Locking Horns Over Tenure

Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor testifying yesterday at the Capitol - New Haven Independent

It is quite a sight. Lawmakers in Hartford are holding marathon hearings on Gov. Dannel Malloy’s education reform proposals. Interested parties — the education establishment, families and the governor’s people — are lining up to weigh in on perhaps the biggest battle over a public policy issue since Lowell Weicker rammed through a state income tax 20 years ago.

The focus of much of the deliberations is on Malloy’s most controversial proposal — you know, the one that makes it harder for teachers to get tenure and easier to take it away. I must say that I’m surprised Malloy has taken on this high-profile issue, fraught as it is with such political peril. After all, few Democrats have the stomach to take on labor unions.

I can only assume that Malloy believes deeply in the cause of improving the ranks of the teaching profession. For not only does he want to make it easier to rid the system of chronically under-performing teachers, but he wants to make it harder to become a licensed teacher in the first place (see his proposal to raise the minimum undergraduate GPA of aspiring teachers who want to be licensed in the state).

Even as a former teacher, I take a back seat to no one in my distaste for tenure. It’s an expensive job protection that virtually no one outside the world of education enjoys. There really is no compelling defense for it. Even the unions have conceded it needs reform and they have offered to shorten the timeline for firing awful teachers.

But why has Malloy seized on the issue and made it the centerpiece of his education reform proposal? A cynic might say he was trying to get back at all those teachers who no doubt told the young learning-disabled Malloy that he was mentally retarded and wouldn’t amount to anything.

I don’t know if that’s true. I may have spent an hour with the man last week, but I can’t read his mind. I can, however, tell you the real causes of the failure of our public education system have less to do with teachers than with the intractable social problems we face. It is certainly true that even as education spending has risen over the last several decades, student performance has not. But it’s also true that as social pathologies have deepened, so too has student achievement worsened.

But there’s not much the government can do about teen pregnancy, drug abuse, lousy parenting, poor eating habits and digital distractions. The government can, however, control who stands in front of a classroom.

If that makes teachers the low-hanging fruit, then so be it.

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  • Brutus2011

    Tenure as comprehensive job protection in K-12 is not a fact. What is a fact is that college professors in colleges can attain tenure as comprehensive job protection. Public elementary, middle school, and high school teachers cannot attain this kind of tenure.
    Please be careful when writing opinions like this to give correct information.
    Perhaps the biggest obstacle to us getting this right is the amount of misinformation
    that is flowing and ebbing around this issue.

  • Anonymous

    Brutus, nowhere did I say that tenure is a “comprehensive job protection in K-12.” Those are your words. I understand that it is a process whereby teachers can find due process. But it also makes it very expensive for any school district to complete termination proceedings against bad teachers. Hence, termination rarely happens.

    BTW I taught for 12 years, my wife is a public school teacher and I know something about the subject, so I am not some layman shooting my mouth off.

  • am

    Please tell me the closing line was sarcasm. If the government can’t do anything about what you mentioned, how is one teacher supposed to?

    But…why can’t the government do something about lousy parenting, teen pregnancy, etc.? Why can’t food stamps, medicaid, free lunch and welfare payments be tied to parent education classes, job training and follow ups?

    • Anonymous

      AM, you misunderstood what I said. I don’t expect one teacher to solve the intractable problems I described. I never even suggested that. But studies have shown that the most important factor INSIDE the school is a great teacher in every classroom. And the state does have some control over that.

      I’m not sure tying public assistance to the quality of parenting will ever fly politically. But even if it did, if benefits are cut because of lousy parenting, who emerges the big losers? Mostly children, I’d say.

      • am

        Children and society. It becomes a cycle. Besides, it can’t hurt to try and help parents become more educated and less dependent and apathetic. How can you give up on people, yet allow teachers to be the scapegoat?

        • Anonymous

          AM, when you come up with some good ideas on how to clean up the culture and force parents to do a better job, let me know. I’m all ears.

          • am

            I think I just suggested one idea which you wrote off because it wouldn’t fly politically. Otherwise, the only other way is for communities or parents whose children are at failing schools to work toward making them better – afterall, isn’t parental involvement what makes successful schools what they are?

            You may not like my answers, but this current idea of blaming teachers and (worst of all) making functioning schools play by the same rules as schools in need isn’t the way to go. It only punishes those that are getting the job done.

          • Anonymous

            So your solution is to make schools better? That’s an important piece, no doubt, but the devil is in the details.
            Malloy is saying one way we can make schools better is by making sure there is an excellent teacher in every classroom.

  • Michael J Flint

    When I was young, parents rarely were involved in the school and did not work with us on our homework. They left schooling to the professionals (teachers) and the professionals left parenting to the parents.

    In my view, this is the problem … Let teachers ‘teach’ and parents ‘parent’.

    While there are ‘sorry excuses’ for teachers, as well as parents, we have to stop believing that these ‘excuses’ are somehow a majority.

    It is constant interference by Government ‘know it alls’ which is impeding teachers and screwing with parenting.

    Big Brother needs to step aside and let we parents and our children,s teachers decide what is best for our children.

  • Metalox42

    If there is no job security for older teachers, who will be at risk of replacement once they reach a reasonable income level, there will be no attraction of the brightest and the best to the teaching profession.

    • Anonymous

      Metalox, I don’t think the teaching profession currently attracts the best and brightest anyway. As an incentive to do so, I would be willing to consider significantly increasing teacher compensation in return for less job security — which are the conditions most of us work under in the private sector.

      For several years I taught in private schools, where tenure is virtually non-existent. We all had one-year contracts. There were cases in which I thought some teachers were treated unfairly but the vast majority of the time, those whose contracts weren’t renewed deserved it.

      And I think that’s the point. In order to run a organization, leaders need to be able to choose the workers who will carry out its mission. And if it costs almost $100k in legal fees to get rid of a teacher who’s not carrying his weight, then administrators and school boards will just as soon look the other way and not rock the boat.

      That why I support the CT Association of School Superintendents’ proposal of 5-year renewable contracts.

  • Metalox42

    ctdevil, I don’t even know where to begin, but here it goes…
    Increasing compensation simply won’t happen! School boards can hardly pass budgets now, and somehow you believe that getting rid of tenure is going to change that. All that will change is they will be able to get rid of higher paid teachers and replace them with lower paid. It’s all about the dollars!!!
    New teachers already have a probation period, and if poorly qualified teachers make it beyond that point, that’s on the administration, and good teachers shouldn’t be put at risk because of admin’s failure.
    Comparing Private to public schools is impossible! Private schools can control who they take and how many. Public schools are required to take EVERYONE, regardless of language barriers, behavioral issues and learning abilities.
    Have you ever seen a teacher who’s classroom is consistantly loaded up with these students, because they are “so good” with them? These are the teachers that will be at risk because odds are, they will be the most experienced, yet their students will be the low achievers. It’s not like all the teachers get students who are eager to learn, have equal abilities, the same involved parents to help them teach.
    There are so many reasons that I don’t agree with you and this premise about tenure somehow inhibiting learning, I could waste all night for the both of us. But I’m sure you have better things to do as well… so I’ll just leave it at that.
    Be well.