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Why Tenure for Teachers Is Important

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In earlier posts I described the bizarro world of Mayor Bloomberg, where nothing is quite the way it is made out to be. I got the idea and phrase from an old Seinfeld episode. I also compared the New York City Department of Education to the Court of the Queen of Hearts in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, and dubbed School Chancellor Joel "King" Klein monarch of the DOE. This introduction is a warning. Prepare yourselves for the strange and the preposterous as we reenter the Bizarro Bloomberg / King Klein Edu-World.

The New York City teachers' union contract is up for renegotiation, and Bizarro Bloomberg and King Klein are using the city's current financial woes to hold back on salary increases and undermine traditional prerogatives. Bizarro Bloomberg wants to be able to lay-of teachers without regard to seniority, and King Klein wants to chip away at tenure by making it more difficult to secure and easier to lose.

Most New Yorkers, and I suspect most Americans, are unsympathetic to teacher tenure. Anti-union politicians have dubbed it lifetime protection for incompetents. In my 40 years as an educator and as a parent of three children who attended public schools, I have met my share of incompetent teachers -- but we might not all agree on who they are.

I have also met my share of incompetent lawyers, clerical workers, bank personnel, and elected officials, especially mayors. Based on my own experience as a New York City public school teacher, I am a strong advocate of tenure. While it protects the less than satisfactory by requiring that due process be followed before they can be removed, it also protects exceptionally good teachers from being undermined and removed by administrators anxious to cover their own rear ends and blustering politicians.

I was a New York City high school social studies teacher for 14 years. I like to think I was a good teacher, but I also know I was often a very bad boy. In 1982, I transferred to a new school. The administrative assistant principal, who later became a friend, approached me and said, "We heard you were very good but also a pain in the ass." I nodded my head in agreement and said, "It's a package deal."

As a teacher, I took seriously the idea that teachers were supposed to respect students and to prepare them to be active citizens in a democratic society. I organized student clubs that testified at public hearings against budget cuts in education and in favor of condom availability in schools. Club members organized debates on reproductive freedom and informational meetings on the Sandinista in Nicaragua, the meaning of Islam, equal rights for gays, and the importance of the census. They met with public officials and participated in protest marches to defend Roe v. Wade, oppose apartheid in South Africa and war in Southwest Asia, and end racial violence in New York City. They also wrote op-ed pieces for newspapers and appeared on radio and television programs.

These were all controversial issues, but I did not believe it was my responsibility to shy away from controversy. I am very proud that one club member later organized a union of livery cab drivers in New York City, another became a lawyer and activist in the local South Asian community, and a third helped organize students at the City University of New York to oppose budget cuts.

Sometimes my actions brought me into conflict with "colleagues" and administrators. I was accused of trying to indoctrinate students, defended students who were brought up on disciplinary charges by teachers when I felt the teachers had provoked the incident, and had my classes visited and lesson plans checked by administrators more frequently than was required under the contract.

What protected me was better than average scores on standardized tests by my students, the fact that I worked in very difficult schools by choice, the school and departmental administrators who respected what I did, and tenure, which made it virtually impossible to remove a teacher without documented evidence of malfeasance or incompetence.

But all of this is changing. Every time a school is reorganized and subdivided by Bizarro Bloomberg and King Klein, senior teachers are cut loose by new principals because they are considered too expensive to keep and because the new principals, fresh out the Bloomberg/Klein Mis-Leadership Academy, fear people who know how to teach will not simply follow arbitrary directives issued from above.

If anybody doubts that teachers, students, and parents need to worry about what will happen if tenure is canceled, let me cite two very recent examples of political considerations determining educational decisions.

Starting about ten years ago I was a curriculum consultant to the Paul Robeson High School social studies department for three years. I found it to be a well-run school serving students from a very poor section of Brooklyn. Recently, students at Robeson were amongst the most vocal and best organized in the battle against the closing of large comprehensive high schools. I was proud of the way they handled themselves and I am sure their parents and teachers were proud as well. But not Bizarro Bloomberg and King Klein. They were pissed that anyone would defy them, and decided they needed to frighten potential dissenters into silence. The school's long term principal, a decent man who related well with teachers, students, and parents, was removed from his position and reassigned to Staten Island, a four hour round trip from his home in Westchester.

Bizarro Bloomberg and King Klein consider Bronx Aerospace on East Gun Hill Road, in what used to be Evander Childs High School, one of the jewels of the small school movement. Its principal is a graduate of the Bloomberg/Klein Mis-Leadership Academy and it has been graded A on its last three academic report cards. Because of affiliation with and funding by the Air Force, the school attracted academically strong students and had one of the highest graduation rates for any New York City high school.

But despite the high grade for the school, student grades are not that high. In 2006, only 27 out of 56 of the school's graduating seniors, 48%, earned New York State Regents diplomas, compared to 74% at comparable schools in New York State. Zero percent of the students earned diplomas with advanced distinction compared to 32% statewide, according to City-Data.com. Even more disturbing, zero percent of the graduates stated that they planned to attend four-year colleges, according to City-Data.com.

It turned out that the Air Force was not so happy with Bronx Aerospace. According to a 2008 article in the New York Daily News, it placed the school on probation because of rule violations and over $60,000 in unaccountable funds. The Air Force finally had enough and ended affiliation with the school in June 2009. But in the Edu-World of Bizarro Bloomberg and King Klein, Bronx Aerospace still earns an A. Their problem is always the teachers -- and it would be solved if only they could get rid of tenure.