It’s sadly undeniable that schools in low-income neighborhoods tend to have lower test scores, skimpier budgets, worse-prepared students, more drugs, and less-enthusiastic teachers than schools in wealthier zip codes. These neighborhoods also often have more crime, fewer farmers’ markets, more rundown housing, more single-parent households, and higher unemployment.
So, according to Judge Rolf M. Treu of Los Angeles, the solution is to get rid of teacher tenure protection.
Tenure violates poor and minority students’ right to a decent education, Judge Treu ruled in mid-June in the case Vergara v. California, because such job protection makes it too difficult for school boards to fire incompetent teachers. And lousy teachers are more likely to be assigned to low-income schools than to schools with savvy, moneyed, activist PTAs.
While there is certainly a nugget of truth in the judge’s reasoning, he is trying to use a sledgehammer to repair a broken necklace. No, even worse: He has aimed his sledgehammer at a necklace, when it’s really a bracelet, brooch, and earrings that are broken.
The nugget of truth is this: Tenure laws are frequently too rigid, wrongly protecting teachers who are incompetent, lazy, or abusive. California is especially lax in granting tenure after just two years of job experience, rather than the five or 10 years more typical in other jurisdictions. But the solutions should be targeted to the specific problems—for instance, requiring a longer probationary period to qualify for tenure or streamlining the bureaucratic process for firing.
Moreover, there are historic reasons why tenure is particularly important for teachers.
Measuring the job performance of a factory worker or a call-center operator is fairly clear-cut: How many widgets were produced per hour? How many calls were answered to the customers’ satisfaction? Teacher evaluations, however, are far more subjective.
“All sides to this litigation agree that competent teachers are a critical, if not the most important, component of success of a child’s in-school educational experience,” Judge Treu wrote.
Exactly! And one way to attract competent teachers is to make sure that they feel free to draw on all of their professional training, creativity, and brainpower, rather than worrying that the way they analyze a novel or discuss a history lesson might offend the political orientation of each new principal or school board.
Unfortunately, trends like the decline of unions and race-to-the-bottom outsourcing have eroded the rights of almost all US workers over the past half-century. The public sector, including schools, is one of the last bastions of strong employee protection. If these public-sector protections are also weakened, it will become even harder to maintain good working conditions anywhere.
And how the heck would stripping teachers of their tenure protection solve all the other problems that plague poor and minority school kids, including drugs, crime, unemployment, and lack of affordable housing?
In fact, what low-income students need—equally as much as inspiring teachers—is jobs with unions or other strong worker protection.
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Fran Hawthorne is the author of Ethical Chic: The Inside Story of the Companies We Think We Love. This post is adapted from Fran’s Corner, her weekly show on the global political-cultural talk show Insight Radio, available on the CNN Website at insighttalkradio.com.