Teacher tenure needed more than ever

Teacher tenure is depicted by critics as the villain in attempts to improve education.  Yes, there have been abuses, but there’s another side of the story that deserves telling (“Dear Mr. Chancellor, please stop the grade-fixing in NYC schools,” New York Post, Apr. 14).  The latest example is the wholesale grade-fixing fraud orchestrated by the principal at John Dewey High School in the New York City system.

When Kathleen Elvin became principal in 2012, she launched “Project Graduation” in an attempt to boost the graduation rate.  Aside from shortchanging students through credit recovery courses, she retaliated against unwilling teachers by giving them the lowest rating of “ineffective.” Two teachers blew the whistle, which eventually led to an audit by the state Education Department confirming the fraud.  But the Board of Regents has never held any guilty party accountable.

Here’s my point: If the teachers who exposed this scandal did not possess tenure, they would have been fired under some trumped-up charge. Even with the existence of tenure, teachers are still harassed by abusive principals.  But at least they still have their jobs.  Exemplary reputations do not protect teachers from such abuse.  What puzzles me in this case is that the two whistleblowers say the United Federation of Teachers failed to support their cause.  Bully principals are nothing new.  I’ve written before about the situation several years ago at Brooklyn Tech, an elite high school in the New York City system.

If tenure were abolished, how many teachers would be willing to expose similar scandals?  Tenure merely guarantees that teachers receive due-process protection.  It’s important to keep that in mind as pressure mounts to eliminate it or gut it.  As Sir William Blackstone wrote in 1765: “Better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.”

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4 Replies to “Teacher tenure needed more than ever”

  1. Completely agree re tenure or just-cause/due-process, which is the more precise term — “tenure” to most people means the protection that college professors have which is usually somewhat broader than the just-cause/due-process protection that K-12 teachers have.

    After spending a few minutes doing internet research, I found several references to the grade-fixing scandal + to how the principal kept her employment with the NYC school system (when it looks like the school system may have intentionally lost the hearing when the principal appealed her discharge). But, I did not find references to the whistle-blowers being rated “ineffective” or to the UFT not supporting the whistle-blowers’ challenge to the ratings.

    Some teacher union contracts have provisions that limit the circumstances in which the union can challenge a teacher’s evaluation — although the union can still usually challenge adverse action based on an evaluation with limits on what challenges the union can then make to the underlying evaluation. Perhaps the UFT contract contains such a provision; I have no idea. Unions sometimes agree to such provisions in exchange for relatively large salary increases, bonuses or merit-pay schemes. In these cases, there is often some kind of internal check on a principal’s ability to totally shaft a good but disfavored teacher — i.e., a limit on the weight to be given to the principal’s rating in the total evaluation or the requirement that someone outside the principal’s authority contribute to the evaluation. As a practical matter, it is often difficult for the union to effectively challenge a principal’s evaluation where the evaluation is based entirely on the principal’s observations of the teacher — what evidence can the union introduce to show that the principal’s observation-based eval was unfair? It will come down to the teacher’s word against the principal’s word. If the principal has stacked the teacher’s classes with screw-up students, it’s likely that the principal can accurately say that the teacher failed to exercise adequate classroom management. If the principal has stacked the teacher’s classes with students performing at widely differing grade levels, the principal can accurately say that the teacher’s lesson plan was too hard or too easy for many students or that the teacher failed to differentiate instruction to match student grade levels. Notwithstanding these problems, a teacher is better protected with a union and just-cause/due-process protection, but the principal still has too much unchecked power in most school systems.


  2. Labor Lawyer: Principals can also harass teachers they don’t like for one reason or another without violating the language of the contract. For example, years ago The New York Times published several articles about the bullying principal at Brooklyn Tech, an elite high school in the New York City system. It got so bad that the affected teachers asked to be transferred. If teachers with exemplary records are suddenly given ineffective ratings, they have a better chance of proving that they were singled out by the abusive principal.

    Reformers want to eliminate teachers’ unions. And slowly but surely they are winning. Almost all charter schools, which are growing rapidly, are union-free. State legislatures are favoring these charters, which means unions will have the fight of their lives on their hands.


  3. First – teacher unions are necessary
    Second – tenure is necessary
    From personal experience, one issue that has not been discussed is who is evaluating who?
    As a former math teacher, I have been evaluated by math department heads and also by administrators without any math background. The evaluations of non-math administrators were a joke. At the pre-conference I had to explain what I was going to do and explain again at the post-conference.
    Teaching low-level or “bad” students were never a problem in schools with discipline. I really enjoyed teaching these students to encourage them they can do better.


    1. John: Evaluators with no background in the subject being observed are all too common. A teacher could easily fool such evaluators as long as the class was quiet. What about the content being taught? The obsession with process shortchanges students. I was never evaluated by a principal who was certified in English. As a result, I doubt they understood what I was trying to teach.


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