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A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to a News Show Tenure Lawsuit Discussion…

…intelligent and informed debate!

Melissa Harris-Perry, professor of politics and international affairs at Wake Forest University, has a Sunday morning show on MSNBC, and on August 10th, she had a panel on to discuss the recent attempts to bring California’s Vergara v. California lawsuit against teacher tenure protections to New York State.  Her panelists were Amy Goodman of Democracy Now, Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, Dana Goldstein, author and reporter for The Marshall Project and Derrell Bradford of the NY Campaign for Achievement Now and formerly of Governor Christie’s Educator Effectiveness Task Force.

From the opening minute of the first segment, it is obvious that Ms. Harris-Perry was not going to let Mr. Bradford get away with Campbell Brown like talking points unchallenged, and the rest of the panel was certainly not inclined to back off either.  Ms. Harris-Perry quotes directly from the language of the challenged New York statutes in response to the standard claim that teachers with tenure have permanent lifetime employment.  Mr. Bradford tried to sneak in another favored talking point of the anti-tenure campaign by claiming a time frame of nearly 3 years to remove a teacher under the law, but Ms. Weingarten immediately pushed back with the changes that have already been made to the law and the current, more accurate figure nearly 1/6th the time of Mr. Bradford’s assertion.

For once, a media discussion on these lawsuits was not a monologue, and the moderator of the discussion, while not claiming the “neutral” ground so cherished by many figures, did something, in my opinion, more important.  She did not set up conditions of “false equivalency” where someone like Mr. Bradford, whose own history in education reform and willingness to try to frame his advocacy of privatization of schools in civil rights terminology is neither upfront nor honest, is treated as having equivalent facts on his side even if he is prevaricating on most of them.  While this is not “balanced” it is absolutely fair, and it is the result of the host having actually studied the issues before moderating her panel and clearly noting that Mr. Bradford’s side of the debate is routinely distorting the truth.  Would that we could have that more frequently.

The entire segment runs close to 30 minutes, but is worth it:

Melissa Harris-Perry August 10th, 2014 Part 1

Melissa Harris-Perry August 10th, 2014 Part 2

Melissa Harris-Perry August 10th, 2014 Part 3

Melissa Harris-Perry August 10th, 2014 Part 4
One notable exchange happens at 5 minutes, 44 seconds in the second segment, where Randi Weingarten says:

RW: How do we attract and retain well-prepared great teachers for our most needy kids? Because what’s happening is just a few miles down the road in Westchester we’re not talking about this issue but in Rochester we are and we are in the places where there’s intense, real social-economic issues.  So why are we not having that conversation? That is the conversation we need to have. (Turns to Derrell Bradford) And what I would argue is that you need to give people better working conditions. We need to make sure that they don’t feel that they are going to be fired if they try something new or if they stand up for their special needs kids.  That’s what we’d like to do.

Pay special attention to Mr. Bradford’s body and facial language during this.  Twice, near the end, he purses his lips and looks down very briefly.  I am possibly reading too much in this, but to my eyes he is distinctly uncomfortable at not being able to simply say what he wants without challenge.  Understandable, as Ms. Weingarten just cornered him repeating a talking point based on out of date data.

It happens again in segment 4, when Mr. Bradford lengthily admits that there is no “one thing” that is driving the achievement gaps and states that inequality is “hardwired” into the system.  He does not explain how eliminating tenure assists that in any way, and he even makes an ironic statement to my ears that we attract the least experienced teachers to the most needy kids — when his stance on tenure would do absolutely nothing to improve that situation and could actually make it worse.  Ms. Goldstein then notes that we have reduced the achievement gap in the past when we “aggressively” integrated schools, and Ms. Weingarten again pushes on the need for resources and support instead of attack.  I’d invite any reader to look at the body language of Mr. Bradford here as well.  When Ms. Weingarten talks about the outcomes of the NYC Chancellor’s District and the proven value of attracting and retaining great teachers and giving them and their students resources.  Mr. Bradford looked, to me, like he was trying to figure out a way to sidestep that or dismiss it when time ran out.

When the echo chamber is filled with more voices and when the host has studied the issue, the corporate reform advocates have a much harder time of it.

I want more.


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Going After Tenure — Missing the Real Needs of Students

There is a character in the 1984 movie “Teachers” starring Nick Nolte and JoBeth Williams, who is unaffectionately named “Ditto,” played by Royal Dano.  Ditto is old, orderly, mind-numbingly boring and tenured.  His “teaching” consists of running off enough mimeographs each day for all of his students, sitting in the back of his classroom where he can see all of his students in rows, having his ditto sheets distributed, reading his newspaper and having students turn in the dittos when the bell rings.  So rigid is his routine that the students can do the entire process without him, a premise tested when he suffers a fatal coronary in class and none of his students notice.

The movie’s satirical take on jaded teachers strikes a humorous note by playing off of a lot of stereotypes and some common experiences.  Many people, sadly, have experienced classrooms with teachers either out of their depth or beyond their professionally useful life.  In a system of 60 million students and over 3 million practitioners, quality cannot possibly be uniformly excellent.  The situation in the movie also speaks to a number of popular if misinformed stereotypes, the most persistent of which is that once granted tenure, a teacher has no need to remain vigorous or skilled or even all that present in the classroom.

This movie must keep Michelle Rhee, Campbell Brown and Whoopi Goldberg up at night.

The argument against teacher tenure goes approximately like this:  1) children need a quality education in order to have opportunity to succeed 2) a quality education requires quality teachers 3) teachers of low quality are concentrated in schools that serve poor and minority students 4) poor and minority students do not do well on examinations because of those low quality teachers 5) doing poorly on standardized examinations is the main blocker of opportunity for poor and minority students  6) some low quality teachers have tenure 7) firing low quality teachers with tenure takes too much work 8) we need to do away with tenure so we can fire low quality teachers and replace them 9) replacing low quality teachers will raise test scores and improve opportunity 10)  if you don’t want to do that you care more about low quality teachers than you care about children.

The problem, however, is that a lot of that is hooey.

Assume, for example, that tenure is a problem, as reformers do, because it keeps low quality teachers in teaching for too long. This, however, is as much a function of administrators not doing their evaluative job as it is the due process guaranteed by tenure.  Further, if it was tenure that was the actual problem, we would expect to see negative impacts on the performance of those districts that have the largest portion of their faculty with tenure – suburban districts with the most experienced faculties compared with urban districts that have extremely high turn over rates.  This, however, is not the case.  When the PISA examination scores that give our political class such concerns are broken out by the poverty characteristics of communities, we see startling effects:

U.S. Reading Literacy Scores By Poverty Characteristics

David Berliner writes:

On each of these three international tests, U.S. public school students did terrific in the schools where poverty rates of families were under 10%, or even when poverty rates were between 10% and 25%. But we did not do well in schools where poverty rates were above 50%, and we did even worse on those tests in schools where poverty rates for families were in the 75-100% bracket.

So students who do the worst on international examinations are those who live in high poverty districts which, because of income segregation, tend to be urban and rural.  Despite the movie “Teachers”, those students do not attend schools that are full of dusty, burnt out teachers who are waiting to die at their desks.  Quite the contrary.  They are far more likely to attend schools with extremely high concentrations of novices.

Helen F. Ladd, professor of economics and public policy at Duke University, notes that today, over a quarter of the teacher workforce has less than five years of experience teaching.  This is a problem because experience actually matters in teacher effectiveness, and research supports the need for teachers who have made it through the steep learning curve of their early years in the classroom.  Teachers improve in effectiveness measures dramatically in this period, and while their gains level off, a workforce that is perpetually inexperienced is a workforce that is not optimally effective.  According to research from the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey Institute, districts that are urban, high poverty, high minority and rural are far more likely to have high numbers of first year teachers than suburban counterparts. Ten percent of the districts in their sample had a “critical value” of more than 17% novices teaching classes, which was double the overall sample average and is correlated with other effects such as teachers leaving the profession altogether.

It is crucial to pause for a moment and consider the contradiction here.  Our lowest performing schools are not plagued with teachers who are sit behind the mythic protections of tenure and do not do their jobs so much as they are burdened with a continually changing faculty who begin a steep learning period but who cannot be guaranteed to stay past five years.  Further, such schools are burdened with the attendant costs that come with high turnover rates such as recruitment and training, giving fewer resources for other forms of support.  So the attack on tenure has it backwards because the real problem for staff at our most struggling schools centers on too little retention of teachers.

Nicole S. Simon and Susan Moore Johnson of Harvard’s Project on the Next Generation of Teachers note many of the new teachers who leave working in urban and high poverty districts do so because of working conditions in such schools rather than any student demographic.  In fact, negative school climate and organizational factors are such powerful predictors of why teachers leave schools, that no student based factors remain statistically significant.  “Positive, trusting, working relationships” and “a strong sense of collective responsibility” prove to be strong predictors of schools that manage to retain teachers over schools with nearly identical student demographics.  Considering all of this, if reform advocates TRULY wanted to assist children who suffer because of bad teachers, they ought to advocate for the following:

1) Ways to support administrators doing their evaluative role seriously. As has been pointed out from numerous sources, tenure grants teachers due process in any effort to remove them from the classroom.  Administrators need to do this function, and they need to do it carefully and well, but that role is frequently an add on to an already extremely time consuming job.  Principals can be supported in this function by robust peer observation and mentoring systems, but this would require that teachers also have additional time needed to mentor and evaluate each other.

2) Improve teachers’ working conditions. High poverty schools are notoriously difficult places to work, but not for the stereotypical reasons people presume.  Teachers who seek out such careers are often highly motivated by a desire to do good, but face overcrowded classrooms, decaying facilities and inadequate resources.  Further, lack of planning and collaboration time isolates teachers and makes it more difficult to access the expertise and insights of their peers.  The saying that a teacher’s working conditions are a student’s learning conditions needs to be seriously considered.

3) Remove the Sword of Damocles. We know that high poverty correlates to low test scores, and we know that the reasons are far more complicated than reformers’ preferred explanation of blaming teachers for everything.  But the past 15 years of education reform have constantly increased the pressure on schools and teachers to raise test scores without our nation taking the least collective responsibility for alleviating our appalling child poverty rate.  We should still test, but for diagnostic and triage purposes rather than to increasingly motivate skilled teachers to flee districts where they are professionally threatened without adequate support.

4) Discuss poverty and its effects of children.  Education reformers have been consistently silent on this front except to accuse people who want to talk about it of “making excuses” for bad teachers.  That is dishonest of them.  Over 20% of our children come to school from homes that are in poverty with the negative impact on resources and development that comes from that.  Many of our urban schools have student populations that top 75% in poverty.  As David Berliner notes, we are obsessed with “one-way accountability” for schools and teachers to change this without requiring anything more of ourselves as a society.

5) Recognize that tenure protects teachers who rock the boat on behalf of their students.  The due process rights with tenure may make removing a bad teacher more complicated than simply saying “you’re fired”, but it comes with important freedoms that teachers need.  Many teachers have pointed out that tenure protects teachers from being threatened with capricious or political removal when they advocate for their students’ needs or call out bad behavior that harms students.  John Goodlad called this “good stewardship” and it is a vital characteristic that we want to encourage among teachers.

Those attacking tenure seek to take that away from all teachers.  That’s why I oppose them.



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