Steven Colbert's guest last night was Campbell Brown. Formerly anchor for CNN and MSNBC, she is now leading a foundation for educational reform.
Campbell's interview was greeted by the rare appearance of protest at the Colbert show. While I don't know much about her educational reform group's aims, there are two dubious assertions that were aired in her interview with Colbert.
First: the educational system is in crisis.
Second: tenure is the root cause of the crisis?
Is the educational system in crisis? The common wisdom is that it is. Our experience in Higher Education – in an institution that has large numbers of athletes from Texas – is that our students arrive unprepared for higher academic work. They can't write a research paper. Their command of the mechanics of the English language, particularly their command of punctuation, is faulty to say the least. Their thoughts tend toward the profane, focused on money and jewelry, sex and drugs. And their sport. Their sport. Sports in general, but mostly their sport.
There is also a racial component in all this, at least there is at our little college. The majority of the kids from Texas who come north to play football or basketball with us are African American. Many of them come from the inner city schools of Dallas or Houston. I'm guessing on this, but I guess that the challenges of education in the inner cities of Dallas, Houston, Chicago, New York are more alike than they are different. These challenges include the mandate to teach everyone who shows up for school; to teach in English even if a third or more of the class are new English speakers; to motivate children who are demonized daily on the evening news as lazy, unemployable, failures; to make academic superstars of kids who have no use for academia.
As a graduate of what could technically be called an "inner city" school in Chicago (albeit nearly 50 years ago) I recall that there was a wide differentiation among the motivations and abilities of my fellow students. I particularly recall one kid who sat either next to me or right in front of me. I don't remember which, all I recall is how he smelled. The class was right after lunch, and he came to class reeking of tobacco. He obviously spent his lunch hour at the Teepee Hut, a burger joint right across Western Avenue, legendary for the thickness of its air at lunch time.
I remember that the smell was missing one spring afternoon, as was the source of the smell. I asked what happened. The rumor was our classmate was caught burgling and went backwards out a third story window, dying on the sidewalk on Chicago's south side. I never knew if that was true or not, but I took it to be truth. I wonder if that classmate was academically motivated. I wonder if he was able to read at grade level (quite possibly. Our High School was what you would now call a "magnet" school and was available only by application). How many others in our High School were behind academically? I don't know, but I suspect that there were some. Other Chicago schools, those deeper in the ghetto, were "in crisis" fifty years ago. Crane, Lindblom, schools on the west side were in difficult straights even then.
Not every Chicago school is in crisis. The suburban schools remain academically strong. Our small town school continues to produce students ready to perform in the classroom and, one hopes, in the boardroom.
Why are some Chicago schools a mess and others working just fine? Why are suburban schools by and large working OK? Why do some small town and rural schools produce capable students, while others do not?
I do not know. I am certain that tenure is not the cause of school failure. I am certain that removal of tenure will not solve the problems of the inner city schools of New York, Chicago, Dallas or Los Angeles.
What will removal of tenure actually do? It will allow new administrators to come into a school or a program and remove those instructors they don't like or don't feel they can work with. This is not a reflection of the competence of these teachers, but a natural function of being a new administrator. You want "your people" in place to implement your policies. Those who are fired will not be given due process. They will be given reasons for their firing, but those reasons will be subjective and often based upon incomplete assessments.
The politically connected will not be fired. The teacher whose parent is part of the school district administration will remain on the job, regardless of their competence. Teaching will become even more difficult and teachers will be returned to the days when they were expected to bring in the coal, go home and stay home after school and not venture into society except for church going at the fundamentalist church of your choice.
The question that I haven't heard raised is "where are the hundreds of super competent teachers who are waiting to get the jobs that the incompetent are hogging?"
I don't think that the anti-tenure crowd has thought about tenure in this way. They seem to see removal of tenure as a way of making current teachers accountable and willing to work harder. It isn't. We know what makes a great school system and how teachers fit into that – we've had the Finnish example before us and have chosen to ignore it. Great schools take great money and great respect for the teachers who have one of the most difficult tasks in the world. What doesn't help is standardized testing, attacking teachers, and a belief that our schools are in crisis that can be solved by removing protections for the workforce.