When I reflect on the current debate surrounding tenure (in the NYTimes, Congress, and elsewhere), I often find myself perplexed.
Currently, teachers in the public school systems of this country are eligible for tenure. Essentially, they cannot be fired, except for gross misconduct. Ideally, this system protects academics from the rash impulses of a democratic society when they say something unpopular. The tenure system in this country, however, is broken, and especially so at the primary levels.
Like so many of our public debates these days, we have two sides making claims and talking past each other. The trouble is, they are fighting over there wrong thing! That is, they are asking the wrong question.
Conservatives tend to want the tenure system abolished completely, citing failing test scores and bad teachers who are protected by the tenure system from any accountability.
Liberals, on the other hand, blindly and stupidly refuse to acknowledge that there is anything wrong with the tenure system, jamming their fingers into their ears while mumbling incoherently about academic freedom.
President Obama seems to be one of the few willing to have an honest conversation about the whole mess (look at the Race to the Top Program), but few will engage him, preferring instead to continue shouting past the opposition.
I have another way of framing the conversation that I think is helpful, and builds on what I said about community in my last post.
First we must recognize the tenure system serves a very rational and crucial purpose. Democratic societies are passionate places, and reasonable thought can be unpopular. In order to protect unpopular yet valid thought, teachers out to be given tenure.
Tenure, however, is not to be doled out willy-nilly to anyone and everyone. Instead, a clear process and fair process to earn tenure must be instated. The best way of doing this, especially at my school where interference by administrators will be minimal, is by formal faculty review.
If a sense of community and shared purpose is developed, peer review will be the surest way of holding teachers accountable to the mission of educating our youth. The fear I most often hear expressed in ‘debate’ is that teachers are lazy, and when they have tenure, there is no way of compelling or even encouraging teachers to perform. First, I find that the assertion that teachers are slothful reeks of jealousy. Second, there is, as always, at least a grain of truth in this line of argumentation.
People must be given incentive to work. There will be a strong monetary incentive to come and teach at my school, but when it comes down to it, I do not think it wise to have people motivated solely by money in charge of raising our children. It is base.
Instead, more noble motives must prevail. This is why, once again, a true sense of community must exist. Teachers must be collegial, and engaged in a common enterprise about which true passion is felt. The word passion means, literally, suffering. I want my teachers to suffer for their pupils. I want them to be kept up at night, worrying about whether their students are becoming good human beings under their tutelage.
I do not want them thinking about the sweet Lexus they can afford because they have a cushy job with three months off in the summer. I will pay my teachers handsomely, but that is not what will motivate them in the classroom.