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Entries in #California (2)


What Killing Tenure Won't Address

When I'm not writing fiction, I work in education. I also live in California, I hope to have children, and I plan to send said kids to public school. Thus the recent court decision Vergara v. California, in which teacher tenure was ruled unconstitutional, cuts close to the bone. I'll say right here up front that I'm not a labor scholar, but I am operating under the assumption that the goal is a quality education for all students, especially for those who are least likely to get it via any other means, and for me, this means quality state schools. As my writing here is often at least a little personal, I'm going to take advantage of the blog format, skip the numbers and source research for now, and go straight to my gut-level response: this is not going to be good, not for students, and not for teachers.

There's an inclination in this valley to approach all problems in life from an engineering mindset, as one might expect. Problem is, this often translates not into a laser-like focus on the most stunningly broken parts of a system but into a laser-like focus on a specific part of the system with absolutely no ability or inclination to consider how it functions in the larger whole. There are huge and entrenched socio-historical-political realities that impact our education system at all levels, and a single part of how teachers are compensated can't possibly do justic to the complicated reality.

We all know there are horrible teachers out there. We also know that many of them tend to accumulate at the bottom of the system--that is, the school districts in which the least amount of teachers ultimately choose to work. We also know that these districts tend to be the ones with the greatest population of traditionally underserved students of all kinds--of black and brown students, of low-income students, of students from families without a strong history of education, of ELD students who have to work double-time to learn the language and the material, etc.

Tenure isn't why these teachers end up in these particular places, and while it does make it more difficult to get rid of them, I don't believe that simply killing it is going to have any positive impact on student success rate. I can see why someone might fixate on it--after all, if you're used to an office-and-boardroom environment, just the idea of keeping an employee around who doesn't contribute to the bottom line can induce nausea.

But here's the thing: kids aren't anyone's bottom line, or at least they shouldn't be. And I can think of many other things that have a greater influence on why poor teachers end up coming to struggling districts--and end up staying--than tenure.


  • FUNDING AND TEACHER PAY. Pay in these districts is usually bad. The way we fund our education system here makes absolutely no sense to me, unless you assume that the goal is to keep poor students and their families intergenerationally poor. Fund based on property tax? Threaten to kill funding if schools can't get their most vulnerable students to care about filling in bubbles? Threaten to close the entire school, often one of the few safe places in a neighborhood (not to mention a reliable source of food), gut the staff (many, if not most, of whom have been forming solid relationships with the student body), and create more chaos in the lives of the students, all in the name of "improving" their education? Right. Those things will work. In the meantime, salaries will remain low, even when compared to neighboring, but slightly wealthier, districts without the same kinds of needs. So a good teacher who needs to support his or her family can very easily be forced out simply based on economic realities. I've seen it happen. Right now, tenure is often the only part of the compensation package that's worth much of anything.
  • JOB SECURITY. This isn't just tenure, though tenure is a huge part of it. Teachers in these districts (which are the most inclined to be hit hard by economic downturns) are vulnerable, even if they do manage to stick around. Their pensions can be hit. Their medical benefits can be cut, or shrunk down until they apply only to the district employee, not his or her family (see: leaving based on personal economic reality and the need to support a family). Last hired first fired takes tenure into account, sure, but if your entire school is liable to be taken over and the staff either dumped or required to reinterview for their jobs, it doesn't mean much. That's hardly an environment that's going to attract skilled teachers.
  • SELECTING FOR MARTYRS. Don't get me wrong--I remember seeing the trailor for Dangerous Minds in the theater when I was in high school myself, and I was mildly impressed, though I didn't actually go watch it. But when Freedom Writers came out, I was a little more skeptical about the whole great-white-hope teacher-as-savior-in-urban (read: black)-school trope. So not only are teachers intended to get in there and "save" their students, they're expected to work extra jobs in order to buy the kids books. They're expected to neglect their own personal lives in order to complete a superhuman task (Waiting for Superman spells it out right there in the title). Basically, it's not a job--it's a calling, it's a passion, and that often means that when teachers do things like, you know, ask for pay and professional respect, along with working conditions that might allow them to stay at a school for twenty years without being chewed up and spit out, people are shocked. And then, all too frequently, angry. Because that's not how we talk about teachers--they're either martyrs or leeches. Models like that of Teach for America don't help either. Throwing underprepared college grads, no matter how innately talented, into the most difficult classrooms in the country is not a model for success. No, it's a model for burnout on the part of the teachers, incredibly high turnover (which means a loss of campus and district investment in training), and even more disrupted relationships for students for whom school is often one of few stable places in their lives.

So if you take away tenure under the rationale that it will make it easier to get rid of bad teachers in underserved districts, I have news for you: the only reason the bad teachers are there in the first place is because they can be. And it's also because they can't be anywhere else. Try to keep a failing teacher in a well-funding, parent-supported suburban school and see what happens. Tenure doesn't mean teachers can't be fired; it means that it has to follow a union-negotiated process. If a warm body is your standard, a warm body is what you'll get. And don't even get me started on the way this often plays out, where only those teachers who have other sources of family wealth or income can afford not to let compensation become a major issue, not to mention the general trend toward resegregation at schools on all levels. 

Fire all the teachers you want if tenure really does vanish. Go ahead. And congratulate yourself that you're having a real impact on education. Just don't expect highly qualified, compassionate, and dynamic teachers to line up to replace them until you address far more of the broken education system we've all got on our hands. Don't delude yourself into thinking that your impact will make any kind of positive, comprehensive difference.


The Hills Are Dry

Coming home to the Bay Area for winter break during college was like stepping from Kansas to Oz. No more black and white of New England winters, or, far worse, dull brown if the snow hadn't yet arrived. Just lush, green hills, buds on the valley oaks biding their time in the wind and rain, muddy trails, and the start of the vernal pools.

This year, all is brown. It's unsettling. The oaks are bare, but their brown silhouettes blend into the sunburnt backdrop that is the hills. It's not how it should be. We aren't like other parts of the country here, not in summer nor in winter. This is supposed to be our time of regeneration. 

I spent time in the Bay Area as a child during the drought of the late eighties, and I know what to do if it's yellow and what to do if it's brown. I'm expecting that this will come back into vogue. I'm expecting a devastating fire season. I'm expecting water rationing and municipal squabbling over what little run off we get this summer.

But on the way back from Sacramento, we spotted something out the car window that at least gives me hope for my favorite, drought-tolerant trees: underneath those valley oaks, Quercus lobata, within the radius of where their bent, spread branches nearly reach the ground, the grass is green. Little green circles, slight, but there, protected and shaded and fed by the moisture the tree can spare. The hills are dry, but the trees are alive.