3 Beliefs That "The Teacher Wars" Has Me Questioning

Unions, tenure, and bad apples.

October 19, 2014

The Teacher Wars: A History of America's Most Embattled Profession by Dana Goldstein 

Published in September of 2014.

How many books do you read that cause you to change your opinions?  

Mostly we read to confirm our views, seldom to challenge them.  

The Teacher Wars has caused me to question some of my long-held beliefs about public high school, middle and primary school teachers.  These beliefs have been formed primarily from my own experience as a parent, watching my girls go through the public education system, as well as by watching movies like Waiting for Superman. 

3 beliefs that The Teacher Wars has caused me to question:

Belief 1. Teacher Unions Are Always Bad:

Goldstein traces the roots of how and why teachers became unionized, as well as the subsequent backlash from education reformers about teacher union practices.  We need to understand that teacher unions were a response to a history of arbitrary and capricious firing and employment practices.  That prior to unions, public school teachers suffered from both much worse pay and often intolerable working conditions.   

If one believes that the educator is the most important part of the education equation, then it is important to balance the protections and resources that unions have been able to deliver to teachers with the well-documented downsides of teacher unions.  These downsides include an unfortunate hesitancy to allow individual evaluation of teacher performance, including both incentives for the best teachers, and penalties for the worst.  

Belief 2. Teacher Tenure (for Secondary and Primary School Teachers) Is Always A Bad Idea:

As a parent I’ve witnessed my kids benefiting from many amazing teachers, and struggling through a few truly atrocious teachers.  I’ve always wondered why the school can’t seem to get rid of the worst teachers.  The answer, at least the answer I hear from other parents (which may or may not be informed), is teacher tenure.   My thinking on tenure has always been that it should be to protect academic freedom and unpopular views, not provide a job for life.  I have the higher ed view of tenure.  

So how can primary and secondary teacher tenure be defended?   If utilized correctly, teacher tenure should provide classroom teachers with some protections against the politics and fads that sweep schools in the same way that they sweep every other workplace.  Teacher tenure should provide a base of security for both a long-term commitment to the profession, and a focus on the needs of the students rather than the demands of the current administration.  Teacher tenure should not make any teacher immune from the requirement of demonstrating effectiveness in the classroom.  As we learn in The Teacher Wars, tenure job protection in public secondary and primary schools does not give the same level of employment protection as we understand in the higher ed world.  

Belief 3. Improving Public Schools Means Getting Rid of Bad Teachers:

The key insight in The Teacher Wars is that the biggest challenge for our schools is attracting and retaining the most talented teachers, and raising the performance of those teachers in the big middle of the profession.  U.S. teachers make less money and enjoy less status than comparably educated professionals.  This is not true in countries like South Korea and Finland.  Further, good teaching can be encouraged with programs that provide robust peer feedback and mentoring.  

Nor is it a simple matter to identify the worst teachers, as outputs such as student standardized test scores can be confounded by a range of local social and economic factors.  We would do far better to invest in raising the levels of professional development, pay, and status of our teachers than to pursue a set of punitive tactics against the few bad teachers that we imagine are pulling our schools down.

What The Teacher Wars also demonstrates is that we do not want to go down any of the same paths in postsecondary education that we have seen in the primary and secondary world.  That we need to be very careful at any efforts to replace testing with investments in educators, and that the best student learning results will always come from investing in the status and autonomy of our teachers.

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