A Personal Take On Tenure

Meet The New Boss

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.

Be Sociable, Share!
  • Tvcole

    Well I suppose in a public system you would have been one of many who do not qualify for tenure and asked to move on earlier (you’re assuming you would have received it).

    • ctdevilsadvocate

      Never said that. Never even implied it. Next, please.

  • Miketcha

    The best part of this blog is the title. Thank goodness its a “personal take”. Let’s just continue making up what tenure really is so that ignorant people think they know what is going on. Whether its the governor with his embarrassing comments about what it takes to achieve tenure or the ignorance that teachers can’t be fired because they have tenure.
    I guess in this day and age, just as we lament and complain about workers who have health care and pensions, we might as well go after any notion of job security.
    What a sad state for the working class

    • ctdevilsadvocate

      Miketcha, my wife has tenure in a public school system so I think I know something about the subject. Nowhere did I ever even suggest that tenured teachers can’t be fired but you immediately leaped to that conclusion. That’s too bad because it shows how difficult it is to have a reasoned discussion on this topic — especially when people’s interests are threatened.

      The problem is that the factory-floor model of first-hired-last-fired simply doesn’t work in rescuing a failing organization. Tenure makes it very difficult to weed out those who do just enough to stay out of trouble but not enough to be effective in the classroom.

      It turns job security into a more important goal than reforming bad schools. How about addressing my central thesis, which is that it is almost impossible to turn around a failing organization with the same cast that was present during its demise?

      BTW who “laments and complains about workers who have health care and pensions?” No one I know. More caricatures and distortions. Talk about ignorance …

      • THREEFIFTHS2004

        Tenure makes it very difficult to weed out those who do just enough to stay out of trouble but not enough to be effective in the classroom.
        One can say the same thing about supreme court justices who are appointed for life? And what about college professors.

        • ctdevilsadvocate

          Completely agree. But college profs and justices aren’t the focus of Gov. Malloy’s public education reform proposals.

    • ctdevilsadvocate

      BTW Gov. Malloy was wrong when he said tenure can be achieved by just showing up for four years. You do have to prove yourself and continue to do so in order to maintain tenure. But the question you’d have to ask yourself is what are the standards for doing so? Judging by the numbers of those denied tenure or who have had it revoked, you’d have to say the standards are fairly low.

  • AlD

    ctdevilsadvocate,

    You said with regard to this tenure topic:

    “The problem is that the factory-floor model of first-hired-last-fired simply doesn’t work in rescuing a failing organization”

    What makes you think it works any better in a factory setting?? It’s the same problem there as well.

    But that aside I really need to ask, since the teachers in this state all belong to unions which will do whatever is necessary to protect even the most incompetent teacher from being fired, why is there any need for any teacher tenure in the first place? I might understand the need if they didn’t all pay union taxes.

    But since most of my tax dollars are spent on public education I am forced to ask: Exactly what does tenure do to make sure we have the best teachers teaching our children?

  • Michael J Flint

    I think you ‘hit the nail on the head’ … Many times (in the private sector) the reversal of failure typically requires a major ‘house cleaning’ … Sometimes those who deserve to stay are swept out by the ‘broom of change’.

    We spend too much time protecting the status quo. I think those who work for the public should be held to the same high standards as those who work in the private sector … Perform or leave.

    As a parent, I expect that those in the leadership should be respecting my child’s right to a high quality education, and if that means dusting out the cobwebs … so be it.

    Each person must invest of themselves if they wish to keep their job, which means we all have an obligation to be self involved and educated if we intend to maintain our employment.

    To be protected by laws is a pathetic excuse for underperforming and lazy people to slide their way though life without any effort.

    In the case of education, it is the future generation that suffers in the name of job security for the lazy and incompetent.

  • am

    What about institutions that aren’t failing…which would probably be most suburban middle and wealthy school systems? Heck, there are plenty of teachers who aren’t failing, but the kids and parents are. I still don’t know how you can tie a teacher’s worth to that. Finally, why does every school system need to “reform” because of the failing systems in areas whose problems are far from solely educational? Aside from benefits to the charter school lobby, of course.

    • ctdevilsadvocate

      AM, excellent question and good point. I’m not sure we have to reform the whole system just to rescue the failing schools. Perhaps tenure or existing contracts could be more readily lifted in the event of crisis? I don’t know. Let me think on that.
      As far as tying a teacher’s worth to poor students and bad parenting, my reading of Malloy’s proposal is that 40% of a teacher’s evaluation will be tied to student achievement but only 10% of that portion will be tied to standardized tests.
      And to answer this: “Finally, why does every school system need to ‘reform’ because of the failing systems in areas whose problems are far from solely educational?”
      My guess is there is little that a school and state can do about the external factors but they CAN control who’s presiding over a classroom. Hence the emphasis on “reform” across-the-board.

  • Kathy Lauretano

    A brave, personal and no doubt bittersweet anecdote to have shared. Love the insight you have into the whole situation despite what it no doubt cost you at the time. You make the incisive point beautifully, Terry.

  • Marcia

    I’m not sure your boarding school experience in the 80′s really provides a valid point about the tenure issues we are facing now.
    I understand the point about starting fresh, but we are once again forgetting who led, or failed to lead, the school to such a dire state in the first place. So, if the students are challenging and the administrator fails to recruit, maintain and support the staff in their school, then when the school fails the teachers are to blame?
    It is still surprising to me how no matter what, teachers are to blame. It can never possibly be: poor administration, lack of funding, poverty, ELL, broken children and communities, learning issues, behavior issues, even things like speech, sleep diet, nutrition impact learning.
    Until we start addressing ALL of the challenges facing our children and offering REAL solutions instead of focusing on the few teachers who are ineffective, we will continue to fail our students. Aren’t the children’s needs the whole point?
    There isn’t a “secret formula” for closing the achievement gap, every teacher knows it takes smaller classes, more support, community and parent outreach, services (ELL, speech, Sped, etc.), resources, effective professional development, collaboration, effective practices, assessment… Why does no one listen when we speak? We fight for our students every day and know what they need. We just need the help and money in the right places.

    • ctdevilsadvocate

      Marcia, many of the administrators WERE fired, including the head and the admissions director. The assistant head was demoted to a pencil pusher. Nobody was simply “blaming the teachers” — least of all me. I was a teacher and my wife still is.

      I knew I was doing a fine job but recognized the need for a fresh start, so I packed my bags and moved on to a more rewarding career. Meanwhile, the school improved. So we both won.

  • http://twitter.com/TeacherBites TeacherBites

    Terry, “you can’t compare public to private.” But I can. I worked with you at Forman and I’ve been in the public school sector for the last 18 years. I know both sides, but I know the public side better (I was only at Forman from 1988-1992, but I watched what happened there as a Litchfield resident and friend and heard slightly different perspectives than yours on Mark’s tenure).

    Your use of words and phrases like “cast of characters” and “hamstring” indicates that you don’t truly know how being protected by the Fair Dismissal Act is supposed to work, but rather that you do see teachers as responsible for “failing” schools. And as an aside, under SB24, it’s not only teachers at failing schools that will be subject to at-will demotions and/or terminations, it’s every teacher, at every school, in every district.

    Every single teacher is subject to dismissal at any time, tenure or no. There is a process and a procedure in every district that allows administrators to terminate teachers who do not show improvement after being identified as needing intensive intervention. Unfortunately, administrators rarely have the training or the time (or dare I say, the interest) to implement and facilitate these interventions as they are required by law to do; they are, indeed, time-consuming and weighty (that’s one of the reasons that CEA’s A View From the Classroom proposes meaningful changes to the process).

    I know of what I speak. I have been a local leader through CEA for many, many years. I have worked with administrators to initiate the intensive phases of evaluation, I have counseled teachers out of their positions or the profession, I have defended good teachers who have been targeted by administrators who have failed to supervise properly.

    I am not the exception; I am the rule. Most public school teachers want reform, too. There are several things to like in SB24. But removing tenure and tying evaluation to certification aren’t some of those things. Governor Malloy, whom we helped vote into office, is wrong on these accounts. Just wrong.

    • ctdevilsadvocate

      TeacherBites, nice to hear from you again, whoever you are (Amy, perhaps?).

      Unfortunately your comment is a perfect illustration of how difficult it is to have a rational discussion of this issue. If someone questions whether tenure is an appropriate job protection, most public school teachers, including yourself, immediately assume you don’t know what you’re talking about and that you “don’t understand” what tenure actually means. I work in a school that offers tenure and so does my wife. I think I know something about the topic. Just because people disagree with you doesn’t mean they’re ignorant of the subject.

      Furthermore, I never said teachers with tenure can’t get fired and I never said teachers are mostly to blame for failing schools. Nor did I even suggest it.

      This post was narrowly confined to a case in which a school is failing and the house needs to be cleaned. Currently, in the state of Connecticut, incompetence must be demonstrated for non-renewal of a tenured teacher’s contract. I submit to you, as I did above in this post, that such a standard is unrealistic when a failing school has be rescued by a new leader. Or any failing organization, for that matter.

      On the other hand, as I stated earlier in this comment thread (you should read the thread, it’s interesting), I do agree that elimination of tenure is not necessary at successful schools, so I too, disagree with that portion of Malloy’s proposal. Nor am I convinced that tying performance to certification is necessary. I also think Malloy was wrong when he said all you have to do is show up for four years to get tenure, so you and I are not really that far apart.

      That said, I am very skeptical about the CEA’s proposal for reforms. The union is served pretty well by the current system and its first obligation is to its members, not to students.

      Thanks for your comment, though. I do appreciate it and I hope you are well.

      P.S. I know Mark was far from perfect. But he inherited a terrible situation and I do think he left the school in better shape than he found it.