I am going to start with a hypothetical. A high school baseball team goes 26 and 0, undefeated, wins the state championship, a team made up of mostly seniors. Two of its players are drafted into the major leagues and most of the starting lineup will play in college. The next year, two of the team’s best players are injured, another goes to play for a private school and the team ends up with a losing season, 10 wins – 16 losses.
Is the coach of the team a good coach or a bad coach? The answer is -- it’s hard to know. The year the team won the state championship it might have succeeded despite the coach’s deficiencies, or perhaps he brilliantly utilized the great talent he had. The next year he may have mismanaged the team that was better than its record – or maybe his coaching helped them to more wins than expected given the talent.
And this is the major problem with the debate on teacher tenure, and education in general. The debate focuses on the results (mostly based on standardized tests), or lack thereof, blaming the teachers for the students’ inability to do well. Examples of the difficulty in firing clearly incompetent teachers are highlighted as a reason to get rid of the entire tenure system, and a dubious relationship between tenure and academic outcomes is asserted. The truth is that one has nothing to do with the other.
(For the record, I do believe that it should be easier to get rid of incompetent and/or mentally unstable or dangerous teachers. The same is true for the plethora of administrators who are petty, vindictive, corrupt and dictatorial. But let’s talk about the real reason children are not learning.)
What is not addressed is the change in society that impacts the quality of the “talent”, that is the students.
When I was growing up, my mother was a homemaker, my father an Optometrist, and when I struggled in school they stayed up with me every night reading with me. They helped with my homework, and I was expected to get mostly A’s. There was never any discussion about whether I would go to college, but where I would go.
Now, let’s look at what is going on today. A huge percentage of children are living in poverty, often in single family households, where merely surviving supersedes the importance of education.
When I was in high school, students got into fights all the time. That’s what happens with teenagers. But people put up their dukes. Nobody had a gun. Nowadays, teenagers have ready access to lethal weapons, which is an obvious recipe for disaster. It is hard to concentrate on learning when you fear for your life and safety.
I spent some time teaching in inner city schools before I became a college professor. The behavior of many of the students was appalling and horribly disrespectful. “Fuck you!” “You’re going to die, mister.” “Yeah, I fucked you in the ass.” It felt like a war zone, and I know many teachers who got burnt out, not because they didn’t care or didn’t want to teach, but because they couldn’t handle the stress.
Many of the students were contemptuous of education, and made it difficult for the students who wanted to learn. Administrators would often blame the teacher leaving him or her feeling even more isolated. The kids are out of control at home and on the streets. Why wouldn’t that be the case in the school, which, for many, feels more like a prison to them?
Are there solutions? I think so. One would be more vocational training as opposed to pushing everyone towards college. You can be successful in life without going to college if you have skills. In parts of Europe, teenagers are given the option of taking an academic track or learning a trade. That model could work here. If you give a 14 year old who is not academically motivated a job at minimum wage teaching him a skill, say a car mechanic; then he is receiving something tangible for his efforts…money while learning a trade. He is less likely to be gang banging or getting into trouble if he has a real responsibility that is tangible to him and to his family. For many students, learning Algebra is not going to put food on their table. Learning a trade will.
This is not to say we shouldn’t encourage higher education, but since the inner city school dropout rate is so high, it would seem that primarily promoting a college tract is not producing the outcomes society desires. We need to do something different and this is just one idea.
Finally, I think the real reason teacher tenure is being challenged is to punish teachers’ unions for supporting the Democratic Party, but that’s something for another essay.