Public school teachers nationwide have their eyes on Washington. The reason is not the upcoming inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama. It is the bread-and-butter issue of tenure. The battle is being waged between Michelle Rhee, the tough chancellor of the Washington public schools, and the 4,000-member Washington Teachers' Union.
Implemented in the early 20th century, tenure was intended to protect teachers against the influences of patronage and the whims and prejudices of school boards, politicians and religious leaders.
I have been tenured twice, at a community college and at a state university. In each instance, I enjoyed job security and academic freedom, the most significant reason for tenure in higher education. I had incompetent tenured colleagues at each school who did not deserve it, who should have been fired. One literature professor had not published a paper in years, and he rarely read his students' papers with due diligence. His students complained openly and privately. He was biding time for retirement.
Incompetent teachers also are in our public schools. During the formative years, when students learn at their best, only the best teachers should be in our classrooms. And here is where I believe that tenure for college professors and public school teachers should be different. While college professors deal with adults who must be self-starters, schoolchildren rely primarily on their teachers for what they learn. Their teachers, therefore, should be knowledgeable and skilled. As such, these teachers should be evaluated and certified regularly. When they prove to be incompetent or otherwise ineffective, they should not be tenured.
Rhee, who was hired as chancellor 17 months ago to improve one of the nation's worst public school systems, seems to understand this. Already, she has gotten rid of 216 teachers who did not have licenses and has given pink slips to hundreds of main office employees, paraprofessionals and principals.
George Parker, president of the Washington Teachers' Union, said that Rhee and others are wrong to make teachers the scapegoat for the district's problems and that she cannot fire her way into a successful school system. He cited other problems that plague Washington's schools, which have 46,000 students. Most notably, the district has had seven superintendents during the last 10 years, creating chaos at all levels. Few top administrators have paid much attention to high rates of truancy, teachers feel abandoned in trying to discipline students and parental involvement is abysmal. Parker said that he wants Rhee to be fair as she moves forward.
The chancellor, who has wide public support, said she does not intend to get rid of tenure altogether. In a plan outlined to the union last summer, she offered teachers two compensation options that would greatly increase salaries. In return, the teachers must give up tenure for a year and agree to be re-evaluated for renewal at the end of that time.
If the principals do not renew their tenure, and depending on the plan they choose, some teachers will be dismissed. Others will lose seniority rights that give them a leg up on more junior teachers if their schools are closed or reorganized.
Rhee promises to finance the initiative with money donated by foundations. Together, the foundations have pledged $75-million a year for five years. In addition to questioning the motives of the private foundations, teachers and their union representatives wonder what will happen to Rhee's plan if the economy continues to go south. Who would pay the higher salaries? This is a good question.
Rhee has grown impatient with the union, announcing recently that the district intends to move ahead with a plan that gives principals the authority to evaluate teachers through a 90-day program. At the end of the evaluation period, principals could dismiss teachers, even tenured ones, considered to be ineffective.
Union leaders, of course, have vowed to protect teachers' jobs. Meanwhile, other chancellors and superintendents and politicians nationwide have had little success abolishing tenure or modifying it significantly.
Most education professors and those who teach the history of education argue that tenure is as necessary as ever. Jeffrey Mirel, for example, a professor of history and education at the University of Michigan, told the Times that "without tenure, teachers can still face arbitrary firing because of religious views, or simply because of the highly politicized nature of American society."
A surprisingly large number of Washington's teachers, however, are willing to try Rhee's plan, believing that good teachers will prosper and the bad ones will be dismissed, as they should be, under the weight of their incompetence.
Teachers everywhere are monitoring the tussle in Washington. What happens there will affect movements nationwide. Perhaps the time has come to deny tenure to incompetent public school teachers.