April 6, 2009

One teacher's response to Ron Matus's article

There's been lots of coverage of the Ron Matus story March 29 on firing teachers in Florida, but there's been no follow-up online about the letters to the editor that were printed April 4 (last Saturday), and at this point, I can't even find the letters on the Times website. But I think one needs to be highlighted, because it's from a teacher and makes a few important points:

The premise in the article [by Ron Matus] is that tenure makes it too hard to fire bad teachers, yet the few examples given don't demonstrate that, but rather, simply show inaction on the part of school districts.

If the writer had found districts attempting, but failing, to fire bad teachers, he might have a point. I see this drive to get rid of tenure as an effort to instill fear in teachers and keep them silent. Teachers living in fear for their jobs can't afford to speak out.

Getting rid of tenure (read: due process) might make it easier to dismiss the rare teacher who shouldn't be in the profession. It would also make it easier to dismiss the good teachers--even the great ones, because the great ones are the ones who stand up and advocate for their students, themselves and their profession, and in doing so sometimes step on toes...

John Perry, Tampa

I've known John Perry for a number of years; he's an activist in the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association, but I don't think he was when we met. I think Perry's wrong about the order of magnitude of "the rare teacher who shouldn't be in the profession" (emphasis added), but since a good portion of teachers leave the field within a few years, I don't think that there's a shortage of ways to discourage teachers from continuing.

More broadly speaking, I think more sophisticated critics of teachers and their unions understand that administrators are the ones who fail to fire teachers, but Perry's other point is important: while K-12 teachers do not have academic freedom in the same sense that higher-ed faculty do, they're the ones I often hear a certain style of reformers praise for precisely the type of dissent that would be in danger without due process.

So let me phrase the question in the following way: does anyone want administrators to be able to fire teachers summarily after teachers do the following?

  • Refuse to change a grade to let an athlete play.
  • Complain that the new math textbook series is confusing to new teachers and likely to lead to poor teaching.
  • Sign and date a request that a child be evaluated for eligibility for special education services.
  • Complain when girls have fewer opportunities than boys.*

As far as I am aware, the only case above for which K-12 teachers are clealry protected when they speak out is the last one, and that's because of a Supreme Court decision stemming from Title IX; I suspect that the are likely to be protected if they push for assessment to gain services for a child, but I don't know of anything as clear-cut as a Supreme Court decision. And I don't see people who are in favor of "tenure reform" rushing to replace workplace due process with greater whistleblower protections.

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Tags: teacher quality, teachers unions, tenure
Posted in Education policy on April 6, 2009 10:01 PM |