as a non-voting member, but only as a representative, rarely as an influential voice.

Teachers are the experts in a school system, not the school board and not the  principal. The system is upside down with those who have almost no contact with students in control of their education. The experts are on the bottom and the least expert on the top.

The Proper Engine of School Reform

According to many theories of education, the students are the experts. It’s their curiosity and focus that result in a good education. A good teacher provides the resources and serves as a resource themselves. The teacher student dynamic is key in education. Educating and supporting teachers, expecting and developing professional expertise, is where the money and time should be spent.

The focus should be on the classroom dynamic: Ongoing professional development for the teacher and developing intellectual curiosity by students.  Only when the focus is directly, no tangentially or “trickled down” to developing that dynamic will education improve.

California Tenure Case Part II discusses in more detail how the principles of sociocracy can be applied in a school system.

A copy of the decision from the Los Angeles Times.

(One of the difficulties with comparing teacher salaries with those of other professions is that only hours in the classroom are counted as hours worked. Teachers spend have again as much time preparing lessons, counseling students, talking to parents, after school and coaching activities, grading papers and homework assignments, and administrative work. With a classroom of 20-25+ students, this is not possible during the work day. Teachers work 10 months of the year but the other two months are likely to be spent on activities related to their students and future classroom work or continuing education.

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