In the district where I have logged over 14 years of faithful labor, they have a touching ceremony at the start of every school year. In increments of five years, employees who have devoted their professional lives to the students of the community are recognized and given pins to commemorate their time served. The applause for those with 5 or 10 years in the bank is polite, but by the time that teacher or staffer who has logged three or four decades in the district is called to the front, the applause is boisterous, and the tribute is genuine and heartfelt.
There was a time when being a veteran teacher was an honor of sorts, a position of respect that the wide-eyed rookie held as an object of aspiration.
Today, through the machinations of politicians on the right and their enablers on the "center" and "left," the veteran teacher has apparently become the barrier to quality education. So, aided and abetted by the "reform" community, those politicos on the right wing are looking for new and innovate ways to fire those same veteran teachers.
Case in point: the bill currently rolling through the state Senate in New Jersey that would eliminate the protections that come with "tenure" after the third year on the job for teachers.
In its place, a four-tier evaluation process (which would rate teachers on a continuum from "ineffective" to "highly effective") would rate teachers annually. If a teacher were rated in the top two categories ("effective" or "highly effective") for three consecutive years, they would be granted tenure. However, if after that point they were rated as "partially effective" or "ineffective" for two consecutive years, they would be stripped of that tenure.
In the most uproarious part of the bill, it is being moved through the legislative process, despite the fact that the parameters of that four-tier continuum still do not exist. An evaluation program is currently being piloted in just 10 school districts across the state.
In other words, in less than two years, a law will be in place that will make it easier to fire "partially effective" teachers. For the moment, however, it is something of a mystery as to exactly what the definition of "partially effective" will be.
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New Jersey is hardly the trailblazer on this particular issue. "Tenure reform" has long been a sacred cow in the reform community. Indeed, when New York's GOP-led state Senate went after the issue last year, it earned an editorial of praise from "Democrat" and "reform" advocate Michelle Rhee. Ironically, Rhee felt the need to exaggerate her own years of service while condemning veteran teachers. She proclaimed herself "a former teacher with almost 20 years in the field," while conveniently omitting that only three of those 20 years were actually in the classroom.
But in her op-ed, she leveled the following charge:
Why is LIFO ["Last in, First out"] so bad for kids? First, research indicates that when districts conduct seniority-based layoffs, we end up firing some of our most highly effective educators. These are the inspiring and powerful teachers that students remember for the rest of their lives.
This is rather uproarious, because it takes a small truism and attempts to make a larger point. For example, let us assume that a set percentage of every new class of teachers are "highly effective." If layoffs are done based on seniority alone, then ... sure .. "some of our most highly effective" educators would lose their jobs.
What Rhee is implying, of course, by inference is that these less experienced teachers are somehow inherently more valuable than their senior colleagues. This is an article of faith with many in the reform community, and the ideological underpinning behind organizations like Teach for America, a program that is beloved by many in the reform community but whose record has been mixed.
Multiple studies, however, have contradicted this assumption. Those studies have shown teacher effectiveness grows with experience.
One of the conflicts inherent in these kind of reform measures, of course, is trying to define what "effectiveness" is, and what should be done for those teachers who fall on the low end of the evaluative scale. The text of the New Jersey Bill, authored by Democrat Teresa Ruiz, makes clear that efforts should be made to assist and offer professional development to teachers who fail to meet the "rubric" created to measure effectiveness. But the administration of anti-union blowhard Gov. Chris Christie tipped its hand during the Senate hearings, arguing that the bill would not require "vast sums of new money" and that districts would need to "repurpose" already existing (to say nothing of scarce) funds.
So, don't get caught up in the lofty rhetoric. The goal of the political entities pushing these kinds of reform is not about improving education, since professional development gets cast aside with such a casual flick of the wrist. The goal of these "reforms" is to fire teachers, as easily and painlessly as possible.
Of course, there are other, far simpler motives for wanting to dismiss veteran teachers in favor of less experienced personnel. The most glaring of these, especially in the current budgetary environment, is money. "Reformers" will swear up and down that "reform" of tenure and seniority-based employment practices is about "excellence" and not cash. That's either naive or disingenuous. If my district (I chose Long Beach, California, but virtually any district could serve as a substitute) can save over $33,000 per year by firing a teacher with 30 years of experience and a master's degree, and replace them with a rookie teacher with a master's degree, it is hard to imagine that financially strapped districts won't be looking for reasons to show veteran teachers the door.
There is also the very real prospect of union-busting hidden within these kind of seniority-reform packages. More often than not, it is not the rookie teachers leading the unions in school districts across the country. It is veteran teachers, who could find themselves under increased scrutiny by district administrators, who will now be granted the tools to ease the road to dismissal of those union leaders. Again, to think that district administrators won't abuse their added authority vis-a-vis personnel to impact the very unions they lock horns with is either naive or disingenuous.
This newfound crusade for "reform" of teacher dismissal is not only infuriating because of the "ready-fire-aim" school of legislating (which seems to be an epidemic for "education reformers"). It also grates because, as one new study this week revealed, it is a response to what is, to a real extent, a manufactured crisis.
To that point, consider the following: even as the massive Los Angeles Unified School District (as well as some statewide politicos) continues to ponder a "fix" to the issue of dismissal reform, a study by the local NBC affiliate in Los Angeles uncovered that the LAUSD had encountered little difficulty getting rid of problem teachers. The district had fired nearly a thousand teachers in the past year alone, and only a handful of them (9 percent) even bothered to request appeal hearings. Of that rather small minority, only two of them went all the way through the appeals process—both lost.
This, it would seem, drives a sledgehammer into the shopworn meme that tenured teachers are "impossible" to dislodge. LAUSD school board member Tamar Galatzan claimed elsewhere in the article that changes were needed because of how often poor teachers win reversal of their firings on appeal, endangering students. But NBC4's investigation of the district's documents proved that had not occurred in the past three years, even amid the aforementioned wave of firings.
Of course, the sheer volume of doomsday proclamations regarding the teaching profession in this most recent war on educators is simply stunning. From Michelle Rhee's forehead-slapping claim in 2011 that the seniority ("tenure") system in education would cost the United States 75 million jobs to claims that fat union contracts are destroying state budgets (this study suggests little difference between states with or without collective bargaining), there is lamentably no shortage of alarmist teacher bashing to be had.
Earlier this year, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan seemed to note that, when he said the following:
“We have beaten down educators. We have to elevate the profession, strengthen the profession. Great teachers, great principals make a huge difference in our nation’s children."
The irony, of course, is that Duncan has also refused to distance
himself from Michelle Rhee. Yes, the same Rhee who is the darling of right-wing governors
and right-wing think tanks
. The same Rhee who makes a pretty comfortable living attacking teachers and teacher unions while coddling corporate interests (that inane outsourcing comment, for example, came before the Chamber of Commerce, in effect absolving them from any role in outsourcing).
Duncan might really wish for less invective to be hurled toward teachers. I really would like to take him at his word on that. But when he (and, for that matter, his boss) refuse to stand up for teachers in the midst of a relentless barrage being leveled by right-wing politicos, and the "reformers" who enable them, it is hard not to see his January speech as the kind of empty election year political rhetoric designed to placate that still-sizable contingent of Americans who still respect the hard work of teachers, in spite of the mountain of teacher-bashing propaganda that have become an all-too-common component of our public conversation.