Try this one on. Tenure disadvantages students in high poverty schools. How, precisely? Well, let’s try to work through the logic, such as it is. We’ll assume that a disproportionally high percentage of poor students are taught by ineffective teachers. (They are ineffective, of course, because their pupils do poorly on standardized tests. Never mind that academic achievement correlates with household income.) Since educators are tenured (say, after three years on the job), it is difficult to remove those who are ineffective. But by eliminating tenure, school districts can weed out the presumably lousy teachers. End of story, right? Hardly. We might first wonder why allegedly bad teachers wind up in low-income schools? Is it by choice?
Imagine that you are a teacher with some experience. You’ve been working at a high-poverty school, and it’s been hell. Children come to class hungry, angry, or depressed because their parents are poor, distressed, and possibly dysfunctional. An opportunity presents itself to transfer to a “nicer” school, whose students come from financially and psychologically stable households. You get the nod, because you have more experience than others who apply for the move. Until the transfer, you were judged an “ineffective teacher” owing to your students’ below-average test scores. After the move to the better school, you are soon dubbed an effective teacher. Why? Because your new pupils score much higher on the tests than your previous batch.
Now assume that you are an experienced teacher in a “good school.” Your students not only achieve, they are clean, well-behaved, and anxious to learn. Their parents provide a rich learning environment at home and volunteer at school, helping create a supportive, nurturing experience for students. You love coming to work each day and gladly put in extra hours, realizing a return on your personal investment. Suppose, however, that you lack tenure and the school district does not recognize seniority in making personnel decisions. The district orders you to report to a high-poverty school in the district to replace someone who was terminated. You have no recourse, since you need the money. But your new crop of students performs very poorly on the same tests that your former students aced. You are now an ineffective teacher, despite having been called effective the year before. Now the school districts in the second example must find effective teachers to replace those who were discharged. Are these educators simply waiting in the wings ready to be hired as soon as the ineffective crop is dismissed? In other words, how large is the pool of potential, effective teachers? Say that you are a college student with above-average SAT scores and a high G.P.A. What major will you choose? Chances are that education will be far down the list. Why? Because teachers don’t make nearly as much money as other professions requiring the same or similar academic attainment. You prefer to optimize the returns on your investment of time, energy, and talent. Teaching third graders in a public school won’t do it for you. And if you’ve piled up a mountain of student loans, then you really need to land a high-paying job to more quickly retire that debt. The school districts in the second example, in which neither tenure nor seniority is honored, have jettisoned their “ineffective” teachers and now wish to replace them with highly qualified teachers. But there aren’t very many college graduates who are able or willing to sacrifice their time, energy, and talent to enrich young people’s lives. We can see where this is going. In order to attract collegiate standouts into teacher ranks, schools must pay higher salaries—much higher, really. But where will the financially strapped districts find the money? I’ve explored the above scenarios assuming certain premises. First, our more capable college students shun teaching, which implies that students aren’t always taught by the best and the brightest.* Second, supply and demand operate in the post-graduate world, including public schools. Shortages end when prices adjust accordingly, in this case, the price of labor.
We come now to the fateful reckoning. America shortchanges everyone and anything public. (This collective behavior will eventually be our undoing, I believe.) So, if schools are feeling pinched now, their future is even dimmer. Nor do I expect the markets-über-alles cohort to put their money where their mouths are: boosting education budgets to fix the foreseeable undersupply of “effective” teachers. The attack on tenure, when you think about it, has nothing to do with improving kids’ lives. It’s yet another attempt to dismantle public education, dollar by dollar, teacher by teacher, student by student. In the final analysis, though, the economy has less and less need for workers, whether or not college-educated. Pumping more money into schools could be a fool’s errand, unless we decide for a different political economy.
* However, some time ago, college was much less expensive and the difference in pay among professions, including education, was not nearly as large. (This was certainly the case when I was matriculating at Berkeley in the 60s.) The financial penalties for teaching were less than today, if they existed at all. It may follow, then, that those teachers trained in the 60s and 70s, before college costs soared and wage differentials skyrocketed, are as good as they come.
I should also add that SAT scores and G.P.A.s don’t necessarily predict future teacher effectiveness. There are many educators who do extremely well at their chosen profession, despite all of the above impediments. Just don’t call them rich.