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November 13, 2008 [feather]
Tenure competing

D.C. public school chancellor Michelle Rhee is taking on teacher tenure:

Michelle Rhee, the hard-charging chancellor of the Washington public schools, thinks teacher tenure may be great for adults, those who go into teaching to get summer vacations and great health insurance, for instance. But it hurts children, she says, by making incompetent instructors harder to fire.

So Ms. Rhee has proposed spectacular raises of as much as $40,000, financed by private foundations, for teachers willing to give up tenure.

Policy makers and educators nationwide are watching to see what happens to Ms. Rhee's bold proposal. The 4,000-member Washington Teachers' Union has divided over whether to embrace it, with many union members calling tenure a crucial protection against arbitrary firing.

"If Michelle Rhee were to get what she is demanding," said Allan R. Odden, a professor at the University of Wisconsin who studies teacher compensation, "it would raise eyebrows everywhere, because that would be a gargantuan change."

Last month, Ms. Rhee said she could no longer wait for a union response to her proposal, first outlined last summer, and announced an effort to identify and fire ineffective teachers, including those with tenure. The union is mobilizing to protect members, and the nation's capital is bracing for what could be a wrenching labor struggle.

Ms. Rhee has not proposed abolishing tenure outright. Under her proposal, each teacher would choose between two compensation plans, one called green and the other red. Pay for teachers in the green plan would rise spectacularly, nearly doubling by 2010. But they would need to give up tenure for a year, after which they would need a principal's recommendation or face dismissal.

Teachers who choose the red plan would also get big pay increases but would lose seniority rights that allow them to bump more-junior teachers if their school closes or undergoes an overhaul. If they were not hired by another school, their only options would be early retirement, a buyout or eventual dismissal.

In an interview, Ms. Rhee said she considered tenure outmoded.

"Tenure is the holy grail of teacher unions," she said, "but has no educational value for kids; it only benefits adults. If we can put veteran teachers who have tenure in a position where they don't have it, that would help us to radically increase our teacher quality. And maybe other districts would try it, too."

Maybe more than just school districts. Higher ed pay is depressed because tenure is considered to offset that. But you have to wonder whether a little economic competition would work better for all involved: improve pay for faculty (not an issue with some fields, but very much an issue once you leave sciences and the law aside), sharpen the teaching and research of faculty members--thus making them better educators and more cost-effective employees, unlock the paralyzing immobility of the academic job market, and perhaps even be a back-door way of dealing with the ever-growing adjunct problem (some estimates say that upwards of 70% of college courses nationwide are taught by non-tenure-track faculty).

I know the arguments against this. Myopic bean-counting administrators, clueless legislators, politicized special interest groups--anti-intellectuals all--become characters in the worn fable of why we must preserve tenure at all costs. So does a vast and baggy concept of academic freedom, which is needed to protect academics not only from arbitrary firing, but, increasingly, criticism, scrutiny, and accountability. This despite the fact that the AAUP, the AFT, and others have acknowledged that it is no longer practical to insist that you have to have tenure to have academic freedom. That train has left the station--most academics working today will never have tenure, and will never be on the tenure track. The trick now is to figure out how to ensure academic freedom in the absence of tenure. I think that's a worthy goal, one that really ought to be a win-win for all--and one that has the potential to generate a much healthier academic employment structure than the one presently anchored by the idea--and not the actuality--of tenure.

posted on November 13, 2008 6:18 AM

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"I know the arguments against this. Myopic bean-counting administrators, clueless legislators, politicized special interest groups--anti-intellectuals all--become characters in the worn fable of why we must preserve tenure at all costs"...does anyone seriously think that the typical K-12 public school teacher is an "intellectual" in any meaningful sense of the word?

Whatever the arguments pro & con on tenure for university professors, they don't seem very relevant at the K-12 level.

Posted by: david foster at November 13, 2008 12:57 PM

Higher ed pay is depressed because tenure is considered to offset that.

And what's so bad about this? It's not as if we have any shortage of applicants for t/t positions. Good people accept a lower salary if it's attached to tenure, which saves money--I would argue, more than enough money to offset the costs of any "deadwood" faculty who abuse their tenure. So it seems to me. Anyway I've never seen any study that shows otherwise--only studies that tote up tenure's purported costs without ever weighing them against the benefits (not only of lower salaries but also institutional prestige, recruiting ability, etc.).

Posted by: Eveningsun at November 13, 2008 1:51 PM

Leaving aside the question of university tenure, the very idea that public school teachers should have special rights that 90% of the workforce don't have is repugnant -- doubly so in light of the importance of their job to society. Any organization, public or private, must balance abuse by managers *and* workers and develop a system for minimizing both and fairly addressing that which does occur. The idea that public school teachers (or any other rank and file public workers) need special protections due to imagined "special" circumstances is just nuts. Should we have "tenure" for Wall Street floor traders, or daycare workers? Their jobs are vitally important as well. "Tenure" (or job protection) is a problem throughout government, but particularly so in K-12 education.

Posted by: BobS at November 13, 2008 2:15 PM

I would give up my tenure in a heartbeat, and I would continue to be hired year to year, because I am an excellent teacher who puts kids first.
Tenure is for ineffective teachers.
Unions are for ineffective teachers.
Tenure and unions protect bad teachers, and that is the problem with public education.

Right on, Ms. Rhee!

Posted by: Lillian at November 16, 2008 9:57 AM

I'm not a teacher at all; however, I have been involved in the administration of K-12 education through service (or, should I say, a sentence?) as a BOE member for a reasonably large public school district. I became a BOE member largely out of disgust with the manner in which simple common-sense management of both faculty and staff was totally absent, and the "professional educators" pretty much ran the district. My BOE experience has taught me a lot about employment in the quasi-public sector, and the nature of the education system in general.

I work in the financial services field, in a management capacity, with responsibiilty for a far greater number of people than the combined faculty, staff, and administration of the district whose BOE I served. As such, I immediately had my antennae go up when I was informed by the administrators that certain simple management prerogatives were "not how we run a school district." I generally take the approach that when people tell me they know better than I, without any sort of logical or structural underpinning to their premise, that I am being taken on a trip to fantasy-land. Following that initial impression, I am only more sensitive than before to the inevitable inconsistencies and illogic that results in running the enterprise.

Merely the fact that "everyone else does it this way" is an insufficient reason why any given board should do so. More importantly, the tenure system in the K-12 world has put the teachers in a position in which they apparently feel empowered to block and frustrate any sort of legitimate dialogue aimed at improving outcomes (actual education) or controlling costs (lessening the tax burden).

Tenure is a concept way past its time - it was designed to protect employment of academics from capricious employment decisions of administrators; the concept of academic freedom is correlated - academics' careers should not be imperiled by reasearch and study into otherwise-unpopular fields or subjects. But in most states, the K-12 curriculum is established by the state, with only modest leeway for deviation into "pure" research or study. Teachers use their "academic freedom" hammer, along with their tenure protection, to insulate their profession from the real world, in which product (outcomes) must become more efficient and competitive. Understand that I am NOT suggesting that experienced teachers be lopped off on a periodic basis in favor of "cheaper" younger ones; rather, I am advocating that the tenure system in general handicaps management, tying its hands in trying to become more efficient and modern.

An example - as a BOE, we were obliged to negotiate with the teachers in order to re-arrange class schedules in a fashion that would add 3 minutes of teaching time to the average teacher's day. The proposed change would grant children sufficient time for lunch (rather than a 22-minute period to collect up food, be seated, eat, and clean up), and not adversely affect the number of classes each teacher taught, the number of students, or the facilities in which they were taught. We we talking about a total incremental commitment of slightly over 6 houres' time per academic year.

The tenured faculty were adamantly opposed to this "intrusion" on their "rights". They deemed it a "fundamental change" in the terms of their employment, and used their tenure as a cudgel to prevent the proposed changes. I was even told by one teacher that "you can't fire the team, only the manager". Since the teachers were (for the most part) untouchable in respect of either discipline or employment status (renewal of contract), the children that they so often asserted they were looking after were forced to eat lunch in less time than most teachers spend in the parking lot each day.

The interests of the children (students) were deemed to be subordinate to the interests of the employees (teachers).

Believe me, in the real world out there (actuaally, out here where I am), this type of defiance would be dealt with rather harshly. Not everyone would be let go, but the employees least willing to be part of the solution would be deemed to be part (or all) of the problem, and would be made to go away. The enterprise cannot survive in this economy or in this environment when one end of the management/labor spectrum is absolutely unwilling to bend (notice, I didn't say 'yield').

And, yet, the costs keep going up. Teachers don't work for nothing, you realize, and they are perceived by those who pay their salaries (the taxpayers) as not working very hard. The day starts at around 8:00am, and ends around 4:00 - a legimitate 8-hour day, as I was so often reminded. However, that calculus doesn't account for "preparation" and "rest" periods throughout the day. For most of the teachers I knew, the only "preparation" involved was finding last year's lesson plan, and flipping a few items in and out each year - the curriculum was never changed. Exams were mostly graded by a machine, and even though the handbook called for students to receive a copy of the test questions coincident with their graded results, most teachers refused; lest they be obliged to actually write new exam questions for the following semester or year.

The teachers' embrace of technology was abysmal - many still are unable (or unwilling) to use e-mail, and most important communication was often filtered through the union shop stewards before actually being communicated. On the whole, a recipe for a dysfunctional workplace, coupled with lousy results.

In your original post above, you talk about the fact that education is such a critical element of our society, yet we continue to let the educators provide a brake on the efficiency and the value of the educational result. I was often the subject of derision by the faculty for comments made a BOE meetings and in private conversations, since the BOE seemed to be viewed as an impediment to the teachers' goals, rather than a resource that could benefit both management and labor in the workplace. With tenure, when the teachers hold the cards, they are not unwilling to play them. Education (and children) suffer as a result.

Posted by: Drewski at November 18, 2008 2:37 PM