Wednesday, September 29, 2010

How tenure gave rise to Teach for America

Yesterday Tom Whitby posted a well-written response to the teacher he saw at NBC's Teacher Town Hall this weekend who stood up and said she did not want tenure. In his post Mr. Whitby gives a very compelling reason for why tenure is necessary in schools but, I don't believe this account tells the whole story.

Without Tenure I never would've kept my job. It had nothing to do w/my teaching & everything to do w/my being vocal and a learning advocate.less than a minute ago via TweetDeck

While I understand the need for due process that teacher tenure provides and I fully support the position that we need due process to protect against the potentially wrong-headed decisions by an abusive or short-sighted administrator in my own experience the inverse has been true. Let me modify Mr. Whitby's statement to make it fit with my experience:
Without Because of Tenure I never would've have been able to kept my job for more than three years. It had has nothing to do w/my teaching & everything nothing to do w/my being vocal and a learning advocate(of which I am both), it has to do with budgets and unequal protection.
Tenure does not protect teacher jobs equally. It protects those who have been in their positions the longest the most. The problem is, our nation's teacher workforce is unbalanced. There are a lot of teachers who are from the "boomer" generation who are nearing retirement, are mostly wonderful teachers, whose experience is a great resource for our schools and for younger teachers, but who cost more because of union-negotiated steps and lanes. Whats more, many of these teachers would like to retire (and many could by rule of 90 that many states have) but they can't because of the cost of health care. So, each year (until they reach 65) their employment costs school districts more money. The tenure provision coupled with the seniority and teacher pay structure in a time when schools are tightening their belts means that cuts always happen first at the bottom of the seniority list and first among the highest-payed employees who do not possess tenure who work in areas not considered "core" subjects.

I think this graph illustrates the issue. These stats were from 2004 so you can shift the lines to the right by six years to estimate what the teacher workforce looks like today:

In the past seven years I have been on the receiving end of budget cuts three times and four times my classroom was directly affected by those on the receiving end in adjacent programs at the schools where I have worked. After ten years experience as a teacher and now with my Master's degree I have been told by many school administrators in interviews that the place they would have to place me on the pay scale if they hire me would be cost-inhibitive. I have also sat in on interviews for candidates for other teaching positions where when a teacher with 10-15 years of experience comes in with high mobility on their resume the others on the panel have expressed this mobility raises red flag for them. That is a hard thing to hear when I know my resume reflects this same level of mobility. That is two strikes, one more and I am out.

The real truth about tenure is, given this imbalance in the age distribution of the teacher workforce, and given that not all teachers are granted due process, and given that schools are being forced to deal with less means that tenure only protects the jobs of teachers at the top of the seniority list. The other inconvenient truth about tenure is because of this imbalance and because of the weight at the top these "protection" measures have in fact caused a condition that has allowed programs like Teach For America to flourish. Teach For America fills the need for cheap teachers by foregoing traditional teacher training and recruiting Ivy League graduates to give two years of their time, before embarking on their high-paying careers, teaching in our country's public schools. Instead of a career commitment to education, TFA teachers receive only a five-week crash course in how to teach. It is not that that TFA teachers are filling jobs that no one wants, there are plenty of teachers out there who would love to take these positions but whose qualifications make them too expensive.

I would like to be able to lend my support behind the fight to keep tenure but I can't. I need to be able to feed my family. I would prefer to work toward eliminating the need for things like tenure in schools. It is why I so fervently support and advocate for teacher-run schools and teacher professional partnerships.


Joe said...

Hi Carl,
Interesting take on tenure. Even though I work at a private school where no tenure is offered, I am in favor of tenure.

A few years ago, the factory where both my dad and my future father-in-law worked closed. The factory provided good wages, insurance, and insurance. Luckily, because of union rules, my dad was able to transfer to another facility and while things weren't always convenient with him working out of town, but it was better than nothing.

My father-in-law wasn't so lucky. Even with accounting, Navy, and factory experience, he has been unable to find a job that provides what he lost. He works several part-time jobs. Both he and my mother-in-law are unable to afford health insurance.

Recently another factory in town closed. Employees there weren't protected by a union and the first employees let go were those 50+ because there wages were higher and they used the health insurance more. Several teachers had parents who lost there jobs and for 2 years have been unable to find anything.

One of our teachers recently came from a different private school that was going through budget problems. The school board suggested many times that all of the older, more experienced, and yes, costly teachers be fired to take care of the budget. Eventually that idea was rejected. My cousin teaches outside of Chicago and several teachers who she started with and then went on to get Masters were let go because they cost too much. My cousin kept her position because she didn't have her Masters yet.

The reason I support tenure is because without it schools will nearly always choose to remove older, experienced, and higher paid teachers and hire lower paid replacements. I support tenure because if I ever get a job with tenure, I want to know that when I am 50+ I don't have to have to worry about job security. I figure that after all the time I put in and sacrifices I make, it would be nice for the school to be loyal to me and not just let me go because I cost too much. I support tenure for future me, not current me.

Carl Anderson said...

Thanks Joe,

I have been back and forth on this issue over my ten years as an educator. And I want to support tenure for the reasons you give but I fear what we are seeing happening is the instrument of tenure is eating itself. By holding onto it so tightly in its current form our unions are loosing it for their younger members. I don't think it will be there when I am in my 50s whether we address the problem that causes the need for tenure or we let that problem just run us over. Get rid of the problem that tenure has, in the past, been the solution to and all of education will improve. Give teachers the agency and responsibility for their own labor and accountability and job security will become inherent qualities of the system.

Michelle said...

Here's another perspective, Carl. Suppose you are a highly qualified teacher. You might be a person considered a 'minority' in that particular district.

Because of racism or religious discrimination, your administrator does not like you working in his/her building. Granted, it's probably not a building in which you want to stay, considering the animosity you face daily from your administrator. Without tenure, however, you are subjected to that person's fear and ignorance with nothing to support you.

You might have a civil liberties case... but you have no one from that community or school district to support you. Think this doesn't happen in 2010? Of course it does.

You can consider the minority in this case to be one of race, ethnicity, religious creed, or gender. Or maybe you just don't get along well with your administrator. Tenure protects teachers through due process.

And, I might say, if more administrators were able to spend enough time in the classrooms with a greater number of observations, we wouldn't be blaming tenure. Tenure doesn't protect seniority. The 'seniority' policy is one made by organizations who do not want to take the time to retain the most qualified people.

Carl Anderson said...


Thanks for your comment. Your scenario is exactly the reason why this is such a contentious issue. Of course, I agree that we need protection against all the horrible forces an conditions you describe. But, say that teacher does decide to leave their tenure-secured place in that school and try to find work elsewhere. In that case the institutional provision of tenure would work against them making it difficult to be hired somewhere else. What I advocate for is instead of pushing for these reactionary counter measures that we work toward eliminating the problems for which provisions like tenure are meant to counter-act. Having tenure doesn't make the racist principal any less racist or their actions any less harmful. In fact, provisions like tenure are more likely to act as a way to hold a teacher in a position where they are abused. Invert the hierarchy of power in a school system and you eliminate the need for such provisions. Give teachers equal voice in school decisions and governance and you eliminate the need for tenure. In place of tenure I propose we advocate for a truly liberating condition such as teacher professional partnerships.

Dan McGuire said...


I don't think your mobility has all that much to do with tenure. I think it has a lot more to do with how money is spent for salaries, how job descriptions in education are written, and how teachers are assessed and evaluated. We can change all of those without touching tenure laws which are very necessary for the reasons mentioned by others above.

Changing tenure laws will change how money is spent, and how teachers are assessed, but it's not going to improve the teaching and learning process in our schools. Teach for America isn't making things better. TPPs aren't going to make things better if all they do is change the politics, finance, and demographics of education. That's just changing the arrangement of the chairs on the deck, passing the bull horn on the deck to someone else, and picking a different song for the band to play. Instead, let's fix hole in the hull, which we now with our new tools have the ability to do.

Carl Anderson said...


So how do we fix the hole in the hull? I agree that TFA isn't helping, that their existence is the result of a need for cheap labor is one point I was trying to make. Don't you think it is convenient that TFA teachers only make a 2yr commitment? After 3 and they would have to be granted tenure.

Also, why is it that whenever this issue comes up, those standing in line closest to board the life rafts are the ones who argue strongest for the need for tenure while those in the back usually remain silent? And, how is giving teachers ownership of their jobs a rearranging of the chairs? Teacher-run schools where teachers own their own labor would remove the problem that has created the need for tenure in the first place. I hear no one offering other viable solutions. Sometimes people would rather live with a familiar problem than an unfamiliar solution.

Dan McGuire said...

TPPs don't necessarily change teaching and learning; they merely change who makes the decisions about teaching and learning. That change comes by dismantling of a system that is necessary in large districts. If you're saying that all schools should be TPPs, then you're talking about a ginormous shift in the structure of public education.

Maybe that's what's necessary, but I'm concerned about the fragility of our cities. I doubt they can withstand such an upheaval.

I would rather that the existing structures begin to value the trans-formative power of the tools that are not being used. If that were to happen, you'd be able to pick and choose where you wanted to work, and you'd have tenure, too.

Carl Anderson said...


While I agree that TPPs don't necessarily change teaching and learning, but more often than not they do, teaching and learning is not really what is at the heart of this particular aspect of the reform debate. Things like tenure, seniority, and hiring TFA teachers for cheap labor are school finance issues. And, as far as the issue of tenure, the reason we have it in the first place has to do with who makes the decisions. Changing who makes the decisions by giving teachers the agency to run their own school eliminates much of the need for things like tenure. Now, an argument could be made about the politics of a democratically run organization and mob rule and on that point I don't really have any answers.

I will agree with you that my own mobility is largely the result of, "how money is spent for salaries, how job descriptions in education are written, and how teachers are assessed and evaluated." In fact, it is after many mixed messages from administrators with vastly different philosophies of education they did not communicate very well that I arrived at the position I articulated at the end of this comment thread on McLeod's blog. But, those experiences only explain my early mobility, they do not explain the problem I face now where I am told by many districts that my experience and education make me unemployable in the face of their budget woes. They need to fill their art positions with people who are cheaper. It also doesn't explain why so many of the art positions I see posted every year are only part-time, even multiple ones in the same district where consolidating the positions into a full-time position would be logistically fine. The only conclusion I can come to is that many schools are taking a Walmart employment strategy for the positions they know they will not have a hard time filling and keeping those positions below the level they need to to avoid having to pay benefits. All of which is in part a result of the realities in that graph above, seniority rules, tenure provisions, and the public need to devote a greater percentage of tax dollars to funding medicare and less money going to schools.

Carl Anderson said...


My original reply was much longer but for some reason Blogger is acting up for me tonight.

Here is the rest of it:

I am not convinced that the ginormous shift isn't already happening. Just look at how the disruptive innovation in education caused by charter schools, online schools, and other school choice options are effecting enrollment at our schools. Anoka-Hennepin just closed six schools last year and MPLS is closing North HS as a result of this shift (they already closed a number of schools a few years ago). I don't think this trend is one that can be stopped, especially when the traditional public school districts are not offering any viable solution to this finance problem. I am of the opinion that if you can't stop the moving truck you are better off trying to steer it in the right direction. The battle between school choice and traditional public schooling gets us nowhere, regardless of the outcome. We are better off paying attention to the battle for how this change happens and what kinds of schools we fund appropriately. This is one reason I am optimistic about the developments with the MPLS Teachers Union exploring the possibility of becoming a charter school authorizor. Problem is, in Minnesota the kinds of charter schools I think are good for kids don't typically receive the corporate funding that the ones I think are dangerous do and charter schools can't levy tax dollars the way public schools can so they get left operating on a shoestring budget. We could go on and on about the whole charter school debate but my point is I think we have already started this ginormous shift.

Also, I am unsure what you mean by, "I would rather that the existing structures begin to value the trans-formative power of the tools that are not being used. If that were to happen, you'd be able to pick and choose where you wanted to work, and you'd have tenure, too." Could you explain this further?