It occurred to me in the comment thread of a recent CT News Junkie column by my colleague Sarah Darer Littman that, while teacher tenure isn’t the root of all evil in the public school kingdom, there is one very compelling reason to get rid of it. And it ties directly into Gov. Malloy’s proposal to spend almost $25 million on failing schools in Connecticut.
Often, the first step in rescuing a bad school is to bring in a dynamic new leader. This is always a welcome step, but even Superman can’t fix a school with the same cast of characters that presided over the decline. That’s not to say all the teachers and administrators in a bad school are to blame for its condition, but to hamstring the incoming principal with largely the same faculty, as tenure tends to do, dooms the new leader to failure.
From 1989 to 1996, I taught at The Forman School in Litchfield, a private boarding and day school for college-bound students with learning disabilities. In the 1980s, the school was a hot commodity. Forman was written up in Time magazine and counted two children of the comedian Bill Cosby among it students. There were very few schools like it.
But in the 1990s, as traditional boarding schools started programs to address the needs of the learning disabled, Forman stood still, did very little innovating and consequently lost its applicant pool to mainstream schools such as Brewster and Berkshire. So a student body comprised of bright students with dyslexia gave way to pupils afflicted with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, histories of fighting or recent stays in drug rehab.
Consequently, Forman entered a period of serious decline made worse by the absence of competent leadership. Drug use became rampant, at least half the students refused to do homework and there were incidents in the dormitories that were too sordid to repeat here. Faculty morale hit rock bottom just as the board of trustees announced it was firing the battered and hapless headmaster.
The new head arrived the next fall with great fanfare. He tried to tighten the reins, raise money and improve the school’s image. And I’d say he was moderately successful right out of the starting blocks. But he also watched and learned a lot his first year. He was looking to see which faculty he wanted to keep and which he wanted to push out the door.
When it came time to offer contracts, I was one of those unfortunate souls who found himself looking for a job. But I maintained from the beginning that, while I was sure I could help him turn the place around, the new head had a right to take the steps he felt were necessary to rescue the school. Mark Perkins stayed for 11 years and, I am told, left the school in much better shape than he found it.
If the new head hadn’t been able to use his authority to implement his vision of a successful school, then I’m sure Forman would have continued its downward spiral and possibly closed down. With rare exceptions, new public school leaders of failing schools aren’t given that sort of mandate. For the most part, they must make do with what they have or make changes so slowly as to be ineffective.
I know. There will be people who read this and say: “You can’t compare public to private.” True, they are different animals. But a failing institution is a failing institution and without meaningful change, it will continue to fail. And as long as the job security of teachers and administrators is more important than making those changes, children will be stuck in bad schools — with or without Gov. Malloy’s $25 million.