Recruitment & Retention Opinion

Refocusing the Teacher-Tenure Debate on Actual Teachers

By Cristina Duncan Evans — September 26, 2014 2 min read
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Over the past few weeks, more and more essays and posts have been weighing in on the debate over teacher tenure. The first that caught my eye was a thoughtful post by Connor Williams over at the political site Talking Points Memo that looked at the mounting opposition against Campbell Brown. Brown’s advocacy organization, the Partnership for Educational Justice is taking on teacher tenure laws through a series of lawsuits in New York.

What struck me about Williams’ post was his look not at the merits of each side, but in the rhetorical patterns they display. He argues that opponents of education reform resort too easily to ad hominem attacks and unfair personal vitriol, rather than making logical arguments based on data. I’m an on-again-off-again follower of a group called the Badass Teacher Association, and that group is a prime example of the type of intense rhetoric Williams describes. While I agree with a lot of the claims that BATs make, I find it hard to call myself a full-time supporter because their messaging can be so strident. For example, when the BATs see an article online countering their points, posts on their Facebook page urge followers to swarm and rhetorically take down their foes. I get their passion, because teachers are on the frontlines of educational policy changes and are the first to see how bad policies can hurt kids. BAT channels that anger towards Michelle Rhee, Campbell Brown, and their ilk, and Williams is right in saying that much of that anger is unfiltered and unproductive.

On the other side, reformers are increasingly being criticized for primarily seeking solutions that focus disproportionately on teacher quality and that weaken labor protections. Economist Jesse Rothstein and author Jeff Bryant wrote recently that the fight against teacher tenure is ineffective at closing the achievement gap and indicative of self-serving motives. Both are good reads, and ask thoughtful questions that proponents of charters and choice should feel compelled to address. Among them is Rothstein’s observation that reformers are advocating cheap solutions, like value-added modesl rather than expensive but potentially effective ones like doubling teacher salaries. (It should be noted, however, that Bryant begins his writing by comparing Campbell Brown to Ann Coulter—an ad hominem attack if there ever was one.)

It often feels like the two major sides in the education reform movement aren’t talking to each other. They’re trading blows in online essays, and marshaling political supporters, but rarely deigning to actually debate each other on the merits of their arguments. This cross-talk has real consequences—because as long as adults are unwilling to compromise too many kids will continue to be underserved and miseducated. Compromise begins with a compassionate understanding of each side’s motivations and challenges. We need to hear more from teachers and students about what it’s going to take to improve educational quality. One such attempt is Stories of Teachers, a Tumblr dedicated to the closer look at why tenure still matters to teachers, and what the loss of their due process rights would mean. When we listen to teachers over talking heads, we can begin to see solutions that are focused on kids and schools.

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