Equal Protection and Public Education: Significant Problem Facing Education System

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During my middle school years, I did well with math and horribly bad with English. I thought I just did not have a talent for learning languages and was okay with getting bad English grades. But as I thought about the time once again, I realized one thing: I loved my math teacher and hated my English teacher. My great math teacher constantly motivated me to stay focused and helped me advance further, while the English teacher didn’t care about me and so did I. There should be a lot of factors impacting on a students’ success or failure, but I have to say that the most essential factor is teachers. As Moe said, “teacher quality makes an enormous difference. Indeed, even if the quality variation across teachers is less stark, the consequences for kids can still be profound” (Moe).

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The documentary film “Waiting for Superman” depicted some teachers who do not commit to students’ improvement at all and are interested in fulfilling their minimum required hours. Despite their poor performances, they stay and enjoy all their benefits because of the tenure protection, backed by teachers’ unions. This is where I find that the tenure and teachers’ unions are the most significant problem facing America’s public education system today.

Until the mid-19th century, teachers could be fired for any personal or political reasons. Therefore, they unionized in order to protect their interests and maintain some autonomy. The first nationwide union, the National Education Association, was founded in 1857 in Philadelphia as the National Teachers’ Association with fewer than 400 members and they mainly lobbied for teachers to have higher salaries and more job security. (‘Teachers’ Unions: Do teachers’ unions improve education in the United States?’). They issued a report in 1885 advocating for public school teachers to receive tenure to protect against political favoritism and discrimination based on gender and race (“History of Teacher Tenure”).

In 1909, the first comprehensive K-12 tenure law was passed in New Jersey. The proponents argued that it would attract more qualified and effective teachers, increase the efficient operation of school districts, and make teaching more attractive by providing teachers with increased political and economic security, while opponents were concerned that tenure would limit the dismissal of poor performing educators (Huvaere, 1997).

After the Great Depression, teachers organized politically in order to receive funding and job protections. Teachers unions negotiated for tenure clauses in their contracts with state and individual school districts. By the 1940s, about 70% of public school teachers had job protections, and in the mid-1950s, the number grew to over 80% (“History of Teacher Tenure”). According to the 1985 report released by the Illinois State Board of Education, only “three tenured teachers had been dismissed for incompetence annually during the previous nine years” (Reeder, 2005c). The state legislators expanded teacher remediation process to provide increased flexibility in the dismissal of ineffective teachers. However, in the following eighteen years, only 39 tenured teachers were dismissed (Reeder, 2005a).

The teachers’ unions such as the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA) noted that tenured teacher dismissal data are misleading because they do not include those faculty members who resign prior to dismissal. In 2005, the NEA argued that state teacher tenure laws do not protect teachers from dismissal but rather guarantee an impartial hearing that ensures teacher due process rights, and protect effective teachers from dismissal and the academic freedom of teachers, allowing teachers to exercise their professional judgment rather than teach in lockstep and maintain high student performance expectations without fear of retribution (Students First Illinois, 2005).

The tenure reform became a national issue, when the Ronald Reagan administration’s study of the status of American education released a report “A Nation at Risk” warning ‘rising tide of mediocrity’ in America’s schools in 1983 (Moe). In 2005, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger took the issue to the voters in a special election in order to extend the period before a teacher becomes tenured from two years to five years and failed. In 2009, Colorado passed legislation making it possible for teachers to lose their tenure status and Ohio extended the period before a teacher becomes tenured from three years to seven (“History of Teacher Tenure”).

DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee proposed the pay-for-performance option in exchange for teachers giving up tenure, which would allow teachers to earn up to $130,000 a year. In 2010, 80% of teachers voted in favor of it, and “Ms. Rhee fired 241 teachers and placed 737 teachers on notice for being ‘minimally effective’” (“History of Teacher Tenure”).

In 2010, New York City and its teachers’ union agreed to shut down reassignment centers, so-called ‘rubber rooms,’ where hundreds of suspended teachers go each school day instead of the classroom. The teachers sit for months, sometimes for years, doing nothing while receiving a full salary and benefits, because the tenured teachers can’t be fired or returned to the classroom until the investigation of alleged misconduct or incompetence have been completed (“NYC To Close ‘Rubber Rooms’ For Teachers In Trouble”). All the costs of paying for salary and benefits, hiring substitute teachers, and leasing the space reached out half a million dollars annually, while New York City was desperate for money to fund its schools. Moe said, “They didn’t leave; they didn’t give up; and because the legal procedures were so thickly woven and offered union lawyers so much to work with, it took from two to five years just to resolve the typical case” (Moe).

Nine California public school children filed the statewide lawsuit against the State of California in 2012, alleging “several California statutes violated the California Constitution by retaining some grossly ineffective teachers and thus denying equal protection to students assigned to these teachers” (Hanushek). In June 2014, California Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu ruled that California’s teacher tenure laws unconstitutional, but in 2016, the Court of Appeal overturned the lower court ruling (Hanushek). The rule was considered as one of the big wins for teachers’ unions and their worship of the sanctity of seniority, but a setback for parents, taxpayers and students who live in the most challenged districts (“Setback for equal opportunity”).

Michelle Rhee cited research results by Sitha Babu and Robert Mendro, in her book, Radical: Fighting to Put Students First: research shows that kids who have two, three, or four strong teachers in a row will eventually excel, no matter what their background, while kids who have even two weak teachers in a row will never recover.” The difference between having an effective teacher or ineffective teacher for three years in a row can represent as much as 50 percentage points in student achievement on a 100 point scale (Babu and Mendro, 2003).

And she added: I know firsthand how difficult it is to teach students who face a multitude of challenges before they even set foot in the schoolhouse door. These challenges are real and severe and have dire consequences. I don’t believe that educators and schools can fix all of society’s ills. That said, I do believe that schools and teachers can make a tremendous difference in the lives of kids who face these challenges every day. Do our children face significant obstacles that impact their ability to learn? Absolutely. Can we, as educators, still make an enormous difference in their lives, if we’re doing our jobs well? Absolutely. Those are not two mutually exclusive notions.

The teachers’ unions say that what is good for teachers is good for kids (Moe). However, in a reality where ineffective or dangerous teachers cannot be removed from the classroom due to the tenure protection and excellent young teachers should get laid off due to the seniority rules, it is hard to agree with what they claim. It is time for the teachers’ unions to reflect and move toward what’s really good for children.  

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