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Tenure Tempest

September 28th, 2013

You hear a lot about teacher tenure nowadays. Tenure is bad. Teachers get tenure automatically and then are guaranteed a job for life no matter how incompetent they are. We see reports in the press about how tenure makes school systems worse.

So, it’s a real problem, right?

Let’s begin with the article I link to above. It comes from the Wall Street Journal—a conservative publication, now owned by Murdoch, so there is immediate suspicion of bias. Then the report it quotes comes from the National Bureau of Economic Research, often cited as “non-partisan” and “highly respected,” which just happens to always report that Democratic ideas are failures and conservative policies are the bee’s knees. I’ll get back to this later.

Instead, let’s look at tenure itself.

Do all teachers automatically get tenure? No. You have to get certified and then teach while being evaluated for 2 to 5 years, depending on the state. During this time, a teacher can be fired at will, without any reason whatsoever. At the end of the review time, you are either given tenure, or you are dismissed. If the school grants tenure, that means that the school, after years of review, feels that you are qualified. If you do not pass muster, then you should not be allowed to continue teaching, and the school should hire someone else who is. If an incompetent teacher gets tenure, then it is a clear failure of the administration to perform their duties.

Is tenure a lifetime appointment? Don’t teachers wish. No, it’s not. Teachers with tenure can be fired, and often are. It is important to understand that K-12 tenure—the issue everyone is talking about—is very different from university tenure.

Does tenure make it almost impossible to fire a bad teacher? If a teacher is performing badly, the school can fire them; they simply need evidence of the poor performance, which would probably take the form of evaluations and student performance relative to other teachers—in short, the very data that would inform a school of poor performance in the first place. There is often talk about how it costs huge amounts of money to go through the process. Maybe, in some states, that could be true, but if it is, then the answer is not ending tenure, but instead to revamp the system so that standard evaluation methods could be applied to the process. However, I have the feeling that most “expensive” terminations are padded with costs like the full teachers’ salary during the period of review. I also suspect that most “extremely difficult” terminations are over reasons that tenure was designed to prevent, namely ones that are not actually related to teacher performance.

So, if a teacher can be fired, what is tenure about? Simple: it means a teacher cannot be fired “at will.” The school is required to show cause and to go through the process of demonstrating that cause. Which is, to be honest, what every employer should be required to do with every job. The fact that this is not true is not indicative of fault in schools, but instead of faults in how we generally treat workers like disposable objects.

So, why is there such a furor over teacher tenure?

The answer is simple: teachers are a liberal constituency. If you are a liberal constituency, conservatives will try their best to destroy you, and failing that, to vilify you. They will manufacture false outrage over trumped-up scandals and drive you and your organizations into the ground.

Who are the biggest supporters of Democrats? Unions. Conservatives are rather blatantly doing everything they can to vilify and crush labor unions. People are made to feel that unions are run and populated by thugs and demand sweet, cushy jobs at the expense of the public.

Hollywood is a liberal constituency, so it is often denigrated, devalued, blamed, and dismissed by conservatives (until a movie star voices support for conservatives, at which point Republicans swoon and try to elect that person to some office or another).

Any city with liberal leanings is smeared. San Francisco, Detroit, Chicago, many cities in New England—all horrific bastions of sin and disgrace. You’ve been hearing a lot about “San Francisco Values” and “Chicago-style Politics.” You’ve seen how Detroit has been treated. They are not the “Real America.”

Minorities are also big supporters of Democrats. So guess who just can’t help insulting, smearing, and working against the interests of minorities? Who works day and night to slant election laws to keep minorities from voting? Who attacks immigration reform and blames illegal immigrants for society’s woes?

Young people are also Democratic constituencies, but they’re harder to target—and yet conservatives often do. Republican politicians are known for resenting college voters (remember Rick Santorum sneering at the idea of going to college?), with many conservative vote-suppression techniques aimed squarely at them. Some Republicans have started challenging student voting rights altogether.

Tenure is not a problem. It is simply yet another opportunity for conservatives to paint a liberal group as a scapegoat.

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