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The Trouble With “The Trouble With Tenure”

August 21, 2014

EDIT 8/24/14: Corrected information about Michael Johnston’s experience as a principal.

Frank Bruni, writing in the New York Times on Aug. 18, 2014, cobbles together a series of assumptions and quotations to join the trendy but under-informed chorus speaking out regarding “The Trouble With Tenure.” You’ve heard this all before: too few teachers are fired because it’s too hard to fire them, and since they know they can’t effectively be fired, they don’t worry about their job performance. Those assumptions are, at best, difficult to support and to apply broadly – and at worst, they’re just wrong about teachers and organizational management.

First problem – it’s not tenure, in the sense that university professors have tenure. It is not a “job for life,” but rather, a due process protection that ensures teachers who need improvement or dismissal are given appropriate chances to address the issues raised. The details of that process may be worth revisiting and refining, depending on the state or system. And to be fair, I don’t see anything (in this column) to indicate that Bruni, or the main subject of his column, Colorado state Senator Mike Johnston, are suggesting the elimination of teachers’ due process rights. The problem I have is that the underlying assumptions in their arguments for reform are the same underlying assumptions for elimination of those rights, and so the assumptions need to be challenged.

I’m going to quote Bruni from nearer the conclusion than the introduction of his piece. He recognizes the need for some caution in conversations about this issue: “There are perils to the current tenure [sic] talk: that it fails to address the intense strains on many teachers; that it lays too much fault on their doorsteps, distracting people from other necessary reforms.” That’s an important and appreciated caveat – but the problem is that Bruni, and Johnston, simply aren’t mindful enough of that peril. Their apparently shared viewpoint is one that fundamentally misdiagnoses the problems undermining our systems. Bruni, Johnston, and too many reformers are focused on pressuring, and maybe punishing the individual, seeing those “bad” teachers as a cause rather than an effect of struggling school systems. Instead, they should be focused first on addressing the systemic problems that create the “bad” teacher. (Yes, “create” – because if someone hires bad teachers, and retains bad teachers beyond the probationary years, that’s not a problem with due process).

Back near the start of the column, Johnston tells Bruni that teacher job protections “[provide] no incentive for someone to improve their practice [and] no accountability to actual student outcomes. It’s the classic driver of, ‘I taught it, they didn’t learn it, not my problem.’ It has a decimating impact on morale among staff, because some people can work hard, some can do nothing, and it doesn’t matter.”

Regarding incentives to improve, I suggest that Bruni and Johnston read, or review, Daniel Pink’s excellent work on the topic of motivation – Drive. There’s ample, well-researched evidence that people doing complex and cognitively demanding work like teaching are inherently and intrinsically motivated to improve, or in Pink’s terminology, motivated to achieve mastery. We don’t need a built-in threat of losing our jobs, and in fact, to the extent that fear motivates action, it leads to worse performance, or cheating (cf.: Atlanta, Washington, D.C., etc.). So, if reformers want to incentivize improvement, their first step should be to figure out what the hell already went wrong: how did the school or the system manage to crush the motivation to improve that we should assume was there at the start (and is probably still there underneath the surface)? At this point, my fellow teachers, you can stop reading and skip to the next paragraph – you know what’s coming. For those who are wondering, a teacher who doesn’t appear interested in improvement is actually a teacher reacting to stress. Sometimes it’s personal stress of the kind that might affect anyone in any job, coping with the challenges of living life. But if it’s job-related stress, reformers could go a long way towards motivating teachers by helping us tackle sources of the stress: overcrowded classrooms, lack of classroom supplies, inadequate facilities, inadequate or faulty technology, lack of training and professional development, lack of support for our students’ nutritional, physical health and mental health needs, the accumulation of non-teaching tasks and unsupported mandates, ill-conceived changes in policies around evaluation and accountability, and sub-professional pay and benefits. If we want to get those test scores up (good grief!)*, try SUPPORTING teachers instead of leaping to conclusions about why they lack motivation.

Johnston is partially correct: teachers don’t like working with colleagues who don’t pull their weight. But it’s too easy to point fingers at due process, or unions in that situation. In districts that function well, teachers who aren’t performing well are helped, and if they are impervious to help, removed. Union leaders and administrators testified to that fact in the recent Vergara trial in California, and New York has made progress in streamlining that process according to recent data from the state. And many teachers who should leave the profession simply reach a point where they decide to do so, without going through the formality of fighting the process. (Though hard data on that is admittedly hard to find, I think most experienced teachers have seen it first hand, and union leaders I talk to also say it’s common). When due process does seem to protect “bad teachers” it’s important to be clear about whether it’s a problem in the contract or a problem of administrative capacity. We should certainly be open to negotiating contracts and policies that help everyone do a better job and do it efficiently, but we should not give up protections just to compensate for the fact that districts and states have overburdened administrators.

Johnston has some experience as a school principal – multiple brief stints at alternative high schools – and he relays this lesson from his experience: “You saw that when you could hire for talent and release for talent, you could actually demonstrate amazing results in places where that was never thought possible,” he said. “Ah, so it’s not the kids who are the problem! It’s the system.” Interesting observation. On one hand, he sees that systems shape outcomes for students. On the other hand, it seems the teachers who were hired for talent are the same ones released for talent. Um, what did the system do with, or to, that talent in between? And logically, we should then expect schools without due process protections to generally outperform their counterparts with due process, since their teachers have incentive to improve and their principals can hire and release at will. Inconvenient truth: that’s not happening in charter schools, and not happening in state-to-state comparisons. I’m not saying Johnston didn’t do a good job managing “talent” – but even if he did, one school’s success hardly indicates that broadly reducing or eliminating teachers’ due process protections will bring about systemic improvements.

Until reformers, policy makers, and the media move away from this fixation on bad teachers as the cause rather than the effect of under-performing schools, we’re going to be spinning our wheels on teaching quality.

Think about that image for a moment. Do we need to change the engine? The suspension? The tires?

No – we need to get pulled out of the mud, and then learn to avoid it in the first place.


* Johnston cites test scores from Harlem’s Success Academy as evidence against tenure. Um, Sen. Johnston, be careful about that…



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