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Entries in #siliconvalley (5)


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 Divide

Silicon Valley, we have a problem.

This just isn't sustainable. And the burdens are falling where they usually fall--on the shoulders of people who can least afford to bear them.


I've Been Thinking a Lot About Place

I’ve been thinking a lot about place. With my life these days, it's a hard topic to avoid. Right now I commute from one valley to another, straight up the peninsula, through San Francisco, and over the Golden Gate Bridge. I go through at least three microclimate zones, and probably more. The fog descends, then lifts. The scents that come through my cracked windows change—dry, golden grass, eucalyptus, low tide, dense fog, and finally, as I get out of my car, stretch, and take a deep breath, bay trees and coastal oaks.

I’ve been thinking about the city workers strike that happened in Hayward this summer, about the union member on the radio who told the reporter that they all just want to be able to live where they work.

I’ve been thinking about my state, the state that theoretically went from deficit to surplus in the year and change that I was gone, the state where housing prices have skyrocketed, but my friends and former colleagues at community colleges are, for all intents and purposes, losing their benefits, slice by slice. This is not just the voice of a woman who wants a full time teaching position (although I do); this is the voice of a woman who is seriously concerned about the health of her community.


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Simplicity in the Valley

I'm a little late on this one, but it's not an issue that will resolve itself in a few weeks. Via an SFGate article by Andrew S. Ross, the words of Mark Zuckerberg:

"I want to stress the importance of being young and technical," Facebook's CEO (now 28) told a Y Combinator Startup event at Stanford University in 2007. "Young people are just smarter. Why are most chess masters under 30? I don't know. Young people just have simpler lives. We may not own a car. We may not have family. Simplicity in life allows you to focus on what's important."

There's some truth to this, I suppose, if you define "family" as spouse-and-children and "simpler lives" as work-is-all. And I'm not the first to point out the strange juxtaposition of work at a company that claims to be about relationships as the implied "what's important" in this statement, not the relationships themselves. (Not to mention a twenty-something weighing in on life from a very specific, limited vantage point, however nice it may be.)

But the rest of the article focuses on the need for experienced older workers to downplay that experience in order to get a foothold in what's often portrayed as an employee's job market. Part of what I liked so much about moving down to Silicon Valley from San Francisco was the presence of children and elderly people, of the sense of a life greater than that of your mid-twenties, but whether that is replicated on campuses valley-wide is another question. This is an industry town, and the industry is young, but it will age--and I'm very curious to see whether it will happen gracefully.


Everyone onto the Google Bus

Over at The London Review of Books, there's another recent Rebecca Solnit piece, and this one is provoking a lot of discussion in my previous home, the San Francisco Bay Area. Titled "Google Invades," Solnit, a San Francisco resident who emphatically does not work in the tech industry, describes the migration that takes place every weekday:

The buses roll up to San Francisco’s bus stops in the morning and evening, but they are unmarked, or nearly so, and not for the public. They have no signs or have discreet acronyms on the front windshield, and because they also have no rear doors they ingest and disgorge their passengers slowly, while the brightly lit funky orange public buses wait behind them. The luxury coach passengers ride for free and many take out their laptops and begin their work day on board; there is of course wifi. Most of them are gleaming white, with dark-tinted windows, like limousines, and some days I think of them as the spaceships on which our alien overlords have landed to rule over us.

She goes on to describe the unintended side-effects of this type of commuting, not the least being that rents are skyrocketing in a lot of previously working or middle class neighborhoods, making them essentially unaffordable for anyone who is not a part of this particular socioeconomic class. And that's when you can find and respond to a vacancy quickly enough to even be considered as a tenant.

Full disclosure here: while I do not work in tech, I used to live in San Francisco myself back in 2005-2007, and for a year's worth of time, I lived with my computer engineer boyfriend, now husband. And a large part of why we stopped living in the city and moved down to the South Bay was because the commute, which he did using his car, Caltrain, and a shuttle bus, was grueling. Solnit writes that "I overheard someone note recently that the buses shortened her daily commute to 3.5 hours from 4.5," and I believe both that the speaker wasn't exaggerating and that this statement was entirely free of sarcasm.

One of the things that we noticed immediately when we moved south--as in, the very day we arrived, while still sitting in the car after pulling up to a grocery store--was that there were kids around again. And not just babes in carriages or ergonomically-designed babyslings in Noe Valley, either, but honest-to-god elementary school students. People like to joke that there are more dogs in San Francisco these days than children, and while this may or may not be true, it captures one of the qualities of the city that is growing more accute: this influx of new tech money is, as Solnit makes painfully clear, starving the city of its celebrated diversity. It's not just that you can stand on a street corner in the Mission or the Marina and watch three versions of the same person walk by (plastic rimmed glasses/skinny jeans/flannel; polo with collar popped/sunglasses/unironic baseball cap); it's that there's an eerie sense that everyone in the neighborhood lives essentially the same life as everyone else. It's the kind of creepy uniformity that used to drive mid-century novels about suburbia. 

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