I dare to touch the third rail…


Is there any subject in education more likely to start a “food-fight” than tenure? I promised myself that since I was doing all those posts on how subjective teacher evaluations can be, that it was only fair I take a look at tenure too. While many other professions are often more loathe to pull professional licenses (e.g.: doctors, lawyers), they don’t have the same job protection, and due process rights that teachers in public schools do. It’s not impossible to “fire” a teacher (with cause), but in states with tenure and contractual rights, administrators and districts have to go through procedures which include providing support, and direction, and documenting how they are “progressing” (or not as the case may be). Different states set up pre-tenure differently, which I think can have a big impact on how teachers are treated pre and post-tenure. Here is some pre-reading that turn out to be more worthwhile than my musings:

Ideology Trumps Evidence — Richard L. Allington (pdf): where the head of the IRA (International Reading Association), does observational study of teachers (much like what Gladwell talks about), and concludes that following the script is not what effective teachers do.

Let’s look at some case studies…

First, I have seen teachers that don’t belong in their profession. I’ve also worked with bankers, office workers librarians, politicians, and others who needed to find a new job. The number of incompetent teachers at my current site isn’t any higher than in those other places.

My first experience with how things can go wrong in an education career happened with my sister. She was doing just fine in her first placement teaching first grade in Southern California. She started her second year at her school, and was doing fine in the teaching aspects of her job. In February during a staff meeting, she questioned the principal about how they would be able to complete a scheduled mathematics assessment as the texts had still not arrived at the school, and this was unrealistic. The principal then sought to have her summarily dismissed based on her being insubordinate, which the union bargained down to my sister resigning, and getting a letter of recommendation from the assistant principal, so she could get a job elsewhere without disclosing that she had been asked not to return. She was pregnant with her first child at the time, and never went back to work, and will never go back to teaching (even though her employment record on paper is “clean”). California has a two years till tenure system. This starts over if you switch districts, or take a permanent leave from a district, then return. It was lowered from three years, but the deal that was made is that they do not have to provide ANY justification or reason for “non-election” (asking you not to return) prior to you’re gaining tenure.What lesson did my sister take from this? Well, that was more interesting. She felt that the fact that she was close to tenure when she had her conflict was part of what made her principal take things to the mat so to speak. The lady obviously had some power issues that could be found in a DSM-IV, but my sister felt that the principal hopped on any sign of a potential “trouble-maker” that showed up when someone was untenured because she didn’t want to deal with having to go through the more onerous burden of firing someone with tenure. She felt that two years was too short, and led folks like her principal to a “quick” weeding of staff, and that if it was not so black and white between before and after tenure, the principal would not be so hair trigger about the situation.

What lesson have I taken from this? Well, I went into teaching after her, and was fortunate not to run into a nutty principal until I had more than few years under my belt, but I did spend some of my untenured time with a principal that was more than capable of the same behavior. I kept a low profile until I was granted tenure, then spoke my mind more freely (but professionally). Insubordination is still the favored way to fire even tenured teachers, since you can have your credential pulled for being unprofessional. I don’t know if that principal would have fired me if I was still untenured, I think she preferred people to leave, which is what I did, and landed very nicely thank you.

Still I felt more comfortable with tenure in the existing system, and my next case will show why. Let’s bring on Art Siebens, canned from a position as a high school AP Biology teacher, and unable to find anything but a middle school Earth Science position. This post on Eduwonkette has some of the particulars, and if you want more stories of badly behaving principals that’s there too (and a few about teacher that should have lost their jobs). This is the thing that got me about the story. I can see a scenario where Siebens did not fit in with the new program the new principal had, but the difficulty he had locating a new science position is…puzzling. I think when younger teachers picture this tenure-less world, they figure, “well if I do my job, I won’t be fired.” What if you don’t fit into a principal’s program? I don’t know what the application process is like in D.C., but I can see some issues that losing a job in a non-tenure situation could cause, and need to be addressed. When you apply for a job in California, you are asked whether you’ve been disciplined, or been asked not to return (non-reelection). This will pretty much exclude you from consideration for a job at a public school if you say yes. So, if you are at say D.C.P.S., and you opt for the non-tenure track, and things change directions, and the principal says, “Hey, it’s not that you’re a bad teacher, you’re not the teacher we need,” what will happen?

This is not an uncommon occurrence in the business world (“Your current position doesn’t fit in with the new business model”), but, most business stick to just reporting name, rank, and when you worked on reference checks. Unless you did some criminally or civilly actionable, most businesses these days will not share any information for fear of defamation. You might get a “personal” reference from former co-workers or a supervisor if you are lucky. In business, you apply for a new job, and say they phased out your department, and it’s no big deal. But does education know how to deal with this. Education is completely predicated on get letter of recommendation on letterhead. My husband ran into issues with this when he worked for a AmeriCorps provider that did tutoring in Oakland, CA schools. Some of the tutors opted to go on to education schools for a credential. The schools asked for recommendations on letterhead. My husband’s employer (East Bay Conservation Corps) had a no recommendation letter policy. It was like having the bureaucracies of Pakistan, and the U.S. talk to each other. They just didn’t get it. To the schools of education, this was suspect, to a business they would understand this was NO reflection on the applicant, and find another way to get info about the person.

There is not a great way to resolve the issue for unions currently. They are LEGALLY required to provide you with protection (I know one of my readers who sued his union for lack of representation). I also know from experience that they have unofficially counseled some teachers who are recommended for “review assistance” that they negotiate a way out, and leave the profession. They don’t like to talk about it, because it can expose them to legal trouble, but it happens.

So my conclusions,

I think probation for tenure in my state needs an extension to say 3 to 5 years, and some due process. I think the process for letting go of teachers who are not competent needs to be loosened up, not to make the positions “at will” but where documentation of ineffectiveness is within the realm of reasonable. This would resolve issues for the unions.

If we are going to have the potential of letting go of otherwise competent teachers, which on the face of it is what happened to my sister, and Art Siebens, we need to have the institutions change how they look at these applicants, because if tenure is out of date, the teacher application process really is.

Let the food fight begin!

5 Comments to

“I dare to touch the third rail…”

  1. January 3rd, 2009 at 1:45 am      Reply Doug Noon Says:

    During my third year (tenured) I volunteered as a teachers’ rights rep, and met with admins for step 1 and step 2 grievance hearings. I did it for two years before I got busy with other things in my life. Short version of the story: Teachers and principals do stupid things in equal measure.

    The principals have the superintendent’s office to back them up, even when they’re wrong. Teachers need help, too, when they get railroaded to satisfy an incompetent admin’s whims or delusions, or when they’ve just been dumb. And most of us can’t afford to hire a lawyer to enforce the contract language.

  2. January 3rd, 2009 at 1:01 pm      Reply PeonInChief Says:

    I agree with Doug Noon. The first thing they teach you at shop steward school is that 9 times out of 10, the shop steward’s first thought in a grievance is “what possessed you to do that!” But you’re doing what you do for the 10th person, the one who is facing discrimination or retaliation or dealing with an idiot. As a friend of mine said many years ago, “with tenure you get some incompetents, but without it you get mostly incompetents.”

    And how concerned can we be about incompetence these days when the people hired to run our financial system crashed it–and still have their jobs.

  3. January 4th, 2009 at 12:53 pm      Reply Ryan Armitage Says:

    You mention that teachers enjoy more due process rights than doctors or lawyers, but I think the comparison should be made to other civil servants instead of those who are employed by private companies. Are police officers, prison guards, or firefighters dismissed without due process? Of course not. We should be afforded the same rights, especially in schools where everything seems to be so politically volatile.

    I think bad teachers need to get out of the profession, but we need to place a lot more of this responsibility on administrators. When I taught in California, I saw principals retain bad teachers (teachers that they admitted were awful) past their probationary years. The principal had the power to dismiss but didn’t.

    I have also seen principals wanting dismiss teachers because they didn’t share the same religious views. I have seen principals wanting to dismiss teachers because “they didn’t fit in.” These are the instances where teacher due process rights (tenure) are vital.

  4. January 4th, 2009 at 3:26 pm      Reply alicemercer Says:

    Ryan, I think I said that although “professions” like doctors and lawyers have fewer due process rights, I think they are less likely to lose their licensing than a teacher (California is now starting to automatically pull teachers up for credential review hearings for a DUI, they don’t do that for lawyers, etc.) BUT you hit on something in that since public school teachers have essentially, one employer, the state. Once you’re out with one district, you’re out with them all, whereas a lawyer getting sacked by one firm, may find a job with another.

    So I’m going to ask something, the not having the same religious view is obviously wrong and illegal, but what if someone does not fit into the teaching team at a school? Why is that protected, why should it be?

    Is it worth loosening due process a bit for tenured teachers, and giving some more rights to those who are probationary?

  5. January 4th, 2009 at 4:13 pm      Reply Ryan Armitage Says:

    I should have been more clear with “doesn’t fit.” This was not a description to describe a teacher wasn’t a team player or someone didn’t follow what she was told. She did those things. The comment was to describe a teacher who wasn’t in the clique. Without tenure, the teacher would be without a job. I was trying to make the point that employment should not be popularity contest either.

    I now work in a state where probationary teachers do have more rights than in California. We have to be dismissed with cause. Our union, however, will not give you any help if a principal wants to dismiss you during your probation. It takes 2 years to get tenure here, but a principal can opt to give you tenure after just 1. It’s a rare occurrence that the administrators keep you probationary for 2 years here. So once again, administrators don’t use the power that they have.

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