Traditionalists will do anything to defend tenure laws giving teachers near-lifetime employment, even amid evidence that all it does is protect laggard and criminally abusive teachers from being sacked from classrooms. Especially now that the California Superior Court ruling in Vergara v. California, which effectively ends tenure, is now leading school reformers and Parent Power activists to file similar suits in the rest of the nation. Especially for the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, upon which their influence over education policy — and the grand bargain they struck decades ago with classroom teachers that fills their coffers to the tune of $708 million a year — is partly based, any effort to end near-lifetime employment is anathema.
So it isn’t shocking that Arthur Goldstein, an AFT union boss at Francis Lewis High School in New York City, took to the pages of the Daily News to defend tenure. But unlike his fellow NEA and AFT leaders, he didn’t bother to make the usual argument that tenure merely ensures that teachers are kept from being unfairly fired. This time, Goldstein offered a novel, yet absurd, defense of near-lifetime employment: That it allows teachers to be whistleblowers and defenders of kids in schools. The problem? The evidence doesn’t support his case.
Pointing to his own personal efforts as a teacher to help out English Language Learner students who had long been neglected by the Big Apple district, Goldstein argues that near-lifetime employment allows for him to be a strong advocate for the kids in his care without fear of reprisals by craven school leaders. Goldstein also argues that denying tenure can force teachers working hard for kids to be forced out of schools. Writes Goldstein: “[Teaching] is a tough job, and despite what you read in the papers, it also entails advocating for our students, your kids, whether or not the administration is comfortable with it.”
Let’s say this: It’s admirable that Goldstein looks out for the kids in his care. This is what all teachers should be doing. On this, he deserves our thanks. But Goldstein’s claim that he could only do this because near-lifetime employment rules keep him from being fired isn’t exactly so. As a civil servant, he is already covered under New York State’s civil service law, which provides rather reasonable protections against unfair dismissals by laggard leaders. In fact, if the New York City Parent’s Union’s Vergara suit (along with that being filed by Campbell Brown’s Partnership for Educational Equality) succeed in eviscerating tenure, Big Apple teachers would still be protected from unfair firings. NEA and AFT leaders cannot argue legitimately why teachers should be granted protections that go far beyond those given to police officers and firefighters (who endanger their lives daily and are subjected to far harsher politicking), much less other civil servants and those of us in the private sector.
There’s also the reality that Goldstein would still be protected from unfair firings if traditional teacher evaluations — which use subjective observations from school leaders with their biases (and who may themselves lack the skills to teach effectively) — were replaced with objective evaluations that use both test score growth data , student surveys similar to the Tripod student perception survey developed by Harvard’s Ronald Ferguson and Cambridge Education, and evidence of teachers undertaking successful efforts to help their students succeed. By getting rid of observations that are going to be biased and subject teachers to the predations of principals looking for revenge, good and great teachers are protected from harm to their careers. [The same kind of strong evaluations can also rid districts of incompetent school leaders who attempt vengeance on those teachers.]
Meanwhile Goldstein fails to admit is that not every teacher does this for their children. In fact, near-lifetime employment rules, along with teacher dismissal policies and the greater concern of NEA and AFT affiliates for maintaining their influence at the cost of children’s futures, even criminally abusive teachers can keep their jobs.
Some 97 Big Apple teachers and other school employees were charged with sexual misconduct over the past five years. Yet, thanks to arbitrators who are essentially appointed by the AFT’ local — along with the union’s zealous defense of those teachers regardless of guilt — the likelihood of them ever getting fired can often be remote. One teacher, Steven Ostrin, who was found guilty of sexually harassing students and even propositioning one of his young women students for a striptease; yet he was only given a six-month suspension and a reprimand for what would be considered a firing offense in the private and even much of the public sector. [He would eventually retire.] Another criminally laggard instructor, Andrew Troup of Public School 96 in the Bronx, kept his job in spite of being found to have professed his infatuation to one of his students.
The obstacles to firing laggard and criminally abusive teachers can be even harder in other states. One of the reasons why the families of nine Southern California children behind Vergara pushed so hard is because of the Golden State’s dismissal rules, which requires a district to spend as long as seven years (and as much as $7 million) to go through a process that involves 10 different steps — including appeals before a three-person panel of the state’s Professional Competence commission that is largely slated in favor of NEA and AFT, and state courts — until a dismissal is either finalized or tossed out. Even then, incompetent teachers could keep their jobs. Two years ago, L.A. Unified was told that they had to keep special education teacher Matthew Kim on the job despite evidence of harassing female counterparts and propositioning his students. The byzantine steps, along with the length of time it takes to conduct a dismissal, and the high cost of doing so, explain why just 100 dismissal hearings were heard between 1996 and 2005, according to the Golden State’s Legislative Analyst’s Office.
Meanwhile there is little evidence that tenure gives teachers the freedom to cross the thin chalk line of silence that often protects laggards and criminally abusive teachers from damaging children, both academically and otherwise. This was clear in the Los Angeles Unified School District, where former teacher Mark Berndt was allowed to engage in at least 21 acts of what prosecutors call “lewd conduct” against children at Miramonte Elementary School over the course of his three-decade-long career. Not only did few teachers at Miramonte inform on Berndt, they even remained silent about the alleged criminal abuse of another colleague, Martin Springer, who also engaged in lewd conduct against another student. [Springer’s charges were dismissed only after the parents of the child said she was too traumatized to testify at trial.] Berndt was only removed from L.A. Unified classrooms after the district paid him $40,000 just in order to get him to drop his appeal of its dismissal.
If anything, near-lifetime employment rules actually encourage silence among teachers about abuse to children by their colleagues. One reason: Because even the most-honorable teachers know that even if they report acts of criminal abuse, their colleagues can end up keeping their jobs. The possibility of reprisals against them from those teachers and those laggards willing to protect them is more than enough to keep them silent unless they are willing to risk their careers to do the right thing. Another reason is that tenure ends up fostering cultures of academic neglect and abuse in the first place. When laggard teachers know that they can keep their jobs, they are willing to aid and abet even the worst among them; after all, low expectations lead to even worse consequences.
This was made clear last year in Rochester, N.Y., where Matthew LoMaglio was convicted of second degree sexual conduct against a minor for criminally abusing an eight-year-old boy who attended School 19. Not only did teachers at the school fail to cooperate in the criminal investigation against LoMaglio — and the school leader failed to report the allegations to police as required by law — his former colleagues even wrote letters begging for leniency on his behalf to the judge presiding over his case.
Certainly you can’t just fire your way to high-quality education for kids. That’s why reformers focus so hard on overhauling how we recruit, train, manage, and reward teachers. But the status quo can’t remain ante. You can’t build cultures of genius that help all kids succeed as well as keep good and great teachers working in classrooms when near-lifetime employment rules keep even criminally abusive teachers in classrooms. And you can’t stem an education crisis that condemns 120 kids every hour to poverty, prison, and even mental anguish, if laggards and criminally-minded teachers know they can never be fired.
It is high time that we end tenure and near-lifetime employment for teachers. Our children deserve better than this.