Tonight (Friday, March 13, 2009), as he has done in the past, Bill Maher used his show (which is his right to do) as a platform to rail against teacher's unions. He called them "corrupt" and insinuated that they are to blame for a failing education system in our country. Well Bill Maher has it wrong and it's time for someone to set the record straight.
I'll admit, I have a love/hate relationship with Bill Maher and his HBO series Real Time. I usually think his prepared commentary, such as his monologue and New Rules, are spot on. He's edgy and often pushes the envelope to the point where others would feel uncomfortable. On the other hand, I sometimes feel as though he lets his conservative guests get away with peddling their BS talking points without rebuttal. It makes me wonder - Is he unprepared? Misinformed? Or maybe he's just trying to keep the show moving. Who am I to judge? I'm not in the talk show business.
I am, however, in the business of education. And as a teacher in the public education system, a proud member of the National Education Association, and the president of my local chapter of the Illinois Education Association, I can tell you that Bill Maher doesn't get it. And it's not just on the surface. Maher has it wrong on many levels.
On numerous occasions, Bill Maher has railed against teachers' unions and, in particular, the tenure system, claiming that once a teacher is granted tenure, "they can't be fired." Unfortunately, he couldn't be more wrong. But before going any further, we should probably define tenure so as not to confuse anyone. According to the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language:
ten·ure (těn'yər, -yŏŏr')
- a. The act, fact, or condition of holding something in one's possession, as real estate or an office; occupation.
b. A period during which something is held.
- The status of holding one's position on a permanent basis without periodic contract renewals: a teacher granted tenure on a faculty.
(The operative definition being #2)
Many, like Maher, misconstrue this definition to mean that once given tenure, a teacher can not be fired for any reason whatsoever. As supporting evidence for this position, Maher trotted out a stat often cited by anti-union organizations such as the Center for Union Facts claiming that only one in three thousand tenured teachers were fired last year. But if read closely, one notices that the definition of tenure says nothing about an inability to terminate but simply states that there will no longer be any contract reviews. As a non-tenured employee, teachers must submit to yearly reviews by their school board to determine whether or not they will be offered a contract for the upcoming school year. If, after administrator reviews and evaluations, it is determined that a teacher is performing inadequately, the board can decide, without explanation, to not offer said teacher a contract for the next school year. However, once tenure has been granted by the aforementioned school board (the length of satisfactory performance needed to attain tenure varies from state-to-state), the employee is no longer subjected to the annual school board review. (However, administrator evaluations continue throughout a teacher's entire career.) This does not mean that teachers who have been granted tenure can not be fired. In fact, the NEA's own website, puts lie to that notion:
MYTH: Thanks to tenure, teachers can never be fired, no matter how bad they are.
FACT: Tenure does not mean a "job for life," as many people believe. It means "just cause" for discipline and termination, be the reason incompetence or extreme misconduct. And it means "due process," the right to a fair hearing to contest charges. Quite simply, any tenured teacher can be fired for a legitimate reason, after school administrators prove their case. That's similar to what American citizens expect when charged with violation of a law.
Instead of Mr. Maher blaming teachers and their unions for providing basic protection for their members, I suggest that he, and others like him, redirect his ire at lazy administrators and school boards for continuing to employ inadequate teachers and granting them tenure if they are truly not worthy. To believe that tenured teachers are the problem with our schools, one must buy into the notion that once a teacher is granted tenure he or she adopts the attitude of "Phew! Now I don't have to work any more. I can just sit back and collect my paycheck." Even if that were the case, administrators and school boards still have the authority, and the means, by which to remove that teacher from the classroom.
But Mr. Maher's misunderstanding of the tenure system aside, blaming teacher's unions for the failures of our public education system is simply a misguided and misinformed attempt to find a scapegoat for what is truly a failure at the federal, state, local, and family level. So let me tell you what I, a public school teacher and teacher's union member, know.
I know that I, like millions of other teachers, both public and private, all over this country, put in countless hours preparing, teaching, and evaluating. Not because I'm getting paid huge sums of money (I'm not), but because I am devoted to educating the next generation; to making sure that they have the tools and the skills necessary to succeed in life. I have spent many, if not most, of my nights and weekends attending to my school work sometimes at the expense of my own family to make sure that my students receive the best education I can give them. I have spent hours in faculty meetings attempting to determine what I personally, and we collectively, can do to better help our kids succeed. (I use the word "kids" because, in a sense, they are my kids. They are like my children and I feel responsible for their future.) I have spent days in association meetings and NEA assemblies trying to make sure that this generation and future generations are provided with a quality public education. And never once during any of that time have I been involved in a discussion of how we can protect bad teachers. Never once have I discussed, or even heard discussed, how to prevent administrators and school boards from firing a teacher who is incapable of performing his or her job effectively. As a teacher, I work too hard at my job to want bad teachers in my profession. I put in too many hours to want someone who shirks their duties and half-asses their lessons working beside me. Their work ethic reflects on my professionalism and my reputation. I certainly don't want a poor teacher shaping others' opinions of me. Like everyone, I don't want my reputation being determined by the poorest example of my kind. I put in too many hours and too much hard work to let someone else undermine my effectiveness and credibility simply because they want to collect a paycheck. I want them gone. My local chapter of the IEA wants them gone. And the NEA wants them gone as well. Our reputation, our credibility, and our effectiveness is at stake. We're not going to risk it for some half-ass teacher.
So you can imagine who angry I get when I work this hard only to see someone like Bill Maher use his platform as a talk show host to paint my profession with a broad brush using the paint of an anti-union talking points. Are there bad teachers in the world? You'd better believe it. Just like there are bad business men, bad athletes, bad presidents, and bad talk show hosts. I'm sure Mr. Maher wouldn't want to be painted with the same talk-show-host-brush that has recently painted CNBC's Jim Cramer or Rush Limbaugh (who Maher called a racist early in tonight's show). But, like Mr. Maher and his treatment of Mr. Limbaugh, we don't try to coddle our ineffective teachers. We want them to improve or be gone.
As one of Mr. Maher's guests this evening, the ever-illuminating Eric Michael Dyson, alluded to, the failures of education aren't something that can simply be laid at the feet of teacher's unions and tenure. These issues are intricately tied to many of our current economic problems and ideological differences. Blaming our educational shortcomings on tenure is a simpleton's approach. To truly address the needs of our public education system, we are going to have to burrow much deeper than some talk show host's opinions of a system he clearly doesn't understand.