Wow, it's been awhile. My apologies to my loyal readers out there--all both of them--but things have been busy at Solipsist Central. Nevertheless, I felt compelled to throw in my two cents on yesterday's major court ruling in California.
In case you missed it, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu declared the state's law granting public school teachers tenure after eighteen months of service unconstitutional, based on the idea that tenure protections deprive students--in particular lower-income and minority students--of the state-guaranteed right to a quality education:
“'All sides to this litigation agree that competent teachers are a critical, if not the most important, component of success of a child’s in-school educational experience,' Judge Treu wrote in his ruling. 'There is also no dispute that there are a significant number of grossly ineffective teachers currently active in California classrooms.'”
I, too, basically agree with that entire statement (although words and phrases like "significant number" and "ineffective" are so vague as to be meaningless). Still, however, I reject the conclusion that, somehow, eliminating tenure protections will lead to a vast improvement in overall educational quality.
When the general public hears the word "tenure," they probably picture college professors: tweed-bedecked academics sipping brandy and pontificating on intellectual ephemera with little concern for or interest in the real world needs of the students they teach. Those who brought this particular case see tenure as little more than a job-protection program for incompetent teachers. And I will acknowledge that tenure laws do make it difficult to get rid of unsatisfactory teachers. But people need to remember that the original idea behind tenure was not to protect the incompetent from some deserved termination, but rather to protect highly-qualified professionals from arbitrary punishment when they expressed unpopular ideas. Is this, in fact, still a problem? Consider that there are school boards in Kansas that discourage the teaching of evolution. If you were a Kansas science teacher, would you be willing to discuss Darwin in a classroom--even as an alternative to creationist nonsense--unless you had some kind of tenure?
More to the point, though, What, exactly, do opponents of tenure expect will happen if they achieve their goals. Let's say we could all agree on some objective definition of "incompetence," and that schools subsequently rid themselves of all their tenured-but-incompetent instructors. What then? Do you suppose there will be some sudden influx of brilliant, dedicated instructors rushing to fill these classes? Do you think there is a vast pool of people dying to teach--if only this already poorly compensated profession would do away with one of the few perqs it offers? Or would the remaining instructors--by definition those who are competent-to-excellent--simply be asked to do even more, take on more classes, teach more students--knowing that if they are unable to keep up with the ever-increasing demands, they, too, will be found incompetent and summarily replaced?
Sure, it should be easier to get rid of grossly incompetent teachers. But in an underfunded, undervalued, overcrowded, and overburdened school system, teacher tenure is one of the least important "problems" to be tackling.