The California General Assembly’s stalemate on whether to change state laws regarding teacher tenure and layoffs highlights a major barrier to improving education for America’s most vulernable children. Once again, a legislative effort failed which would have made commonsense reforms to state laws regarding teacher tenure and layoffs. This year’s effort, Assembly Bill 934, would have (a) extended the the number of years school administrators have to evaluate teachers before teachers are granted the protections of teacher tenure, (b) created an expedited process for terminating teachers deemed to be ineffective after receiving additional professional support, and (c) allowed teachers’ job performance evaluations to be considered when making layoff decisions (instead of only considering teachers’ seniority). Once again, strong opposition from California’s teachers unions resulted in the reform effort going nowhere.
The California teachers unions’ resistance to common sense reforms is beyond disappointing. If you care about improving the quality of education for our nation’s most vulneralbe children, their resistance to these reforms ought to make you angry. These are commonsense reforms that would help to ensure that only the highest quality teachers are in California’s classrooms. There is no legitimate rationale for resisting efforts to ensure that administrators have ample time to evaluate the performance of teachers before granting them tenure. There is no legitimate rationale for opposing efforts to make it easier for administrators to remove teachers who are ineffective in the classroom. Neither is there a legitimate rationale for resisting changes that would allow teachers’ performance to factor into layoff decisions. Teachers unions’ resistance to these reforms ought to make it very clear that their intentions are to protect all teachers’ jobs regardless of whether those teachers are effective, because even ineffective teachers pay union dues. Nevermind the negative impact ineffective teachers have on the learning of their students. The tragedy is compounded when you consider that ineffective teachers are most likely to be in classrooms with children who need high quality teachers the most.
This legislative stalemate in California directly affects children in California’s schools. But the opposition of teachers unions across the country to similar reforms results in ineffective teachers remaining in high needs classrooms everywhere. California’s Supreme Court will eventually make a ruling on whether such language in unions’ collective bargaining agreements is legal in California, but whether the provisions of collective bargaining agreements are legal or not, protecting teachers we know to be ineffective is unethical and antithetical to what teachers unions say they are about. It’s time for all Americans, but effective teachers particularly, to take a stand against teachers unions’ insistance on protecting ineffective teachers.
As we start 2012 I propose that we all make the resolution that we begin to be honest with ourselves, and with our children, about education in America. For too long we have led ourselves and our children to believe untruths about schools, teachers, and our systems of public education. This ends for me today. For I believe the only way to move toward fixing our education uglies is to expose them. In that vein, I begin today with a exposing a few lies that we have continued to tell our ourselves and our children about education. Here are a few to get us started:
Lie #1: Schools are all about children.
The Truth: Schools are about money and adults too.
It is true that if there were no children there would be no schools. It is true that children are at the heart of many of the decisions we make in and about schools. But it is also true that P-12 education is a multi-billion dollar enterprise in every state. Thousands of adults in every state are public school employees and state public school systems spend millions of dollars every year on contracts with vendors. All this is to say that schools are also the places where lots of adults work, and many of the decisions we make in and about schools are based not on what is best for children, but on what is most convenient for adults. Whether you want to call this truth good, bad, or ugly, it remains the truth.
Is there any way around this? Would it be reasonable to say that we can get to the point where all decisions in schools are made strictly on the basis of what is best for student learning? Probably not. But it is reasonable to set the goal that children’s learning will become our top priority when making decisions. It is reasonable to say that if a decision comes down to two choices: one option being better for student learning, and the other option being easier/more convenient/more lucrative for policy makers/school leaders/teachers, the clear choice would be the option that is best for student learning. We are not currently at that place.
Lie #2: We believe all children deserve a quality education.
The Truth: We do not.
This one is a pretty obvious fabrication. If it were true we would not continue to provide lesser quality education to students based on their socioeconomic background/neighborhood. The vast majority of children in the US who live in more affluent neighborhoods have a higher quality educational experience than children who live in lower socioeconomic neighborhoods. Children in lower income neighborhoods typically attend schools with poorer quality facilities, teachers who are less able to meet their needs, and lesser quality instructional and technological resources. Many factors contribute to this reality. A few of these factors are many teachers’ preference to not teach in predominantly low income and minority schools, teacher preparation programs failing to prepare aspiring teachers to meet the needs of low income and minority students, a failure to attract candidates into the teacher profession who would serve low income and minority students well, differential school funding, and outright neglect of resources in schools that serve predominantly low income and minority students.
Lie #3: All teachers are good teachers.
The Truth: Some teachers are completely ineffective.
The claim that all teachers are effective or even that all teachers have the potential to be effective is ridiculous and is an insult to the teaching profession. High-quality teachers are highly-skilled professionials with a mastery of both the academic content that they teach and the pedagogical skill necessary to effectively deliver that content to students. It is insulting to the profession to assume not only that anyone could do this, but that anyone could do this well. Many of our current crop of teachers are not effective teachers. Some of them have no desire to become effective teachers. These teachers should be relieved of their classroom duties immediately.
Lie #4: People become teachers because they love children.
The Truth: Some teachers/principals do it for the money.
I believe that the majority of educators went into the field because they care about children, but I know very well that this is not the case for a significant minority of educators. Contrary to popular belief, public school teaching is not the worst paying job in town. Some people actually do become educators for the money. The stability and benefits that come along with the profession are attractive to some people as well. Also, it might be a little less than pleasant for the general public to find out the number of teachers that majored in education because it was easier to get into and keep a job than the field they would prefer to be in.
What about the principalship? Well, some principals make really good money (really good)! That is attractive to some educators whether they believe they would be effective at the job or not. Higher education institutions have exacerbated this problem as many education administration graduate degree programs have become diploma mills, recommending principal certification to the state for any living breathing human being who pays two years worth of tuition. Worse still, some teachers go into school administration in an effort to work less directly with children.
Please join me in telling the truth about education in 2012. Being honest about our shortcomings in education is the necessary first step toward making things better, and I really want things to get better. Our children’s future depends on it.
Happy New Year!
Kentucky State University (KSU) is preparing to launch a new program, the Promising Youth Center for Excellence, in which KSU students will serve as mentors to a group of Hispanic and African-American students identified as “at-risk.” The US Department of Health and Human Services funded initiative will bring together the struggling students, KSU mentors, parents, and community members in a collaborative effort to meet students’ needs. The underlying assumption of such a program is that schools, parents, and communities working collaboratively puts students in a much better position to be successful. Also fundamental is the idea that universities–including students–can serve as facilitators of this type of collaboration.
Nice work KSU and good luck!