“No scientific proof, then, has been found to convict smoking as a hazard to health.”
From a 1968 Tobacco Institute publication entitled “The Cigarette Controversy.”
“Tenure is not a job for life. It’s a fair dismissal process.”
NJEA spokesman Steve Baker, 2009
In 1964 the Surgeon General of the United States issued a report detailing unequivocal evidence that the use of tobacco causes various diseases. In spite of reams of medical documentation, the tobacco industry denied any deleterious consequences from smoking and continued to do so for the next 30 years. It’s a classic example of a powerful lobbying group’s denial of research-driven evidence, all in the name of profit and power.
For at least as long a period of time, the lobbying arm of the National Education Association has promoted an agenda also contrary to fact: that job security for teachers is so fragile and pay is so low that the promise of life long employment – tenure – is essential. While life-time job security doesn’t cause cancer, it’s an obsolete model that’s bad for kids, and a powerful obstacle to education reform.
The tobacco industry’s pretense– cigarettes are safe, all evidence to the contrary – was eventually silenced by medical research and an educated public. Is the same thing happening to the NEA’s mantra that tenure is a necessary form of job protection? Certainly, public resentment against tenure is snowballing. Can the union leadership make a timely shift and embrace a new reality that includes merit pay, accountability, and meaningful performance reviews?
Let’s look at New Jersey, where tenure is awarded to teachers, principals, and other administrators after three years on the job (fairly typical across the country). NJEA, an industrial union model ill-equipped to manage professional educators, promotes the myth that tenure is essential to the teaching profession. Unlike other professionals, it claims, teachers are frail flowers subject to the windy whims of arbitrary administrators. Ask the NJEA leadership for a fuller explanation of the anemia and they’ll tell you that it’s in the name of academic freedom, compensation for low pay, and the wiles of administrators. But we’re so past the McCarthy era; teachers aren’t fired for political commentary. In fact, teachers in New Jersey are hardly fired at all – the rate is 0.14%.
How about the argument that teacher pay is is so low that tenure is in some measure a form of compensation? Let’s do the math: in N.J., salary guides for teachers put a first-year teacher at a salary of about $50,000 per year. They top out at about $90,000, once you throw in longevity bonuses. (We’re leaving out the annual pay increases which are currently settling at somewhere between 4.2% and 5% per year.) Pro-rated over a 12 month year, a starting teacher earns about $60K and a long-time teacher about $108K. Add the full benefits package – often without any form of employee contribution — which we’ll low-ball at $18K. Total pro-rated compensation is anywhere from $78,000 to $128,000. That’s not too shabby. The “low pay” argument was once true, but it’s not anymore.
But NJEA is impervious to any call for reform. In fact, a new bill, A-4142, just passed in the Assembly Education Committee, gives tenure rights to non-tenured teachers. (See this post.)
It’s like the tobacco industry claiming that, facts be damned, puffing away is good for you. Everyone knows they’re wrong, but they keep saying it anyway. Most of the membership of NJEA – the vast majority of fine teachers and school workers — knows that tenure is an obsolete relic of an industrial age and, in fact, would relish a merit pay system. But the leadership is so invested in the past that they won’t embrace the future, which not only will put limits on tenure (maybe some sort of renewable 5 or 7 year contract) but also will link pay to performance and student achievement.
This past Friday, Education Secretary Arne Duncan made a speech at an NEA meeting. On tenure:
We created tenure rules to make sure that a struggling teacher gets a fair opportunity to improve, and that’s a good goal. But when an ineffective teacher gets a chance to improve and doesn’t — and when the tenure system keeps that teacher in the classroom anyway — then the system is protecting jobs rather than children. That’s not a good thing. We need to work together to change that.
When inflexible seniority and rigid tenure rules that we designed put adults ahead of children then we are not only putting kids at risk — we’re putting the entire education system at risk…These policies were created over the past century to protect the rights of teachers but they have produced an industrial factory model of education that treats all teachers like interchangeable widgets.
NJEA would serve both its members and the children by collaborating on a new model that treats teachers like professionals, rewards competence, and kicks the habit of life time job protection. It’s so last-century.
Duncan made that speech…and they booed him, just like they booed Obama when he made similar remarks on the campaign trail. It's both frustrating and sad that the NEA leadership does not see the challenges to the tenure premise, or the downside to selling the idea of a teaching force of uniform quality. Any mom, pop, or student, knows that from building to building, classroom to classroom, there is wide variance in the quality of the adults charged with, what is, America's most important profession. Everyone seems to understand that this is just human nature BUT the NEA, as their monopoly rests on the premise that they deploy a good teacher to every classroom. Teachers, parents, and students know this isn't the case…so when will Dennis and Randi figure it out?
As for the Assembly bill…I have no idea how essentially making it more difficult to fire a bad teacher, for instance, by fast tracking tenure is a pro-student move. But more notably, a bill like that does not make it out of any committee in an election year without the governor's support. Again, Corzine decides to put the interests of adults ahead of students. I wonder if Obama will challenge him on this when he comes to NJ to stump for him.
It's a strange dynamic. The public really is getting how obsolete tenure is (especially with the current unemployment rate), but the NEA just keeps pushing back harder. The NJ Assembly bill takes tenure to a level of absurdity — requiring arbitration to dismiss a non-tenured employee — and all that will do is increase public push-back. It's a bad strategy, and they're really doing a disservice to their membership. Not to mention the kids.
The Obama visit is interesting. Duncan just came out so strong for ed reform and here's his boss campaigning for a candidate with an apparently different agenda. Love to be a fly on the wall…