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Why Are Teachers So Upset?

Dear Deborah,

By now, you have seen the latest Metlife Survey of the American Teacher. It shows that teachers' satisfaction with their job has plummeted since 2009, from 59 percent to 44 percent. It is the lowest it has been in 20 years. The percentage of teachers who are likely to leave the profession has grown from 17 percent to 29 percent since 2009.

The reasons are obvious: The most satisfied teachers feel their jobs are secure, and they are treated as professionals by the community. Compared with dissatisfied teachers, they are more likely to have opportunities for professional development, time to collaborate with other teachers, and greater parental involvement in their schools. These are teachers working in an atmosphere of professionalism and collaboration.

The teachers who are most dissatisfied are in schools that have been hard hit by budget cuts, layoffs, larger classes, fewer resources, and a loss of time for or outright elimination of the arts, foreign languages, or physical education. At the same time that funding has been cut, there has been an upsurge in students' need for health and support services, which are less available to them.

Teachers are feeling the impact of state budget cuts, for sure.

But they are also feeling the chill wind stirred up by Arne Duncan's Race to the Top, which demands that teachers must be evaluated in some degree by the test scores of their students. In many states, those evaluations are as much as 50 percent, and that 50 percent trumps the other 50 percent. Teachers know, almost instinctively, that this is misguided, and Linda Darling-Hammond's recent Commentary in Education Week shows that this is a flawed idea with no support in research. The debacle in New York City, where teachers were ranked according to their value-added rating, showed what a misleading and pernicious tool this is, and how many teachers will be wrongly labeled and publicly humiliated.

It cannot be accidental that the sharp drop in teacher morale coincides with the efforts of people such as Michelle Rhee and organizations such as Education Reform Now and Stand for Children to end teacher tenure and seniority. Millions have been spent to end what is called "LIFO" (last in, first out) and to make the case that teachers should not have job security. Many states led by very conservative governors have responded to this campaign by wiping out any job security for teachers. So, if teachers feel less secure in their jobs, they are reacting quite legitimately to the legislation that is now sweeping the country to remove any and all job protections. Their futures will depend on their students' test scores (thanks to Arne Duncan), even though there is no experience from any district or state in which this strategy has actually improved education. Its main effect, as we see in the survey, is to demoralize teachers and make them feel less professional and less respected. Yes, there will be more teaching to the test: Both NCLB and the Race to the Top demand it. And yes, there will be teachers who are wrongly fired. And yes, teachers will leave for other lines of work that are less stressful.

As the fight against job security for teachers continues to gather steam, I turned to historian Jeffrey Mirel of the University of Michigan for advice. Jeff has been writing about the teaching profession for many years. He is a wise and deeply knowledgeable expert. I understand, as Jeff does, that tenure is mis described these days. University professors have a lifetime guarantee of employment when they win tenure. It is not the same in K-12 education, even though critics confuse the public by saying so. Teachers in K-12 schools do not have a lifetime guarantee; what they have is a guarantee of due process if someone wants to fire them. The right to a hearing, the right to be presented with evidence against them. When did that become un-American?

I asked Jeff Mirel to describe the argument for tenure for K-12 teachers, and this was his reply:

"I think the traditional reasons for tenure (i.e., to keep public schools as free as possible from becoming stages for political manipulation and to enable high-quality, career-minded teachers to stay in the classroom for as long as possible) are still good. What has changed is the context these positions must be argued in.


For example, in the first case—politicization of curriculum—it is impossible to imagine a time when tenure protection is more vital than now. The country is so divided that on any given school day teachers can be denounced, "tried," and fired over an amazingly wide range of issues (e.g., discussing the age of the earth, accuracy of the theory of evolution, the appropriateness of reading Huck Finn, what the Founders meant by the separation of church and state, the effectiveness of the New Deal, or what Shakespeare meant when he wrote in "Romeo and Juliet:" "... the bawdy hand of the dial is now on the prick of noon." (Act II, Scene 4). That last one actually happened when I was teaching the play to 9th graders in the late 1970s—one very sharp kid asked me about it after class—I had tenure so I was not too worried about explaining it to him but I began by saying, "What do you think Shakespeare is saying?" The young man told me what he thought, I told him he was probably right, and he walked away shaking his head in amazement.

Given all that, tenure is a crucial protection for teachers and a crucial part of getting students to be literate, critical thinkers,and engaged citizens.

The second case, tenure helping good teachers stay in field—you're right on this in your review of Wendy Kopp's book. If the goal of getting excellent teachers to stick around for 20 or 30 years, then they need tenure protection in no small part because they are NEVER going to get paid what they are worth financially. Without tenure, teaching school cannot compete in the economic marketplace (e.g., I know people in the business world who have only a B.A. in business and, after 10 years in the field, are making 2.5-3 times what public school teachers are making. Without good job protection we will never have long term, high quality teachers in our classrooms.

So, I think tenure is necessary, but it also must be accompanied by ways to remove bad, tenured teachers—figuring that out is more difficult than why we should have tenure in the first place."

What is happening to teachers now across this nation is a disgrace. The attacks on them are a blot on our nation. Teachers and students are not different interest groups. Anyone who demeans teachers demeans education and hurts children.

Diane

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