School’s Out

About five years ago, I was chatting with a friend of mine who was and is a tenured New York City public schools teacher. I asked her,” Have you ever worked with anyone who just wasn’t a very good teacher?” To my astonishment she replied, “No!”  Expressing my surprise I then told her that, “It must be amazing to work in a profession in which EVERYONE is good at their jobs. Heck, I worked in finance for 20 years and even at Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan, every year some people get terminated due to poor performance.” I am still waiting for her response to that comment.

This week California Superior Court judge Rolf M. Treu gave my friend and many of her fellow teachers an answer. Judge Rolf ruled in Vergara v. California that California laws governing teacher tenure were unconstitutional. Furthermore, he stated that the results of these laws were unconscionable and perhaps most importantly he drew a bright red line that connects tenure rules to discrimination against low income and minority students stating that the rules create an environment in which the weakest teachers migrate to the poorest schools. While this case is likely to be appealed, it is more likely to serve as a template to overturn tenure rules across America.

Before I extol this ruling, I feel the need to make two things “Perfectly Clear”. First I am the product of a union household. I strongly believe that labor MUST be organized to offset the power of large employers. This is especially true for wage negotiations. Secondly, I have the utmost respect for teachers. For the most part, they do an excellent job educating our children in a country where the role of education has grown and evolved in the past generation. Teachers are not just expected to teach reading and writing but in many cases they have to teach social skills and manage children who get little or no guidance at home. For a good teacher this is anything but a 9 to 3 job.

While the need for unions remains high, the reasons for tenure are no longer very clear.  During the McCarthy era people across many professions lost their jobs due to their beliefs. Since that time not only have Americans (well most Americans) become more tolerant but there has been significant legislation that prevents discrimination on the grounds of race or gender. These additional protections in many cases overlap with tenure, mitigating the need for the latter.

A couple of years ago I realized that my own views on teachers unions and on tenure in particular were evolving. I was no longer dogmatic in my support of both. Now, keep in mind that in many ways I am a typical union supporter. From New York, a Democrat/Liberal, and Jewish, people like me have been supporters of unions for generations. But something was wrong in this case. As evidenced by my conversation with my friend, there was a complete lack of acceptance of any fallibility on the part of teachers and their union.

So now, the tide is shifting and quickly. Many former supporters of teacher unions are no longer so. Even more challenging is many of these “flippers” are highly educated, wealthy, urban individuals, who won’t hesitate to spend their money and influence to force a change in the rules. The California case was financed by an organization called Students Matter which was in large part funded by Silicon Valley entrepreneur David Welsh. Many of his fellow entrepreneurs as well as Hedge Fund managers, Private Equity managers, and other successful individuals want improvement in education and see teacher quality along with length of instruction time as the most important levers to achieve that. In short there is now a developing but significant counterbalance to teacher unions power and influence.

Now, I don’t believe that the correct answer is to eliminate teacher tenure or teacher unions. What I do believe is that all parties need a common sense, procedural justice based set of rules that govern teacher hiring, promotion, compensation, and ultimately retention. If were are to have the education system that we ALL want, then we must have all participants involved in creating a process in which we hire, evaluate, and retain the best teachers that we can get.

It will be very important to have a balanced evaluation process that considers not only standardized test scores, but also on other measures including following years student performance. content design skills, and classroom evaluations. This should support a well defined set of rules that will let everyone know how to get promoted or terminated.

Almost every teacher I know is passionate about educating children.  I would think that good teachers would want to be surrounded by other individuals who are as committed and passionate as they are.

It is time for teachers to move their unions to act for change. Although the California ruling weakens the negotiating stance of teacher unions, it is likely that the legal environment will become more rather than less difficult. Acting now, teachers can lead the move to a set of standards that work for ALL constituents in our education system. Or, they can let the justice system make them individual contractors who have few rights and little security.

I don’t want that for my children.

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