Friday, October 8, 2010

The case against tenure

Over breakfast, I read Dana Goldstein's essay, "Grading 'Waiting for Superman,'" in the October 11th issue of The Nation. Goldstein, an education reporter, considers what "Waiting for Superman" - a much discussed documentary about the failures of public education - tells us and especially what it does not tell us. Her assessment is similar to Nicholas Lemann's recent comment in The New Yorker, about which I blogged recently: Both journalists note that the film celebrates charter schools as a solution, and teachers unions as the problem.

For my friends who are parents and / or who are concerned about public educations and have questions about charter schools (I confess that I probably know too little about the issue...), I think it would be smart of us to read the criticisms of "Waiting for Superman." I have not yet seen the film - not at the mall cineplex in my neck of the woods - but I certainly plan on it. My understanding is that the film, made by the director of "An Inconvenient Truth," is quite compelling. However. I know that I want to know the rest of the story, too.

What especially caught my eye is the brief comment on tenure for public school teachers, which I think gives insight to the brouhaha over tenure for faculty at colleges and universities. Goldstein quotes from an interview with Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, who apparently is singled out in the film as The Enemy:

The unions are hurt by public frustration with teacher tenure, a level of job security inconceivable to most American workers, who are barely hanging on during a recession with a nearly 10 percent unemployment rate.

"Only 7 percent of American workers are in unions," Weingarten says, adding matter-of-factly, "America looks at us as islands of privilege."

That is the case against tenure?! I call this the "sucks"-is-the-new-normal effect... Never mind that the real islands of privilege might lie located elsewhere...


I think it ought to be noted, as Goldstein does, that unionized teachers themselves also want to see their profession do a better job at maintaining their own standards. "According to a 2003 Public Agenda poll, 47 percent of teachers believe 'the union sometimes fights to protect teachers who really should be out of the classroom," Goldstein notes.

So, why not enable, encourage, and support workers themselves to set the standards, and see that they are upheld - and to do so in a way that preserves the dignity of each individual? Which, unfortunately, "policing" too often fails to do. We might have more incentive not to bend the rules, were the rules themselves more resilient...

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