I’ve always respected Mona Charen. Her writing is lively and rational, and I’ve long considered her book—Do-Gooders: How Liberals Hurt Those They Claim To Help (And The Rest Of Us!)—one of my favorites. It is therefore with some reluctance that I must take one of her recent columns at National Review—Democrats and Teacher Tenure—to task.
Charen recounts her frustrating and unsuccessful effort, in concert with other parents, to cause their high school to remove an obviously incompetent teacher. Because of my knowledge of Charen and her character as revealed through her writing, I have no difficulty accepting the proposition that the unnamed teacher about which she writes was in fact incompetent and should have been fired. She writes:
. . .it requires a minimum of three years to remove someone . . . if you’re lucky. John Stossel, writing in Reason magazine, detailed the case of a New York teacher who sent sexually explicit e-mails to a 16-year-old student. It took six years and plenty of expensive litigation to fire him, though the school had possession of the e-mails, and the teacher admitted sending them.
As Stossel observes, faced with the bureaucratic maze they must navigate to fire a bad teacher, most principals don’t even try. They attempt to sucker another school into taking the incompetent (“the dance of the lemons”) or they put the bad teachers in ‘pretend work’ jobs, where they continue, of course, to collect full salaries and benefits. Between 2005 and 2008, Newsweek reported, the public-school system of Chicago fired 0.1 percent and Akron, Ohio fired none at all. The Denver and Toledo systems didn’t fire any, either.
So far so good. I’m all for actual—as opposed to bureaucratic—accountability. In other words, I expect to be well prepared and competent in my work each and every day, and expect others to be equally well prepared and competent. I’ve seen too many teachers phoning it in and getting away with it. But here’s where Charen goes wrong:
No one mentioned it, but as we were gnashing our teeth about the difficulty of removing bad teachers from the public-school system, the Virginia legislature was voting on a measure that would have brought decisive change to our system — the elimination of teacher tenure.
Virginia doesn’t call its system of job security ‘tenure,’ but after just three years of teaching, a teacher gets a ‘continuing contract,’ which amounts to the same thing. By contrast, university professors typically don’t get tenure until they’ve been on the job for seven years. And even then, only a minority get it. Many college instructors are not tenured faculty.
Do you have life tenure in your job? Unless you are one of the above-mentioned professors, a federal judge, or a public-school teacher, the answer is almost certainly no. So why do teachers have it? Whose interests does it serve other than the teachers’? It permits sloth and incompetence. Can you keep your job without reference to how well you perform it? Tenure insulates teachers from accountability. The unions really put one over on the public. Is it hopeless?
Indeed it is, but only if one misidentifies the actual problem. Charen goes on to blame the problem on Democrats who—and this is certainly not an unreasonable observation—reflexively support any legislation unions favor. Charen goes on:
Governor Robert McDonnell introduced legislation that would have replaced the ‘continuing contracts’ with three-year contracts. At the end of a teacher’s contract period, a principal could choose not to renew the contract for any reason, giving principals in Virginia real power to shape their faculties for the first time.
Keep in mind that the three states in which I have taught high school and college were right to work states; unions had no collective bargaining power. No one could be forced to be a union member, nor could unions forcibly take dues from anyone. No school district had to recognize any union, nor did they have to enter into any agreement with them. This, gentle readers, is the way it should be. Even AFL-CIO President George Meany, writing in 1955, agreed with me:
. . .The main function of American trade unions is collective bargaining. It is impossible to bargain collectively with the government. Unions, as well as employers, would vastly prefer to have even Government regulation of labor-management relations reduced to a minimum consistent with the protection of the public welfare…
If individuals voluntarily choose to join unions and private industry chooses to enter into collective bargaining agreements, as long as there is no governmental involvement, that’s fine too. But no one, through force of law, should be required to join a union, or to recognize or bargain with one.
The difference is that in the public sector, unwise financial choices, such as granting unions unsustainable wages, benefits and pensions, should cause a company to become uncompetitive in the free marketplace. In these circumstances, they should have the option of going bankrupt, or of shedding unsustainable costs. Unfortunately, government is all too often involved—particularly Democrats—as when Mr. Obama seized control of 2/3 of America’s auto industry for the benefit of the United Auto Workers, while cheating shareholders out of their lawful compensation, throwing away billions in subsidies, and ensuring that the wages, benefits, work rules and pensions that doomed the industry would not be reformed. In essence, as with so much else, Mr. Obama merely kicked the can down the road and the same problems that lead to GM and Chrysler’s financial crisis will reoccur in the future.
Public sector unions, such as those representing teachers, firefighters, police officers and other government employees are always, by definition, working against the interests of the taxpayer, not only in theory, but in practice. When a union sits down at the table, they are bargaining with politicians and/or bureaucrats who have the power to award the union taxpayer money. These politicians and bureaucrats know that money awarded to the union will be returned to them in the form of campaign contributions which will allow them to retain power and to build even bigger and more entrenched bureaucracies, which in turn further enrich the unions, which in turn provide even larger campaign contributions, which in turn…and the cycle of corruption and mismanagement of public funds never ends–but it does get worse, much worse.
I’m reasonably certain that Mrs. Charen would agree with me in my assessment of the foolishness of allowing public sector unions to bargain with government. I, in turn, agree that unionism in education is a problem, but far more of a problem than she suggests in this article.
Let’s begin with the concept of teacher “tenure.” Charen seems to believe that tenure in the college setting is essentially the same as that in the public schools. Not so. Professors awarded tenure in the college setting do enjoy essentially a job for life and may be dislodged by only the most egregious misbehavior, and perhaps not even then. One can build a sort of reasonable defense of that sort of tenure, but that’s beyond the scope of this article.
In the public schools, there is no parallel system. “Continuing contract” teachers do not have unassailable jobs for life or anything like it. What Charen calls “tenure” or a “continuing contract” is, in virtually every state, nothing more than a guarantee of minimal due process rights under state law—not union contracts. Union contracts commonly do build on those minimal guarantees and in some places, do make it virtually impossible to fire incompetent, even criminal teachers, but the politicians in those places wrote laws making this possible, and the bureaucrats and educrats agreed to those terms, often repeatedly over decades, sweetening the union pot each time contracts were renegotiated.
For teachers, earning “continuing contract” status after three years of probation means only that instead of having no reason to fire them, a principal must have some reason, and if they disagree, they have a right to have his decision reviewed in some fashion. This does not, for a moment, mean that they will win a review, or that a principal’s reason for firing them must be particularly rational. In fact, such systems are commonly biased in favor of school principals and administrators, and only the most egregious lack of judgement or misbehavior on their part will allow teachers to prevail. This reality, for millions of American teachers, does not sound like the job for life situation suggested by Mrs. Charen, does it? I have never worked under any other, and millions of American teachers are in the same boat.
While any due process protections might sound good for teachers, in reality, teachers live from paycheck to paycheck like most Americans. If they are fired, they find themselves with no money with which to pursue legal or administrative remedies, fighting a school district with ready access to the public treasury. In addition, if a teacher is let go at any time other than the end of a school year, they are often in deep trouble as school districts seldom need to hire full time teachers during the school year, and virtually all hiring is completed as many months prior to the beginning of each school year as possible. No principal wants to spend their summer conducting job interviews. A plumber or mechanic who loses his job need not wait until summer for their job market to open; teachers do.
In many ways, teachers and police officers find themselves in similar situations. Both are public servants very much in the public eye. Both can find themselves on the receiving end of unwarranted, even malicious citizen complaints that could easily end their careers at any moment. However, consider that police officers commonly serve a probation of no more than a year before earning more robust due process protections than teachers must labor three years to obtain, and the police deal with life and death situations daily.
Charen’s argument also encompasses the idea that teachers deserve not even the small due process rights they currently enjoy. Why shouldn’t principals be able to fire teachers on a whim, affording them no review, no recourse? While that is essentially true in the private sector, it does not tell the entire story.
In private enterprise, businesses know that hiring and training employees is expensive. There is, therefore, substantial incentive for businesses to avoid firing competent employees on whims; it’s inefficient and hurts the bottom line. While this kind of firing certainly does occur, the self-interest of business owners and the profit motive tend to keep such irrational acts to a minimum.
Teachers do not compete in a marketplace in anything like the same manner as the private sector. While hiring teachers can be annoying and time consuming, the only real expense involved is the time of the principal and the cost of some administrative assets. Because teachers must hold college degrees and various other certifications before a state will allow them to teach at all, teachers arrive for work nearly entirely trained. Unlike the private sector, in most places in America, there is no built-in, free market-like incentive to retain competent teachers. While some schools assign more experienced mentors to new teachers, for most, it’s very much swim or sink. Of course, competent principals will commonly wish to retain competent teachers, but I can certainly attest that in right to work states, teachers are fired every day, and not after years of legal wrestling.
It’s also worth remembering that teachers generally cannot earn additional salary through excellence, but through time-in-service step raises, and the occasional–often very occasional–raises voted by their respective school boards. This means that the oldest and most experienced teachers are the most expensive while the youngsters just out of college are much less expensive. Do not for a moment think that school administrators are not tempted to fire more expensive and capable teachers as a cost saving measure. Don’t people who have given decades of honorable, dedicated service, deserve a minimal property right in their job?
Considering that most teachers in America earn salaries that place them solidly in the lower middle class, and that they serve in public service jobs with what is essentially a large target painted on their back, it does not seem excessive or unreasonable to afford them basic appeal procedures after they have served a probation three times longer than that commonly required of police officers.
Laws that would abolish these paltry protections miss the point. If Mrs. Charen and her fellow parents find that an incompetent teacher cannot be fired, those protections aren’t the problem. Competent principals and administrators have no difficulty firing incompetent teachers while obeying the law and treating everyone with dignity. As I’ve already noted, in right to work states, teachers are fired every day in precisely the same manner as workers in the private sector. State laws empowering public sector unions to extort their members and the public, and bureaucrats and educrats willing to grant outlandish and unsustainable compensation, benefits, working conditions, pensions and impossible standards for firing are the problem.
Giving principals unlimited power to fire teachers, competent or incompetent, for any or no reason, is as likely to cause schools to be filled with incompetent, corrupt cronies of corrupt, unprofessional principals as highly professional educators. The problem is teacher unions and those that abet them, not the kinds of minimal working conditions and due process reviews that help to encourage idealistic young people to spend huge amounts of money and many years in college and after to earn far less than their degrees can elsewhere command.
Many years ago, then Governor of South Dakota, William Janklow, was speaking about placing teachers entirely on a hire/fire by whim system. He observed that communities would not allow good teachers to be unfairly fired. I’m sure Mr. Janklow knew better even as he was speaking those words. Competent teachers across America surely do. It’s a shame that Mrs. Charen apparently hasn’t had the opportunity to learn this reality.
If only such experienced understanding guiding were common. Well done.
Mike McDaniel said:
Thanks for reading and for your kind comment. It’s much appreciated.
It seems like the solution is not to try to engineer some sort of working system from the current mess, but instead to bring back those private sector incentives, no? This part in particular jumps out:
This seems to be inescapable when we are dealing with markets dominated by a government funded near-monopoly. It’s one of the main reasons that I see vouchers as the schwerpunkt in the fight to reform schools.
Mike McDaniel said:
Thanks for your comments! I’m afraid, however, that I can’t agree that the solution is to essentially throw out the entire public school system. It’s also a bit of a misunderstanding to suggest that the schools are, as you put it, “a government-funded near-monopoly.” It is always dangerous to think of the schools in business terms, for there truly is little intersection, and many of our contemporary problems are the direct result of trying to impose business models and practices on the schools.
And vouchers! I’m always distressed to see conservatives support what is essentially an un-conservative practice. The simple fact is that most American schools do very well indeed. There are surely bad schools, even bad school districts, but the mechanisms to repair them, to fire bad teachers, principals, administrators, and even to throw incompetent or corrupt school boards out of office are in place. When entire communities choose not to use the tools of democracy to proper ends, they choose to accept incompetent and corrupt management and bad schools. Better to fix things that are fixable than to unnecessarily abandon them.
But thanks for bringing that up. I’ve been meaning to address vouchers, and will do so in the near future. Hopefully, I’ll be able to contribute some new arguments.
As always, thanks again for reading and taking the time to write!
joe dokes said:
Good article, minor point:
“Don’t people who have given decades of honorable, dedicated service, deserve a minimal property right in their job?”
In a perfect world, sure. But private sector employees (at least those who are not unionized) generally don’t enjoy this right and never have. It’s not “their” jobs, it’s the employer’s job, private sector or public.
Every time I hear a spirited debate about getting rid of incompetent teachers, I find myself wondering why no one ever wonders about the role incompetent administrators, specifically building principals, play in this situation. I have worked for 12-15 admininstrators throughout my career of 18 years, and with just a couple of exceptions, they were largely ineffective and their (our) buildings were not what I would call particularly safe environs. Most of them had only a couple of years of experience in the classroom, although they were purported to be “instructional leaders”. Many, probably most of them, would not discipline students either because they were such passive personalities, or they were afraid of parents getting mad at them and ruining their chances of moving up in the hierarchy–or both. One of them was/is an alcoholic and although he left a district function drunk and nearly killed another teacher, he was suspended for 10 days and returned as if nothing had happened. Meanwhile, a close friend with many years of classroom experience, a business background, proven student test results, and all the requisite education cannot get an interview for a principal job because he is known to 1) occasionally have an independent thought, and 2) is not thought to be “caring” enough because he has expectations for his students (as shown in the exemplary test scores he produces year after year). His school’s scores have steadily decreased under the “leadershiip” of his principal, even as she wrote up a teacher who became angry when a parent assaulted her in her classroom. I could go on and on, as could anyone who has ever taught school; there are a hell of a lot of problems in our schools today, but they are not the problems people think they are.
Mike McDaniel said:
Thanks for reading and for your insightful comments. I’ve often written about your concerns, and I’m sure I will in the future. As you say, it would seem that few realize that teachers have little or no power to hire, fire, make policy or do anything having a significant effect on their buildings.
It’s also quite true that when a principal doesn’t understand that his or her first concern must be enforcing discipline–the adults must unquestionably be in charge of any school–their school will fail. A safe and well-controlled school environment must exist or little learning is possible.
One of the things I hope to do with my education writings is to help educate parents about the things you raise, things that they can actually change in their communities if they are aware of them and willing to spend some time and energy.
I applaud your efforts to open these things up for debate and sharing of ideas. I truly believe that if people knew what REALLY goes on in many schools, they would be a whole lot less concerned with the teachers and a whole lot more concerned with their child’s safety and security in a building where the ones who are supposed to be in charge of ensuring a safe school are completely uninterested or unable to meet those responsibilities. I am not exaggerating about the incident at a school here in Kansas City where a parent was permitted to enter the building without checking in, went straight to a classroom, and attacked the teacher. This building is run by a principal who violates district policy over and over again about things like parents checking into the office; they are permitted to roam freely around the building, and the violations to the FERPA legislation in terms of what they are permitted to see is phenomenal. Another time, a student brought a knife, but the principal ignored district policy and told his mother that he would get in trouble if he did it again. I could go on and on; yet, with routine safety violations happening in this building every day, the only time parents there call to complain is when they are mad about some perceived slight to their child by the teacher.
It’s very, very easy to fire teachers. Anybody who says the opposite is a big, fat liar. Thousands are removed and not because they are incompetent but because they are too old, too expensive, or the principals have it in for them. I know of what I speak. The “due process” system is a rigged affair which heavily favors school districts. They are exempt from criminal liability, so any kind of tactics that would NEVER be allowed in civil or criminal trials is allowed in administrative law. Most teachers targeted by principals resign in lieu of dismissal, and districts can sit and lie to the public that they have few teachers “fired” because few of them fight the crap leveled at them through the rigged tribunal process. They simply take severance packages (called “settlements” by school districts) or early retirement never to be heard from again.
Now principals and other administrators are something else altogether. Most have bargaining units, or unions, representing them, which should NEVER be allowed since they are supervisory. Having them makes it almost impossible to fire them. When they are fired, it makes news, which should tell you how rare it truly is. Most are moved around to other jobs or “move up” to a cushy desk job in the central office if they are part of the district’s “in” crowd, allowed to pad their fat pensions until they are retired.
People get upset at teachers because they swallow lies from privatizers. The truth is they are easily fired or pushed out. Administrators have virtually ironclad job security.
By the way, until you have walked into a teacher’s shoes, don’t spout lies on a blog.
I meant “in.” Your post just pisses me off because it is full of lies. Mona Charen is a right-wing idiot.
“Thousands are removed and not because they are incompetent…”
I actually agree with you, in a way — it’s the incompetent ones that tend to get kept while younger, competent, reliable ones get cut. I have SEEN this in my seven years teaching and having been through two NASTY contract negotiations.
Having now been in both private sector (manufacturing) and public employee unions, it is a generally true rule that the more senior any union employee is the less they tend to care, thus the less effective they become until most of them are absolutely WORTHLESS. There are always exceptions, of course, but they’re relatively rare.
Paradoxically, it’s long been the case that despite the general worthlessness of senior burnouts, the longer they’ve been on board the harder they are to remove, for ANY cause short of child rape, a drug bust or murder.
Luckily, the taxpayers of the U.S. are slowly catching on and changes to the laws that allowed this travesty are already afoot.
“But if you’re a teacher, how can you possibly say that!?!” you may ask.
I’m not a thief.
Oh, almost forgot:
“Administrators have virtually ironclad job security.”
Then pay the money, take the classes, get the certification and BECOME ONE, or shut up about it. The original topic here was incompetent teachers, not your jealousy of administrators.
Of course, it must be observed that it was the incompetent administrator(s) who hired the incompetent teacher(s). I am fascinated by the numerous debates on this and other sites about incompetent teachers that never once acknowledge who hired these people. I would also argue that some teachers with great potential may struggle in buildings where the incompetent administrator does nothing to protect the learning environment. Some of the most popular teachers out there are the ones everyone loves because they given everyone an A; rare is the principal who sees that as a problem because if everyone gets an A, everyone is happy, and you can bet that is a teacher who won’t be labeled “incompetent”. Popularity often goes hand in hand with incompetence in our schools, but I guarantee these popular, “give everyone an A so we all feel good” teachers are not the ones considered incompetent.
“I guarantee these popular, ‘give everyone an A so we all feel good’ teachers are not the ones considered incompetent.”
No doubt…once upon a time. Those days are long, long gone.
With high stakes standardized testing, such a teacher cannot go long without detection and, once caught, will either have a rapid “come to Buddha” moment and get their grading squared away, or they will be fired.
MONEY; specifically, the state rankings, funding and control issues now tied to the test results.
Once a few years worth of state test results start coming in and administrators crunch the numbers, they’ll begin to see a major disconnect between how well (purportedly) students do and in class and how abominably those same “good” students do on the state tests…tests which administrators have now for years INSISTED reflect the known content of the tests.
Once that disconnect is revealed – and again, it WILL eventually come to light – there’s only one place the admin and the local board need to look: squarely at the teacher giving consistently good grades to students who never perform nearly as well on tests of the same subject matter.
At that point, the scam is up and the teacher is revealed as a fraud. Blaming the kids will not work – after all, they had such good grades in class, didn’t they? Even the union will wash its hands of the situation because the teacher is now exposed as someone who risks the much-needed funding tied to those test results. Nobody gets in the way of that these days, not even the union.
So the teacher repents and improves, or can’t/won’t, and is fired. Either way, students are better served. Problem solved.
PS Please don’t take anything I’ve said as a defense of apologetic for statewide testing. I’m only describing the current situation, and how it’s going to be for the foreseeable future. It is what it is.
As for incompetent administrators, believe it or not but they last even LESS time in the modern high stakes environment…if they cannot motivate teachers and students to perform better, the board won’t blink twice before replacing them with someone who can.
I would like nothing more than to believe that everything you said will come to pass; however, in the schools I am speaking of, and admittedly, they are all concentrated in the Kansas City area–so do not necessarily (I hope) represent the rest of the country–we are talking about administrators who not only do not motivate teachers and students, they are a detriment to both. They do not look out for the safety of their building, because they are afraid of a public relations problem if they discipline a student, and the straight A students who do poorly on state testing are explained away as kids who “don’t test well”. Administrators are often quick to blame teachers, but it is not because they have a vested interest in improving instruction; many administrators couldn’t tell you how to improve instruction if they wanted to because they taught physical education for a couple of years before becoming building “leaders”. I am not putting down PE teachers, but I am saying that teaching PE classes is in no way shape or form the same as teaching reading or math. And I will use the example once again of the alcoholic principal, still employed at a Kansas City area middle school, who has showed up at district and community functions under the influence, driven drunk, been to court, sexually harassed a teacher, and remained in his position of “motivating teachers and students” who, as you might guess, don’t exactly take hiim seriously. He has lasted through three superintendents and numerous changes in the Board of Education, and he is still there. However, no one really seems to think this is a problem. If an administrator’s role is not important, why even have them?
“And I also have to say, ‘Those days are long, long gone’ is not anywhere close to being accurate–at least around here. Administrators whose buildings don’t do well on standardized testings are quick to make excuses about demographics (‘Our scores would be great if it weren’t for the poor kids’) and say things like,’ We can’t do anything about the quality of our clientele’ (meaning “If we were a rich, white, suburban district, we could do it, but because we have more diversity, we can’t.’). Despite what everyone thought would happen–again, at least around here–data isn’t considered that important, and (some) teachers are still beloved because they bestow straight A’s on everyone, and no one is asking any questions about grading practices, ever.”
* * *
Barring a miraculous nationwide economic recovery, they will. Matter of time. Standardized tests tied to federal money probably aren’t going anywhere, ever. If what you’re describing is accurate (not that I doubt you) it would seem the district/s you describe are not as dependent upon the monetary strings tied to the tests. Let the local and state economy slip some…let enough admins across the state start to sweat paying their bills…and you’ll see that situation change in very short order.
Where I work (considerably further east of you, in the Rust Belt) it is getting to the point it should have been at from the start: teachers and principals and even supers are increasingly judged on their job performance. Just like employees are in the private sector that provides the public sector’s paychecks. And why is it to this point? Because this state, up to a few years ago, was very nearly literally broke. We’ve seen a bit of a turnaround lately but the positive outworking on that in education has yet to materialize.
I will grant one point that inevitably is brought up – it is not fair to judge a teacher or a building on the performance (i.e., lack of it) of that ever-present segment of the student body – rich, middle class and poor, black, white and every shade in between – which is unmotivated and unmotivatable no matter what you do…students who despite educrat mythology to the contrary, simply REFUSE to be persuaded to care about their futures. They’ve seen every single trick in the teacher’s standard issue bag of motivational tricks and nothing works. I do have a problem with condemning teachers because of those students, which politicians are wont to do.
Ideally, I would think if a teacher can prove he used best practice to present the content adequately, that would be enough evidence he “did his job,” thus throwing the spotlight onto students who simply do not care (admin ALWAYS knows exactly who these teachers are). But living in the real world, I know it’s easier to blame an otherwise blameless teacher who had a bad run of students, rather than to blame the student – which, by implication, blames their parents (usually eminently blameworthy) but a can of snakes no district wants to open up because it’s a fight no district could possibly win in the public eye, even if they’re right.
And I also have to say, “Those days are long, long gone” is not anywhere close to being accurate–at least around here. Administrators whose buildings don’t do well on standardized testings are quick to make excuses about demographics (“Our scores would be great if it weren’t for the poor kids”) and say things like, “We can’t do anything about the quality of our clientele” (meaning “If we were a rich, white, suburban district, we could do it, but because we have more diversity, we can’t.”). Despite what everyone thought would happen–again, at least around here–data isn’t considered that important, and (some) teachers are still beloved because they bestow straight A’s on everyone, and no one is asking any questions about grading practices, ever.
The reply above should have gone with this post.
Also, to fix one typo: Administrators always know who the perpetually lazy, motivation-defying STUDENTS are.