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rebuttal?

I'm looking for an informed, even-handed rebuttal of this paragraph:
There are countless dedicated public school teachers in our nation. Guggenheim made a doc in 1999 focusing on them. But educators and the teachers themselves acknowledge that schools have teachers who are not merely incompetent, but even refuse to teach. Protected by the tenure guarantees in their union contracts, they cannot be fired. In some schools, their rooms are referred to as Classrooms of Death. A student assigned to them will fail. Principals know this, and every year engage in something variously known as the Lemon Dance or the Turkey Trot, transferring bad teachers to other schools, and praying that the new teachers they get may be better.
from this Roger Ebert article: A Superwoman for Kenya, but America is Still Waiting for Superman. Anyone?

Comments

( 27 comments — Leave a comment )
gmpe
Jan. 25th, 2010 07:25 pm (UTC)
Don't have facts to refute. In my experience, these failing teachers exist. I have also seen MANY incredible teachers not have their contracts renewed past three year so that they don't get tenure. The tenure system in public education is broken, and the teachers union as a political body is awful. (I know that the collective bargaining power is actually useful here, because as a society we really love to screw over teachers on pay, working conditions, etc. But there HAS to be a better way.)
ocschwar
Jan. 25th, 2010 07:29 pm (UTC)
Dude. New York City. Rubber rooms. Not pretty.
nathanw
Jan. 25th, 2010 08:41 pm (UTC)
My impression of the "rubber room" situation is that that had more to do with a failure on the part of the administration to bother to run the process in the system, not that it was clearly difficult to get bad people gone.
ocschwar
Jan. 25th, 2010 09:42 pm (UTC)
Time is money. "Bothering" to run the process means devoting the money. If the rubber room is cheaper, then that's the way to go.
(Anonymous)
Jan. 25th, 2010 10:53 pm (UTC)
Here's a flowchart of the process to fire a teacher in NYC:
http://reason.com/assets/db/12639308918768.pdf

Yes, it's from Reason magazine, but it looks like the got the facts correct.
desireearmfeldt
Jan. 25th, 2010 07:53 pm (UTC)
No data (though I'm in education), except that yes, there's a tenure system, and this reads like hyperbole. Consider that there are some Tenants From Hell that landlords would love to evict -- but that doesn't mean all or most tenants suck. Same with teachers; presumably a few of them suck, because a few of anything you care to name will suck. (I have no anecdotes supporting "refuse to teach" -- the examples of less-than-stellar teaching I'm familiar with are nowhere near that bad, and mostly not due to teachers not wanting to do their jobs.)

But it is a fact that the tenure system is a Big Issue Under Debate these days.
lemurtanis
Jan. 25th, 2010 08:04 pm (UTC)
Have emailed my mother, who spent 19 years in the FL public school system before becoming a professor of special education.
srakkt
Jan. 25th, 2010 08:11 pm (UTC)
what is most interesting to me thus far are the vitriolic reactions to this piece from either point of view, without much content and only spite for tone.

I guess it's an emotionally charged matter.
crs
Jan. 25th, 2010 08:14 pm (UTC)
Yeah, you should see my facebook feed, too. Or maybe you're referring to that...

At least one person I was hoping would be able to say "oh yeah, that's a standard charge brought by the anti-union forces, here's the blah blah union's webpage with the skinny on why that's wrong" came up with "omg you hate unions!" as their response.
srakkt
Jan. 25th, 2010 08:25 pm (UTC)
Yeah, that's mostly what I was talking about. Sorry you've found yourself in the middle of that.
jered
Jan. 25th, 2010 10:43 pm (UTC)
I think there's the unfortunate problem that I can't think of any good press around unions in recent memory. The top stories I can think of are 1) Boston FD not allowing licensed mechanics to service their trucks, leading to deaths, 2) Boston PD suing to allow fraudulent timecards, and 3) Maine workers lobbying for a law against "smart meters" because it would put a bunch of telephone sanitizers, er, meter readers out of a job.

I understand the historical importance of unions, but I've yet to see a story in the past 5 years that hasn't just been an example of them fostering greed, corruption, and the ongoing lack of competitiveness of US business...
firstfrost
Jan. 25th, 2010 11:35 pm (UTC)
Well, the hotel union has gotten involved in the Hyatt housekeeper layoffs, though the employees involved were non-union. Regardless of one's position on whether the Hyatt should get to fire those workers, the workers themselves don't seem to have been either greedy or corrupt.
desireearmfeldt
Jan. 25th, 2010 08:23 pm (UTC)
It's a fairly vitriolic statement of the writer's opinion to begin with... :/
srakkt
Jan. 25th, 2010 08:28 pm (UTC)
-ish. It sounds as though (and I've seen neither film) it's a reasonable conclusion synthesized from experiencing both films in succession. One person claimed that Ebert's essay was 'unsourced' - which is a rather silly claim when talking about a film review; the source(s) is(are) pretty clearly the film(s). That having been said, perhaps he's writing out of his ass and these points are not made in the film at all. That's a legitimate concern in an academic paper, but in a column about film and in a review thereof, expecting academically rigorous writing is probably a recipe for frustration and disappointment.
desireearmfeldt
Jan. 26th, 2010 03:20 am (UTC)
I just meant, I am not surprised that people's conversation around it was hyperbolic, since the quote is too. :)
binkbink
Jan. 25th, 2010 08:26 pm (UTC)
Perhaps the defect is not that there are bad teachers with tenure (some even break the law and remain) but that they got the tenure in the first place without being detected.

Could this problem be laid at the feet of the lazy or cowardly administrators who did not have the strength of character to provide an honest performance evaluation?

Many systems migrate these incompetents into research where they can do less harm to the students, where their skills might actually (if perhaps accidentally) bear fruit, and where they are participating in the pursuit of knowledge in a way that tenure was meant to protect.

And then there is the tenure that comes from bringing piles of money into the institution. That might, overall, be a benefit to the students because better teachers can be hired, and a richer learning environment be provided.

I wonder if the Turkey Trot could be replaced with team teaching. The students get the benefit of at least half the teaching being adequate, and the better teacher might well be able to guide the poorer with an example to follow.

There should, however, be a way to remove teachers who break the law, if they have been tried and found guilty of an offence that could affect the students. Sometimes unions will oppose that, too.
nathanw
Jan. 25th, 2010 08:38 pm (UTC)
I think this is about public school teachers, not colleges - so no research to fall back on, and an entirely different set of criteria for "tenure", which mostly seem to involve doing the job for a while.
binkbink
Jan. 25th, 2010 08:55 pm (UTC)
If no research, what is the point of tenure? What desirable freedom does it protect?

Public Schools have tight curricula and very little latitude for differences of opinion because what they teach is mostly already proved or approved, so there isn't a need to provide the intellectual freedom that is meant to blossom in a university.

I wasn't even aware that there was such a thing as tenure in the public school systems and I don't see the purpose, except to prevent a teacher being replaced by someone who is not nearing retirement (which incurs a legacy cost) or less experienced and therefore paid less.

The teachers I know all are "at will" employees, and subject to being let go with very little notice and essentially without cause.
ocschwar
Jan. 25th, 2010 09:48 pm (UTC)
In cities with political machines, teachers would have reason to worry that they would suffer retaliation if they didn't work for the local precinct captain for free, for example. So there is a place for tenure. But only a limited place.
damselfrog
Jan. 26th, 2010 12:57 am (UTC)
There are many more places than that where unions can be fairly critical to keeping working conditions even tolerable. A few examples off the top of my head:
(Note: these are from a single district's union contract, so I can't guarantee that they're representative, although teacher/school district gossip implies that they are.)

- Time off policy: ensuring that teachers can take a day or two off when truly necessary. The district gave teachers no vacation or personal days off; however, there was an enforced "no questions asked" policy on sick days. Were that policy not in place, a teacher might find himself at risk of losing his job if he needed to get a contractor in to repair the catastrophically broken water heater.

- Work space: Obviously, schools need to supply classrooms for teachers when classes are being taught. Beyond that, there's nothing beyond union contracts requiring that the school provide workspace for the teachers between classes. If teachers are spending their prep periods jockeying for an open chair in the faculty lounge (assuming one even exists!), it gets awfully hard to actually do any prep.

- Work hours: There are any number of things which require coordination with other school staff. If those school staff are only present during school hours, and the school schedules teachers to teach classes for all of those hours, you're left with cranky teachers who have to give up their lunches to deal with required administrivia. Union contracts provide requirements for giving teachers prep periods, required hours (no mandatory 6am meetings!), etc.

- Subject matter expertise: Once a school hires teachers, it can distribute those teachers among the classes however it chooses. Wouldn't it suck to be an excellent English teacher, and suddenly find oneself assigned to teach 3 sections of algebra and 2 of Phys Ed? Although teachers may occasionally be assigned classes outside their area of expertise, there's a cap on the number of classes for which that can be done.

In a reasonably competitive environment, schools couldn't get away with skimping on those things. However, there are a *lot* more teachers than there are schools without serious resource constraints. Many union contracts may go too far... but they're a heckuva lot better than no contract at all.
damselfrog
Jan. 26th, 2010 01:01 am (UTC)
(Admittedly, that doesn't directly address tenure... but even within a set curriculum, there are a lot of directions one could go. Imagine how much worse history classes would be if the teachers risked being fired for bringing up the wrong political views?)
awfief
Jan. 25th, 2010 10:06 pm (UTC)
My viewpoint is skewed, but the biggest problems I've found are teachers *not* failing kids that should be failed, because regardless of tenure, inflating the grade makes the kids happier, and thus makes the parents happier, and thus the parents don't sic themselves on the teacher or the administrators.

That, and the administration doing everything it can in its power *not* to allow more teachers into the existing union -- doing things like firing a teacher at the end of the school year, only to re-hire them at a 1st-year salary, since they are not "continuing".

So my gut reaction is "reports are highly exaggerated." Because really, when was the last time you heard about a teacher failing a student who *didn't* deserve it? Sometimes students deserve to fail (and does fail mean "F" or "C"), and far, far too often, teachers do not fail a student who deserves to (and generally practice grade inflation).

*shrug* as to the original question -- there is corruption everywhere, and I think talking about the Teacher's Union being corrupt is trying to create a false enemy in tenured teachers. But that's my opinion, based on knowing several teachers (who've been teaching anywhere from 3 years to over 40 and are now retired) and span NJ and MA.
desireearmfeldt
Jan. 26th, 2010 03:24 am (UTC)
(WIthout having read the context of the quote, I am inclined to suspect "fail" meant something more like "did badly on the standardized test" than "was given a bad grade by that teacher."
awfief
Jan. 26th, 2010 12:57 pm (UTC)
Ah, so "teachers are failing at the task of teaching kids", not "teachers are giving failing grades to their kids."

Easier to believe, what with "No Child Left Behind". My experience is with teachers who give a crap, so I only have hearsay from them about other teachers who don't....but sure, "bad teachers" are a problem, tenured or not....cue the "standardized tests are not necessarily a good measure of a student's learning" rant here.
anyee
Jan. 25th, 2010 11:43 pm (UTC)
If you really need the info, I can get my parents on the horn and have them talk you ear off about their decades of experience with unions and students.
(Deleted comment)
mollishka
Jan. 27th, 2010 01:15 pm (UTC)
Why is it that when discussing teachers in the US people always manage to forget that there are large parts of the country with no teachers' unions and no tenure system? There is a conversation to be had here that has NOTHING to do with either of those considerations.
( 27 comments — Leave a comment )