The other day I read an article entitled “Taking on Teacher Tenure” by Haley Sweetland Edwards in the Time, November 3, 2014. The gist of the article was Vergara v. California, the court ruling that struck down decades-old California laws that had guaranteed California teachers permanent tenure and other job-related protections. Plaintiffs in the case argued that students stuck in classrooms with poorly performing teachers are denied the “right to a basic quality of educational opportunity”. Since most students cited to be attending bad schools and bad classrooms were Latino and Blacks, the case took a civil rights twist, arguing that those students were denied equal protection before the law.
The plaintiff, under the umbrella of Students Matter had the strong backing of David Welch, a 53-year old Silicon valley businessman and engineer, according to the Time article. Given the obsession with numbers in the Silicon valley, the complaint included a tabulation of income loss to students in classrooms with poor performing teachers. For instance, that bad teachers undermine lifetime earnings of their students by$250,000 per classroom. Basically, tenure equals bad teachers; bad teachers create bad students; bad students get poor future earnings. The trial court judge agreed with the plaintiff!
Bye bye bad teachers in California! All schools will now have good teachers, producing excellent performing students, and future big money-makers, right? I find the argument simplistic, and Huckin Filarious! It perpetuates the convenient blame-game which posits that students successes or failures in-school and after-school depends primarily on their teachers. Teachers should be the ‘fix-all magicians’ for their students’ in-class learning and post-classroom performance. Teachers should excel at teaching, educating, babysitting, disciplining, guaranteeing safety, security and sound health in the classroom, and imparting exemporary leadership and management skills to their children. The responsibility of creating a ‘successful student’ is hardly proportionately distributed among all parties involved in the students academics -parents or guardians, school administration, the state and federal government and the students themselves.
In this case, as well as existing policy and public condemnation of teachers, the assumption is that those students performing poorly are all receiving poor quality of education from their teachers. Not that they might be bad students, per se because they are not interest, engaged or capable of participating fully in their classroom experiences and excellent learning. Where is the evidence that all students who go through excellent teachers and schools excel in their academics, and/or have highly rewarding post-graduation careers? Shouldn’t all students from the nations top performing schools and colleges, that tend to attract higher performing teachers have six-figure plus earnings post-graduation?
Undoubtedly, within the same classrooms of bad teachers are students who excellent in their academics and earn high incomes post-graduation. Others excel in their classrooms but do not necessarily enjoy high earnings post-graduations, while others who do not excel in academics may earn highly post-graduation.
Not the same vigor goes into inquiring how “on-the-job wellbeing” affects teachers’ attitude toward teaching, and creating an excellent learning environment for their students. If, as Vertaga v California argues that, good teachers produce excellent student performance with higher financial earnings in the future, shouldn’t it follow that improving teachers’ welfare would enhance their performance and their students classroom experience?
Evidence suggests that the world’s best schools in Finland, Singapore and South Korea seek out teachers from the top third of each graduating class, unlike in the U.S. where close to half of teachers come from the bottom third of the graduating classes (Editor’s Desk, Time, November 3, 2014, 2). An investment in teachers would mean an investment in a good classroom experience and a well-trained student. This requires an teaching environment where teachers are valued, and their needs and welfare respected as much as those of their students. Teacher training is just the first step to ‘moulding’ a good teacher, that should be coupled with classroom support with teaching aides, technologies, school counselors, support staff, other school departments and out of school family support for the students learning.
Instead, what the Vertaga ruling does is to escalates job insecurity within the teaching profession, already undermined by poor remuneration, budget cuts and politicking. Partly why tenure was introduced, to protect teachers from politicking and short-sightedness about the teaching responsibilities from outside interest groups.
Even without taking away tenure, teachers are already stretched working under unfavorable conditions that have them question whether to stay in the teaching profession and for how long! In our school districts, public school teachers are no longer assured of salaries during the summer when they are not actively teaching in the classroom, even though they are technically active developing creative teaching aides for the next school year. Never mind that they did not request for or have any input in the three-month long institutionalized vacation on the school calendar by national school planners. The intentions are laudable, to give teachers and students a much deserved break from school activities, enabling full rejuvenation by the next academic year. Instead of resting in the summer, teachers are busy scrounging around for a decent living, taking on seasonal short-term employment as bagging groceries at departmental stores.
Blaming teachers for students’ future earnings is in my opinion insane and mind boggling! How many PhDs, which is the highest display of academic intellect and attainment earn incomes equivalent to what they put into their education? Instead of escalating job insecurity, and chasing away those who entered the teaching profession as their passion and first choice, why not invest in strategies to improve teachers classroom performance and build their confidence in the classroom? Why attack the entire teaching profession with legal sanctions, because of a section of poorly performing teachers?
Realistically, teachers, especially in public schools are among [if not] the most hardworking public workers and a key asset to national development, yet lowly remunerated and under-appreciated. Policy makers, legislators passing legislation, litigators and judges making all sorts of pronouncements against the teaching profession are comfortably seated on their ‘high horses’ of big paychecks and big perks, while throwing teachers further under the bus. It is an easy and fancy privilege to judge a teacher’s performance in the classroom, if you have never been in front of a public classroom. It is also disingenuous to pretend that all students ‘churned’ out of classrooms with excellent performing teachers go on to earn great incomes and perform excellent in the post-graduation employment.
I support every effort to improve the teaching and learning experience proportionately across all public schools irrespective of zip code, but not at the expense of teacher’s job security and protection. Work with those teachers not performing great, rather than a uniform onslaught on the entire profession. Teaching in public school requires the academic credentials at least a Bachelor’s degree for a teaching position, and continued enhancement and refresher courses. More importantly, the learning about teaching comes from the classroom experience, helping to further equip a teacher with creativity, adaptability, thoughtful planning and resourcefulness — much of which is learned from cumulative classroom experience.