One consequence of becoming active in social media and blogging is crossing paths with people that you would not normally encounter face to face. For example, among my normal Twitter feed comprised of classroom teachers, public school advocates, researchers and news sources, a certain gentleman was noticeably involved in several arguments. Shortly thereafter, he began following me on Twitter. His name is Dmitri Mehlhorn, and he is a former C.O.O. for Michelle Rhee’s Students First organization, and, suffice to say, he is a true believer in current education “reforms”. When Rhee announced that she was stepping down as the head of Students First, Mr. Mehlhorn penned this astonishing piece of apologia for The Daily Beast on her behalf, which despite saying she was “right about everything” cannot really name a measurable outcome of Ms. Rhee’s activism that has improved education. Mostly, he spends the article lamenting the attacks upon Ms. Rhee, even going so far as to paint her famous on camera firing of a school principal as her sending a “message” to teachers that she was on their side:
As I said, Mr. Mehlhorn is a true believer, and the arguments he was involved in on Twitter centered on former television anchor Campbell Brown’s efforts to sue teacher tenure out of existence in New York. As a devotee of Michelle Rhee, Mehlhorn is obviously in favor the current lawsuits, and as a former close associate of Rhee’s organization, he ought to be well-versed in the arguments against teacher tenure and be able to explain why it is better for the profession and for students to end due process protections for teachers and make them at will employees.
In fact, that is not a simple argument to make, especially since all research demonstrates that the urban schools Mr. Mehlhorn and Ms. Brown insist will be made better by eliminating tenure suffer far more from high teacher TURNOVER with some districts losing up to 50% of teachers within 5 years. However, Mr. Mehlhorn did not seem overly interested in making the argument, preferring to respond with broad accusations that “my side” did not “care” about doing anything while “children suffer”. That prompted my request for an actual argument about how ending tenure will make schools better able to retain good teachers instead of vague accusations and assertions of his bona fides in education reform. This is what he came up with:
I will confess that I had to read this several times before understanding that the gist of it was really Mr. Mehlhorn’s argument. I also tried looking at it out of order and contemplated standing on my head before accepting that the argument was basically this: Good teachers work more hours than bad teachers (conceded). So good teachers get paid less per hour than their bad teacher peers because for the same salary, they work more hours (conceded but in a nobody-calculates-teacher-pay-that-way-not-even-teachers kind of way). Ergo, the presence of bad teachers demotivates good teachers who either leave the profession or don’t go into it at all knowing their work is not valued at as high an hourly wage as their bad teacher peers.
Now keep in mind that Mr. Mehlhorn is not RANDOMLY opining on this subject. At Students First, teacher unions are not regarded highly. Consider this post where a “balanced” perspective on teacher unions as “change agents” or “opposition” is considered. The union as “change agent” comprised a handful of paragraphs from a DC public school teacher Eric Bethel (who has since been appointed as a principal in the district) about the union getting on board with “reform” – reforms that just happen to be those approved of by Michelle Rhee. The second piece goes on at some length and is written by Hoover Institute Fellow Terry Moe who co-wrote the Bible of school choice “Politics, Markets and America’s Schools” and his basic point is that strong teacher unions will always prevent schools from changing. His solution? Make unions far less powerful. This is a Students First presentation of “balance” on a key issue.
So Mr. Mehlhorn, prepped with Michelle Rhee’s culture of anti-unionism, ought to have a sophisticated argument as to why eliminating tenure will make schools better, not by merely removing the percentage of teachers who ought not be teaching at more rapid pace, but by addressing one of the most complicated problems actually facing schools: retaining teachers at our schools with the highest levels of poverty and disadvantage.
His best stab at it? A cost-benefit calculation on salary that I have never heard one teacher make in my entire 21 year long career in secondary and higher education.
The problem for Mr. Mehlhorn and for the argument he tried to represent is that this is a matter that ought to be quantifiable. There ought to be a way for him to say that there are “X” “bad teachers” in the classroom who are protected by tenure laws. Then he ought to be able to certify what percentage of X are effectively irremovable and tie that to their tenured status and no other reason such as ineffective school and district leadership. Then he should be able to demonstrate that the harm inflicted upon 3,000,000 – X teachers and their classrooms and students will not be GREATER than the harm reduced by making it easier to remove X teachers.
Of course, he cannot do that or, at the very least, has not been given arguments to make those points. While Mr. Mehlhorn proved very adept at dropping the names of researchers used by the plaintiffs in the Vergara lawsuit to claim that there is a specific monetary cost for students who have a “grossly ineffective teacher”, he was completely unable to or unwilling to address that the research is highly controversial, rests on exceptionally shaky assumptions, and is not widely accepted in its current form. Additionally, the premise for going after tenure protections of ALL teachers summarily dismisses any other fix for the the assumed problem. Michelle Rhee, Campbell Brown and Dmitri Mehlhorn do not advocate enhancing the process by which teachers are moved from probationary status. They do not advocate for making principals more effective at their jobs (except for making it easier for them to fire teachers), and, in fact, advocate for making principals MORE adversarial to their faculty and undermining their ability to be instructional leaders. They do not advocate for reforms to the procedures by which a school district can demonstrate cause for removing a teacher who is no longer probationary (something that already happened in New York State). They advocate that every teacher become an at will employee. Teachers have taken to Twitter with the hashtag #WithoutTenure to explain what the consequences of that would be for their ability to robustly advocate for their students’ needs, and this piece by Peter Greene makes it clear what could happen in schools where teachers lose their current job protections.
Further, from what we know about why teachers leave positions, resentment of other teachers making more money per hour does not enter the equation. Richard Ingersoll of the University of Pennsylvania notes that teacher turnover is a significant phenomenon which drives a large proportion of the annual demand for new teachers. While Dr. Ingersoll’s research notes that teachers at small, private schools actually turn over at rates that far exceed those elsewhere, he compared high poverty, urban teachers’ reasons for leaving with those of small, private schools and found that school management factors contributed highly to both populations’ reasons for leaving. Small, private school teachers cited low salary overwhelmingly as a factor along with dissatisfaction with school administration, a concern shared with teachers in urban, high poverty schools who also listed lack of administrative support, low student motivation, discipline problems and lack of decision making support as roughly equal reasons for leaving.
Susan Moore Johnson of Harvard’s Project on the Next Generation of Teachers, affirms that the teaching environment has a large impact on teacher satisfaction, fully independent of the demographic contexts of the school and more closely related to the social conditions of working in the school. Their research further states that a positive school climate can impact student learning, again independent of the school’s demographics. Dr. Moore Johnson’s work also notes that once school environment factors are taken into account no student demographic factors remain as significant indicators of why teachers leave. Factors that contribute to teacher dissatisfaction with working conditions include principal leadership that is effective, fair, provides instructional leadership and practices inclusive decision making. Teachers also gauge the quality of their collegial relationships and issues regarding how student discipline is supported in these decisions.
Dr. Moore Johnson notes that the good news in this is that “unlike demographic characteristics of students, working conditions can be changed.” To be fair to Mr. Mehlhorn and his ilk, one COULD make an argument that eliminating tenure will help “change” working conditions by making it simpler to weed out bad teachers — but you would have to push really hard to make that your first priority or even on the top ten list. Improving principal leadership and building more structures for effective and productive collaboration among teachers should be near the top of such a list because 1) effective principals seek ways to meaningfully evaluate and support teachers and 2) a collaborative environment would more easily identify those teachers who do not want to improve and make a reasonable case of removal for cause under existing rules. It would also have the benefit of aiming to support and improve everyone at a school not merely to exact punitive costs upon individual teachers and administrators, and it would preserve the ability of teachers to advocate on behalf of their students in cases that require a more adversarial stance.
But the anti-tenure campaign does not push meaningfully for any reforms to school climates. In fact, they advocate making the climate worse by suggesting that all teachers must lose the “for cause” protections of tenure in order to weed out the minority of teachers deemed ineffective. There is nothing in the current lawsuits that will improve what it is like to work in schools that suffer high rates of teacher attrition, and, thus, nothing in those suits that will help retain effective teachers for students in urban poverty. Campbell Brown makes only token and meaningless statements about “raising up” the teaching profession, and she certainly is not suing any state legislatures for not instituting reforms that strengthen principal leadership or teachers’ collegiality.
At the end of the discussion, therefore, the effort to sue away tenure is not about making schools better directly through “removing ineffective teachers.” It is about greatly weakening teacher unions, as argued by Terry Moe in the Students First blog post linked above. People like Moe, Rhee, Brown and Mehlhorn clearly believe that those unions need to be broken first, and they ASSUME that schools will improve for students when teachers are more free to be treated like employees at Walmart. That belief may be sincerely held, but they should stop obfuscating on it and admit that their primary goal is to bust one of the last large, middle class unionized workforces left in America.
Mr. Mehlhorn, by the way, stopped following me on Twitter.