Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Destroying Teacher Tenure in New York State Will Create A Tenuous Career for Teachers: Teachers as Temporary Staff

New York State teacher tenure is now under attack by Campbell Brown (ex CNN anchorwoman, not an educator) and her base support group of Hedge Fund Managers.  (Wright v. NY).

Their rationale: Not all children are receiving equal high quality educations because -  (to make their long speciously reasoned story short)-  there are too many “ineffective” teachers in, particularly - high need classrooms in impoverished districts.  Their rationale continues:  Remove the tenure system and get rid of the teachers they deem as ineffective, and education outcomes- that word they like to tout - will dramatically improve.   They intend to mask this as students’ civil rights, as that worked recently in removing teacher tenure in California (Vergara v. California).

These non-educators believe that standardized test returns are primary indicators of a teacher’s abilities. 

In the real world, a teacher’s job entails a rich knowledge of her/his subject area, knowledge of developmental growth in her/his students, classroom management skills, and the ability to navigate 30 or more students with diverse and varying abilities – working to maintain and ignite students’ desires to do well, and at the very least – to stay with it.  Teachers also do heavy lifting with social interactions; with students, their students’ parents, their administrators, other teachers.  Additionally, each year, they meet an increased load of paperwork and record keeping, not to mention day to day lesson planning, and their own assessments as they fold into the day the increasingly overbearing requirements of complying with the Common Core – curriculum invented by non-educators. 

In Campbell’s data world, low standardized test scores would inform unilateral removal of a teacher – no matter that this teacher may accomplish all of the above.

If Campbell were an educator, she would understand that much of what teachers accomplish is virtually invisible at the time – learning is like that. Real learning is incremental and tends to show itself at a later time, when learners have fully absorbed a concept.  But Campbell Brown is not a teacher.

Tenure provides due process to ensure that frivolous firings of teachers do not occur.   What defines frivolous?  Here are some suggestions:  That a teacher is not teaching the preferred content that a politically insulated board of education may prefer:  Teacher Y may be teaching evolution against several of the board’s members preferred beliefs in creationism.   Teacher W may call a student on plagiarism, and may be threatened with a lawsuit by irate parents. (I saw this happen to a colleague, who was fortunately protected by her tenure’s due process).  And, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch for a sports-oriented district to frivolously fire a teacher who also coaches a team – should that teacher not accrue enough wins for his/her team.  Those are only a few examples of what might prompt frivolous firings.  School boards are made up of ordinary citizens who may make rash decisions frequently based on bias, fear - or most commonly, misinformation. Due process protects teachers from emotionally driven decisions and power trip posturing. It is an arm of our Democratic process.

In other words, dissembling tenure opens a massive can of worms that Campbell Brown and her deep-pocketed friend do not have the capabilities to wrangle and put back in the can.  It’s easy to make messes.

Say that Campbell and friends are successful in burning down teacher tenure in New York State, after which she and her pals zealously move on to some other project:  What’s left? What will the lay of the land look like in a typical urban, suburban or rural public school?

When there is no tenure, and teachers are arbitrarily fired, the union base will shrink until there are not enough members for the union to sustain itself.  It will shrink out of existence.

Without tenure, teachers will be hired as temporary staff, where they are not eligible for any benefits, and can be paid at the lowest salary tier, despite the fact that they may have years of experience and more than one Masters Degree.  As in many other industries, the day-worker phenomenon is already present in certain districts where there is a proliferation of “Leave Replacements”.  These teachers replace teachers who retire or are absent due to extended medical leaves.  Frequently, teachers on medical or maternity leave don’t return.  It’s common practice now for districts, in saving money, to eliminate those positions and re-shuffle teachers, now a smaller work base.  

Leave Replacements may be called in to fill the gaps.   Leave Replacements are not eligible to be active union members.  One can only be a full union voting member, and participate in collective bargaining if one has tenure. Most Leave Replacements do not attend union meetings. There is little incentive to stay in step with the Union. They may only attend meetings as onlookers.

As a result of their day worker status, Leave Replacements receive a paltry amount of benefits, if any.  They are paid the lowest salary tier and receive no guarantee of a job for the following year, even though they work the same hours, have the same credentials, and carry the same full responsibilities as a “regular” teacher.  Leave Replacements may be eager new teachers, or they may be experienced and talented, and may have been previously laid off from a district bending under the Property Tax Cap –e.g. New York State.  (In some circles, I’ve heard teachers glowingly referred to as “candles lighting the way” – so this is an example of burning the candle at both ends.)

Leave Replacements aren’t considered a legitimate member of the school community, because nobody expects them to stay, and they must proceed through a re-do of the hiring process (again!) – including an interview, even though they may have received a Highly Effective performance review by an administrator, because they are tied to the evaluation system.  But that is no guarantee that they’ll be re-hired.  With communities tapped out financially, the incentive to hire a less experienced Leave Replacement for an even lower salary is appealing to districts.  Currently, the competition for positions is intense.

Also, because Leave Replacements are anxious to keep their temporary positions, doing more with less with the hope that they just might be hired for yet another year – they are more vulnerable to being exploited.  (“We’ll hire you if you agree also to coach the girl’s field hockey team and advise The Art Club.")

Picture this for the future if tenure is abolished and union busting is successful:  Schools filled with independent and itinerant low paid teaching contractors.  The art and science of Pedagogy, and curriculum design, and teacher-created assessments  are a thing of the past.  With no incentive to grow their careers, teaching contractors will be encouraged to “phone it in” at every opportunity:  distributing worksheets and administering standardized tests.  Who could put their heart into teaching under such circumstances? 

There are no opportunities for collaboration because each teaching contractor doesn’t know if she or he will be teaching in that school the following year. I used to share my lunch time with a talented Leave Replacement ESL teacher who, at the beginning of June, still didn't know if she would be invited to go through the interview process again, to possibly obtain again, in September, the position she had held this year.  She didn't know if she would meet her mortgage payments.  Each year she was hoping to gain a little traction, and each year was filled with no guarantee of a position.   Three years is the normal probationary time for a teacher before being tenured.  Christina had been holding the same Leave Replacement position for four years.  Two science teachers, Leave Replacements in the same school, also had to tread water all year long until they both found themselves in the midst of further position shuffling - vying for the same Leave Replacement position for September. 

Additional potential fall-out in destroying tenure:  Children will need to learn to view their teacher-contractor with a certain level of detachment, not knowing if that teacher will continue as part of the staff: That teacher they may connect with cannot be viewed as a long term resource and support.  This is the most effective way to sabotage teacher-pupil relationships and to destroy continuity, and school community.   Parents will warily wonder each year if their children's teachers/contractors have the credentials and experience to reach their children. 

Under these conditions, who will choose to enter the teaching profession? Why would any education students -- candidates for multiple Masters or PhD degrees apply for the position?   How will our best and brightest be attracted to this profession?    

How can a new teacher develop into an innovative and thoughtful master teacher within such a tenuous career? Destroying tenure is a sure way to make a career rudderless.

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