Now that I have a blog where I can write what I want, when I want, I have the luxury of revisiting some good and bad ideas. In this post, I will revisit a really pernicious idea that appeared about a month ago in The New Republic. You see, the odd thing about our culture is that it is so attached to the present moment that anything that happened or was written about a month ago tends to disappear in the ether. But this editorial was so outrageous that it still annoys me, and I want to explain why.
In an editorial called “Making the Grade: The Case Against Tenure in Public Schools,” the editors argued that it was a fine idea to remove any job protections from public school teachers because they don’t need them. In making this assertion, the editors of this once-liberal magazine were giving support to the far-right Virginia legislature, which was at that moment not only trying to strip teachers of tenure but to require women to have “a trans-vaginal ultrasound before having an abortion.” The editorial of course condemned the latter as harsh, but thought that the far-right effort to remove job protection from public school teachers as a “halfway decent idea.” Indeed, the editorial went on to decry teacher tenure as “the least sane element” in our country’s education system.
The editorial claimed that after a few years, teachers get job protection that “makes it extremely difficult to fire them for the rest of their careers.” The source of this claim is the conservative National Council on Teacher Quality. TNR goes on to say that university professors deserve tenure because they are “our country’s idea factories,” so they must be free to explore unpopular ideas and to be protected from “ideological or intellectual retribution.”
By contrast, the editorial maintains, K-12 teachers need no such protection. They don’t create ideas, they don’t delve into controversial subjects. Their job is so important that they should be fired if they aren’t doing it right (let us assume for the moment that “doing their best work at all times” in Virginia means teaching what the Virginia legislature wants to hear and not teaching what it finds abominable).
The Virginia bill was not perfect, sniffed the editors, because “it allowed teachers to be fired for any reason,” and predictably those darn Democrats, so “beholden to teachers’ union,” were able to block the measure. So, for the moment, until Virginia elects a few more conservative Republicans, Virginia teachers still have tenure. The editorial, sorry to see their position embraced mostly by far-right Republicans like Rick Santorum and Chris Christie, called on President Obama to join them in calling for an end to tenure for public school teachers.
What’s wrong with this argument? First of all, tenure for teachers is not lifetime tenure. It is not analogous to the job protection enjoyed by lifetime professors, which is almost beyond challenge. Teacher tenure means the right to due process, nothing more, nothing less. After a teacher has served satisfactorily for a period of years, depending on state law, an administrator decides whether the teacher should receive the right to due process. If administrators are awarding due process to incompetent teachers, then we have an administrator problem.
Once a teacher has the right to due process, she cannot be fired capriciously. She is entitled to a hearing before an impartial administrator, where facts are presented about her performance. If the arbitrator agrees that she should be fired, she is fired. There is nothing comparable in higher education, where tenure means lifetime job protection.
Is there too little turnover of teachers? Not at all. Some 40% or more of those who enter the teaching profession are gone within the first five years. No other profession has the same degree of turnover. Some were fired; some left. That suggests to me that we don’t do nearly enough to support teachers and help them get better at their job.
But why do teachers need due process rights? Are they merely transmitters of information or do they too deal in ideas? I would argue that teachers must be free to teach and students must be free to learn. In the states trying so hard to eliminate teacher tenure–and in those that long ago succeeded–teachers put their jobs in peril if they teach about evolution, abortion, global warming, or many of the other hot-button issues of the day. If they teach a book that offends community values (and the American Library Association has a list of the 100 most-challenged books of the year, which includes Harry Potter books), they can be fired.
The New Republic should be pleased with the law pleased by the law passed recently in Louisiana. Bobby Jindal’s Legislature stripped tenure from the state’s teachers. It is odd to see a once-liberal magazine echoing the principles of the far right. And disheartening to hear the claim that public school teachers need no academic freedom.
An editorial like this one is symbolic of the collapse of the liberal center.