COMMENTARY | Right now I’m teaching summer school. I’m one of a slew of teachers providing students with four weeks of English I EOC/STAAR instruction to [hopefully] help them pass that state-mandated standardized test after they did not prevail this past spring. It’s fast-paced, rigorous instruction and many students are slack-jawed and glassy-eyed. Will they pass when they re-test at the beginning of July?
Will I be blamed if many of them do not pass?
The most recent assault on public school teachers comes from California, where a judge overturned the state’s teacher tenure policies. According to TIME, the plaintiffs are indicating that they will consider similar lawsuits in other jurisdictions. Though California is one of the states in which it is quickest and easiest to secure teacher tenure, requiring only two years of teaching while most states require three or more, educators nationwide are worried that the court ruling will brew challenges in their own states. Some view the lawsuit as merely another attempt to scapegoat teachers for the inefficiencies and ills of public education.
Though the ruling in California will not likely change things much for teachers elsewhere in the country, it is worrisome because the ruling is misguided. While it is unfortunate that students in poor areas often have teachers of “lower quality,” whatever this means, lawmakers and judges are acting too hastily in blindly assuming that teacher tenure, which boils down to basing layoffs on seniority, is the cause. They are also being exceptionally naive in assuming that removing the protections of traditional teacher tenure will improve education.
Allowing school districts a freer hand to hire, fire, demote, and discipline teachers may indeed help motivate a few slacking educators. However, the far greater impact is that eliminating or reducing teacher tenure will likely scare many high-quality applicants away from teaching. Why face the slings and arrows of teaching today, when teachers are expected to go above and beyond yet get little backup from parents or administrators, with no tenure to sweeten the deal? Many high-quality teachers remain in the classroom, excelling at their craft, because they appreciate having a stable career with regular raises.
Stability, predictability, and objectivity are things citizens value about public sector careers. As a teacher, I know my schedule, my salary, and what is coming up. I know that I will not likely fall prey to cronyism or be replaced arbitrarily. I value these things and, in exchange, give up money that I likely could have earned given my education, skills, and abilities. Many teachers feel the same.
Remove teacher tenure, and we are likely to walk. We can re-train and pursue other careers. Those who replace us, accepting lower salaries despite fewer job protections – will they necessarily be better teachers? Arguably, unless they receive raises to compensate for less job security, they will actually be of lower quality than the educators they replace. They will be younger, more desperate, and more willing to accept being a smaller cog in a harsher machine.
Is this what we really want?
Historically, the public and private sectors have operated successfully through their income vs. job security dichotomy. Public servants accept lower pay in exchange for greater stability and security. Private sector employees accept less stability and security in exchange for more competitive pay. Remove the stability and security from public sector jobs, and you must compensate with greater pay. Will taxpayers accept this?
I will happily give up all vestiges of tenure in exchange for a truly competitive salary. Triple my pay and I will eagerly jump through the hoops and make sure my students give their all on every test. I will contact every parent over every failing grade, wear a suit and tie every day, and make sure everything corresponds with every single local, state, and national standard. But your property taxes will have to triple. Fair deal?
Either protect teacher tenure, and the traditional job securities enjoyed by most public sector employees, or prepare to see a massive tax increase. I’m fine with either option. Are you?