Thomas Sowell Launches Misguided Assault on Teacher Tenure

Economist Thomas Sowell declares war on teachers unions in his highly publicized new book, Charter Schools and Their Enemies. Sowell charges—as do many conservative opponents of unions—that teachers unions have made it excessively difficult to remove ineffective teachers.

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Yet evaluating teachers’ effectiveness is the job of administrators, not teachers unions. It is not quick or easy to fire a tenured teacher, and it shouldn't be. What Sowell and other critics miss is that when ineffective teachers continue in the classroom, it is usually because administrators have not conducted the observations needed to identify them, and have not taken the measures needed to either help them become more effective or to dismiss them.

This is not because administrators are lackadaisical—chronic understaffing often deprives administrators of the time to do anything beyond the minimal, required observations. When these infrequent observations are conducted, even ineffective teachers can usually survive them because they are scheduled well in advance and teachers can prepare their students.

Since school districts don't allocate the resources needed to allow administrators to identify ineffective teachers, the blame lies with them. Do critics expect teachers unions to seek out, identify, and dismiss ineffective teachers themselves?

Sowell recites high-profile horror stories demonstrating how difficult and expensive it can be to fire a teacher. No doubt this is at times true, but it ignores a larger reality—when administrators or school districts wish to rid themselves of a teacher, they usually don't “fire” them, they offer a settlement under which the teacher leaves voluntarily. Such settlements don't show up in the stories and statistics Sowell and others wield against teachers unions.

Sowell contrasts teacher protections under union contracts with charter schools, where he exults that “teachers can be fired just for being incompetent. They do not get [more]...chances.” While certainly there are times when charter administrators correctly remove incompetent teachers, it is tremendously naive to think that this unrestrained dismissal power is only used to improve the quality of instruction. Administrators in nonunion schools often remove teachers for reasons that have nothing to do with alleged incompetence.

A new study, “Teacher Turnover in Organizational Context: Staffing Stability in Los Angeles Charter, Magnet, and Regular Public Schools,” finds that at nonunion schools teachers are often pushed out or leave because they resist administrative attempts to get them to do extra work without proper compensation.

Salary and job protections are also key. Many teachers at nonunion schools move on or are replaced when they reach the age when many people start families and need a better wage and some job security.

On paper, schools want experienced teachers with advanced degrees—it’s often a bragging point administrators use to promote their schools. In practice, these teachers are more expensive, providing an inherent incentive to push them out. UC Berkeley Professor Bruce Fuller, co-author of the staffing study, recently told City Watch LA, “The conventional wisdom, which our study backs up, is that charters recruit very young teachers…[Charter managers] will say this in small groups but not to reporters—that they want younger teachers because it saves on wages and benefits.”

Union supporters are also often targeted. For example, according to education historian Diane Ravitch, when a group of three teachers at the privately managed Sunnyvale, California charter Summit Public Schools recently sought to better teachers’ working conditions by forming a union, they were terminated without cause. The teachers, Ravitch notes, “had been offered contracts for next year when they were suddenly informed that they were no longer wanted. No teachers other than these three were fired.”

Tenure also helps protect demanding teachers from being dismissed for rigorous grading practices. While in theory teachers are encouraged to establish rigor in their classes and curriculum, in practice giving students failing grades can be detrimental to a teacher’s career. At one school, when I got hired an administrator advised me not to fail many kids: “Remember, it’s easier to change one teacher than change 35 students.”

Sowell condemns teachers unions for the money that large school districts in New York City, Los Angeles, and others spend on “Temporary Reassignment Centers” (aka “rubber room” or “housed” teachers). These are teachers who have been accused of something and are being paid as the accusations against them are adjudicated. While the scale of the problem is exaggerated—we’re talking about hundreds of NYC teachers out of 75,000, for example—it is a real issue. However, it is much more complicated than Sowell and other critics contend.

Sowell bemoans teachers doing “nothing” all day but “not only receiv[ing] their full salary but also continuing contributions to their retirement fund and accumulation of seniority.” Yet the accusations against these teachers have not been proven. If viewed through the lens of criminal law, these teachers have at most been indicted, and often on the flimsiest of evidence. Spurious accusations are common in schools. Is Sowell actually suggesting that accused teachers do not deserve due process? Lawyers, doctors, psychologists, and other professionals cannot be stripped of their licenses and/or professions without a fair hearing. Are teachers not worthy of the same consideration?

It may surprise critics to learn that a recent National Bureau of Economic Research study found that unionized districts actually fire more teachers than non-union districts. The study’s author, University of Utah economics professor Eunice Han, Ph.D., believes that because unionized districts have higher pay and better benefits, unions “give school districts a strong incentive to dismiss ineffective teachers before they get tenure.”

In 2010-2011, Indiana, Idaho, Tennessee, and Wisconsin changed their laws to severely restrict public school teachers’ collective bargaining power, leading to a 9% drop in salary. Han found that though administrators gained more freedom to dismiss ineffective teachers, the teacher dismissal rate did not rise, it declined.

The overwhelming majority of teachers are competent, but even if we accept the conservative argument that the profession is rife with incompetents, what could explain ineffective teachers at nonunion schools keeping their jobs when they can be fired at will? The administrators fail to conduct the observations needed to identify them—just as in unionized schools.

Sowell tells us “exorbitant cost[s] may be paid—for a lifetime—by the students, when they are taught by teachers whose main reason for being in the classroom is that it is prohibitively expensive to try to get rid of them.” Certainly, having effective teachers is crucial. Sowell believes the quality of teaching would improve if teachers are stripped of tenure/substantive due process.

Teachers unions believe just the opposite. How many intelligent, hardworking, educated people could we expect would devote their lives to a difficult profession if it could be taken away from them without cause? Teacher tenure encourages talented people to commit to the teaching profession. Without it, the overall quality of teaching would suffer.

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