A fabulous friend recently said to me, “I’m just so tired of the new national pastime – Beat up a Teacher.” She had seen the nasty cover of Time with a court gavel about to smash an apple (a good one by the way). She had seen the title she knew was a lie: It’s nearly impossible to fire a bad teacher. But I think what pushed her over the edge was the subheading: A group of Silicon Valley investors wants to change that.
The irony drips. The Wolves of Wall Street woke up one day and decided simultaneously that all the problems with American education could be solved by…firing teachers. Seriously?
My dear friend could not even muster outrage. She was just tired. She saw prestigious Time as next up to bat in a long line of cheap swings at teachers.
Time could have written about any number of ways to improve our schools–restoring school funding, actually ensuring equity, and ending the insane and costly No Child Left Behind testing regime, which has replaced real classroom instruction with tests, tests, and more tests. Instead, Time decided to write about tenure. They came to the astonishing conclusion that the one critical reform we must make is to make it easier to fire teachers.
Due process policies like tenure exist in almost every state. Although timelines and appeal processes differ, the concept is the same: After passing a probationary period and satisfying performance expectations, teachers get two basic things before they can be fired: (1) The teacher gets to know why. (2) If she feels she is a good teacher being fired for a bad reason, she gets to defend herself and tell her side of the story. That’s it.
States continually review whether their tenure policies are fair, efficient, and effective. More than 31 states have revised their tenure and dismissal policies in just the last few years. Policies are changed all the time. But the purpose of tenure – to protect good teachers from being fired for bad reasons – is the constant.
I had a hot argument with a guy who truly believed that if you were a good teacher, you didn’t need tenure. He said, “Teachers used to be fired for their religious or political beliefs. That never happens anymore.” His point: Only incompetent teachers are at risk. His conclusion: Take away tenure because incompetent teachers should not have the right to defend themselves.
So I told him about Jennifer.
Jennifer asked me not to use her last name because she is afraid of being fired. Jennifer is a Special Education teacher who talks about her students with such pride and such love. But there were tears in her eyes when she told me what mandated testing did to her beloved students. Parents started asking her questions about these tests. Jennifer talked to me as her union leader to ask if she could get fired for giving parents information about their right to opt out or whether she could be terminated if she gave them her professional opinion about how these tests might negatively affect their kids.
She is right to be afraid. She could get fired in some states for telling parents the truth. We get questions from teachers about whether they could get fired for refusing a parent’s order to change a student’s grade. Teachers all over the country have wondered if they can be fired on the basis of the now widely discredited VooDoo Value-Added-Measure, which pretends to place a human child into a test tube and magically tease out all the factors that could affect that particular child’s score on that particular day with the remaining numbers being the “value” the teacher “added” to the score. There is, of course, no such equation.
My friend may be tired, but I am not. Time needs to celebrate the real heroes of our schools: the teachers who greet students every day at the school house door and take them as they come.
Tenure lets teachers challenge students with demanding curriculum choices, and to grade students fairly based on the students’ work rather their parents’ connections. It allows teachers to speak out when school districts cut corners or cut budgets.
Good teachers know the Blame the Teacher game is a distraction from talking about real solutions like reducing class sizes, giving our students time for meaningful one-on-one instruction, and funding great schools for all kids regardless of their zip code.
I love all my tired and frustrated friends, but we won’t be sleeping through this debate. The public wants real, common sense solutions. Teachers have them if only Time would ask.