Friday, November 14, 2008

Teacher's Unions Are Not the Problem

Andrew Sullivan gets an earful about his blast against teacher's unions:

A reader writes:

Knocking teacher tenure is easy but simplistic. There would be some specific gains from eliminating tenure -- getting rid of (or re-motivating) some deadwood. But you're ignoring the real systematic costs. Tenure is a form of compensation: it gives teachers job security and some degree of classroom autonomy. If you already think that teaching is not attracting enough quality candidates, why would you propose cutting compensation? If you really believe in market economics, you have to grapple with the likely effects of making the job even less attractive than it already is.

There are also reasons why tenure should be attractive to anyone who is suspicious of big, centralized government. As far as I can see, tenure -- to the extent that it promotes classroom autonomy for teachers -- is one of the few things cutting against the movement to turn our schools into federally- directed test-prep centers. The relentless pressure to focus on short-term test-score improvement, even if it gives kids an impoverished understanding of what learning is and why they should ever want to pursue it, is killing my daughters' school. If tenure helps a few teachers resist that pressure, then more power to it.

Another reader adds:

I have to disagree with you on your position on tenure. It isn't that the tenure system is by any means perfect, but it is a fallacy to lay the problems of schools at the feet of that alone.

I will concede that there are a ton of teachers that I work with daily that have no business being teachers, but what people tend to forget is that teachers aren't hired with tenure. Teachers have to earn tenure through the merit you are claiming they should have; we are scrutinized for three years before it is given to us. So if your taxes are going to a crummy school full of bad teachers, then why is it the union get all the blame and not the administrators who grant unqualified or incompetent teachers tenure?...
There is more. Many good points made. I think that in the grand scheme of things teachers' unions and tenure have very little to do with the quality of education. Any system is going to have its share of good and bad teachers. I think teachers should be paid more. But to think that turning the free market loose on the education system on the theory that the cream would rise to the top and only the best teachers would be left teaching is to ignore human nature and any business - in the "real" world - where lousy CEO's and managers manage somehow to hang on to their jobs. It shouldn't happen there but it does. It happens everywhere.

I favor tenure because I think it promotes and protects academic freedom, which is essential to good education. But something even more essential for good education is children ready to learn, children who are fed and not hungry, children supported by parents who care, children who are disciplined at home in the skills of reading and study, children who do not fear for lives. For these children there is no one, two, or ten bad teachers who can get in the way of their ability to learn. And for these children it will take only one or two really good teachers to set their minds on fire.

Quality teachers are important. Quality homes are crucial.

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