The Conversation to Fix Tenure in the United States

Campbell Brown, following in the footsteps of Michelle Rhee and the controversial Vegara ruling, wants to take on teacher tenure in the state of New York. According to an article in The Washington Post, Brown stated that “tenure is permanent lifetime employment. There’s no reason why anyone’s job should become untouchable for the rest of their life.” Her group, The Partnership for Educational Justice, filed suit in New York against teacher tenure and, much like the Vegara case, framed the case as a civil rights issue.

The Arguments

Brown argues that in layoff cycles, younger teachers are targeted more frequently even if they perform better than senior teachers. The argument then turns to “the child.” In this line of thinking, children in hard to staff schools are touched by layoffs more than their suburban peers. Unions fire back saying that if a “last in, first out” policy is not followed, administrators with dollar signs in their eyes will quickly fire senior teachers or those who disagree ideologically with district plans. They go on further to argue that attacking teacher tenure is just the first step in the privatization of education being pushed by major corporate interests.

As Paul Farhl notes in his article, Brown moved from supposedly “No Bias. No Bull” in her time at CNN to an unabashed union buster activist. Mother Jones also reported on whether Campbell Brown has been truthful in her claims and whether she has even been all that transparent in her political connections that make some of her claims dubious at best. The Washington Post even goes so far as to say that “Brown’s effort is funded by . . . well, that’s not clear. An advocate of transparency and full disclosure as a journalist, Brown won’t say who is backing her nonprofit organization.” She went on The Colbert Report July 31st and again would not reveal who is actually backing her organization.

The Complexity of Public Education

As a public school teacher, I am obviously an advocate for public schools, but most interesting to me is the attempts by the school reform movement to paint two broad camps: the union and the charters. In painting broadly, we may be able to see the political viewpoint of the two sides as they see one another, but we hardly get a true view of education in the United States.

If the implementation and the discussion behind the new Common Core State Standards was not evidence enough, we have to admit that any view of the entire education system is a mosaic made up of many different parts. We can see a picture of the educational institutions when we stand back and gaze, but each individual part is a distinct tile separate from the others. As Conor Williams notes in his article on New York mayor Bill de Blasio’s stance on charter schools:

. . . education rarely grabs headlines or news cycles the way that other, more dramatic topics regularly command. Check cable news: for every one segment covering ongoing education fights, you’ll see dozens covering the situation in Ukraine. In part, this is because the education system is just too large for a targeted national discussion. Attempts at comprehensive education reform usually span federal, state, and local governing institutions, as well as myriad union contracts and funding sources. Which makes them complicated. And nothing kills political controversy like complexity, so most education politics flareups happen at the state or local level—where the arguments don’t need to be as broad.

Ginia Bellafante, in her NY Times article, furthers the same point when she says:

It is much easier to convey in short strident sentences what some, but not all charter schools do well — raise standardized test scores — than it is to convey the problems and complexities that arise from a hierarchal education system in which admission is determined by luck. And it seems, for whatever reason, very hard to get the public to understand that charter schools are not a single entity with one kind of culture or philosophy; they vary and, as with everything else in existence, produce both good and bad outcomes.

One such anomaly somewhere between the polarizing charter vs. public school poles is Los Angeles Unified’s management model known as Expanded School Based Management (ESBM). This is a model that my school uses where I teach. According to LA Unified’s website, “ESBMM Schools transfer authority directly to the school level.” More importantly:

ESBMM schools are exempt from District policies but are still subject to state and federal laws and applicable collective bargaining agreements.

The district still holds ultimate authority over naming administrators at the school, but principals in an ESBM model work with the teachers to form consensus as to the best course of action for a school. Teachers in the school still retain all their bargaining rights (including tenure and important due process protections), but they are also free to try out new bell schedules, programs, and other innovative strategies as they are outlined in the ESBM school plan.

Such schools are just the beginning of the strange relationship between traditional schools and charter schools. In Los Angeles Unified there are also LAUSD Charter Schools and Pilot Schools trying out innovative models while still under the auspicies of LAUSD. These models do not easily fit into the national dialogue that pits the two sides against each other.

In a separate Talking Points Memo, Conor Williams makes the argument that the debate actually makes us dumber because we refuse to see ambiguity in ed data results. When we try to make all charters the same, Williams argues that:

Truth be told, ethical arguments between supposedly “pro-” and “anti-” groups fall prey to the same pitfall as the empirical arguments: they obscure the essential heterogeneity of charter schools. Charters are diverse to such an extent that they almost cease to be a definable subset.

With the complexity of education in mind, I still have major problems with Brown’s argument against tenure.

Two Major Problems with Campbell Brown

The problem with the particular brand of Campbell Brown’s educational reformism is (at least) two-fold: 1) We are not clear as to who is funding these lawsuits because Brown refuses to disclose her donors. 2) Brown starts with the premise that tenure and children receiving quality teachers as mutually exclusive.

Follow the Money

Problem #1 is not so different from the Citizens United Case. While Campbell Brown is a nice face for the reform movement, who is paying her to say the things she says? While this may not seem important in the short term, what are the long term interests of the people behind erasing tenure? Whether we like it or not, there is a lot of money to be made in public education ($7 billion by some estimates). If we don’t know who is behind these lawsuits and educational movements, how can we judge their ultimate ends for education?

To make an analogy, consider this thought experiment. Imagine that young firefighters were being fired more often than older firefighters because there is a “last in, first out” policy in the city. Whenever layoffs come around, the older firefighters keep their job due entirely to seniority. A reformer comes into town saying, “This system is arcane and unfair. Some of these younger firefighters are some of the most dedicated, wonderful firefighters I have ever seen. You don’t deserve to lose your job just because you are young.”

Imagine that this young reformer files a lawsuit with the state of Montana arguing that all firefighters should be judged not on how long they’ve worked, but on how competent they are at doing their job. The lawsuit passes and all firefighters must now be judged based on merit rather than resting on their laurels. What the young reformer didn’t think about, however, was how to create this new system of meritocracy.

Eventually the city is hard pressed for money and the firefighters have to decide how to layoff some of the employees of the fire department. One man is let go because he consistently argues with the captain. Everyone knows that the man who argues is usually right and the captain often makes the wrong decision in the heat of the moment. Another woman is let go because she is known to have inter-office conflicts with other firefighters in the station.

Of the people left, the young reformer says, “We have some bad news. Even though we were able to save your jobs, we regret to inform you that you will have to pay for half of your health benefits.” Most of the firefighters are very angry about this. Luckily, the reformer knew the firefighters would be angry and he laid off those most likely to organize and resist these new costs.

The young reformer can now go through three or four layoff cycles and grind away, bit by bit, at all the hard fought wins for labor. He knows that he cannot take them away all at once, but it is the long, slow march that eventually boils all the frogs in the pot.
We must realize the moral of this parable and consider who the people backing Campbell Brown actually are. This may be an innocent case of fighting for students, but how can we know that if they refuse to disclose their funders?

To illustrate this point further, consider this story from Crain’s New York Business. This story is from the other side of the aisle. Mayor Bill de Blasio took $350,000 from the United Federation of Teachers and then a month later — magically — the city reached a deal with teachers that gave them a raise in a $9 billion deal over nine years.

I’m not here to say whether Bill de Blasio is innocent or guilty in terms of a conflict of interest, but I am here to say that he can be accused because public money that goes to non-profits like de Blasio’s can be seen and tracked. People can look at the receipts and follow the money. There can be a public conversation surrounding the debate because the money was public knowledge. I would like to be able to have these same conversations about Campbell Brown’s group, but she would rather do her business in the dark where no one has to report anything to anyone.

Tenure and Teacher Rights

The second main problem that I have with Brown’s argument is the idea that teachers’ rights and students’ rights are somehow mutually exclusive. The rhetoric from Brown’s camp is that students will continue to suffer as long as tenure exists. Coming back to the point of complexity, the first issue is that tenure means different things in different states.

To take the two states where tenure is under attack, California takes only 18 months to grant tenure while 3 years is the norm in New York. This chart shows the complexity and relative inscrutability of tenure laws throughout the 50 states. There are so many special circumstances and asterisks attached to the chart that it would be difficult to have any concentrated national dialogue on teacher tenure.

With this in mind, I would like to argue that even the term “tenure” is a loaded word in today’s political landscape. While those in Brown’s camp like to define tenure as “a job for life in spite of incompetence,” I would like to change the narrative to say that tenure increases the quality of life for teachers and makes schools a place of collegiality and respect.

In a not-so-distant-world without teacher tenure, I forsee an Orwellian nightmare where teachers are too scared to speak out against administrative corruption for fear of losing their jobs. I see a world where corporate interests in education take precedence because no teacher would dare to deviate from a mandated curriculum. And I know some may think I am being hyperbolic, but education in America is based on the idea that lots of people can come to the table with lots of different ideas without the threat of being fired for speaking what they believe.

It is the same reason we give the Supreme court the independence from the other two branches to help decide whether laws are constitutional. If justices had to be elected every year, they would beholden to those who can help them get re-elected (i.e. those with the most money). In the same way, teachers needed to be protected from local interests that often dominate a community. We want to believe that a school board member wouldn’t try to get a teacher fired for giving his daughter a C instead of an A, but in a world without tenure, it may just be an “unfortunate circumstance” that is most cost-effective.


With this table in mind, I would be the first to sit down with Campbell Brown and others to discuss how to improve education. There are lots of models that greatly expand that “public vs. charter” debate that pits good vs. evil (with both sides seeing themselves as the Messiah saving American values). I would be willing to sit down with them because that is how I was educated to think. As Socrates would have wanted, I am willing to sit down in the marketplace of ideas and discuss the best kinds of ideas and how to best implement them in schools.

I would be wary, however, of any silver bullets or standardized tests that claim to tell me how much a student learned or how smart a student is at any given point in time. I would be wary because the body of knowledge a student might consider relevant in New Orleans will be very different from the body of knowledge my students see in Los Angeles.

All education reforms need to start with all the stakeholders in a grass roots setting. I personally like Peter Greene’s Model for Teacher Evaluation. Read his article for the finer points, but he basically argues that everyone should be involved in teacher evaluation: teachers, parents, students, administrators, etc., and that everyone should have a say in how they are evaluated.

Unfortunately, what usually happens in districts is the Superintendent puts together a team and that team hires a very expensive software company to create very complex teacher evaluation CMS technology. Administrators are then trained on how to enter data into the system. Teachers are then trained on how to put their lesson plans into the system. Administrators go through the motions, but usually just rely on word of mouth and their own personal, qualitative experience with said teacher. The administrator comes in to observe to get the data, but the data is already colored by their opinion of the teacher they are evaluating. Such top-down evaluation systems don’t work because they have buy in from almost no one except the team that built the evaluation system. Thus tenure is just another box administrators have to check at the end of the year if a teacher has taught long enough at a school and hasn’t made any major screwups in that time period.

The conversations that we have to fix tenure won’t be easy or clean. Even I know that there are elements of tenure and teacher evaluation that could be better. If there were an easy answer , the problem would have already been solved. I would write a book on it and give you six to eight nice bullet points that can fit on a PowerPoint slide. Unfortunately, PowerPoint and bullet point logic rarely hold up outside the meeting room. Reality tends to be a bit more complex, and we need to treat schools as the complex, sociological entities that they are.

In closing, I would like to leave you with the words of J.K. Rowling spoken through Sirius Black when he stated, “Besides, the world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters. We’ve all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That’s who we really are.”


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