Friday, July 18, 2014

Moral Duty, Aviv's Atlanta Scandal Article, Portelo's Case, Connecting the Dots on Why Tenure is Essential

Rachel Aviv has a terrific article in this week's New Yorker on the case of the test-cheating scandal in Atlanta under Beverly Hall, who was Atlanta Public Schools superintendent from 1999 to 2010. Her "Wrong Answer, In an era of high-stakes testing, a struggling school made a shocking choice" is a great work of investigative journalism. She documented how, on the ground, the game of high-stakes tests can drive administrators to create conditions for wide-spread test-tampering and other forms of cheating. This was the thorough kind of high-profile expose and criminal prosecution that former Washington, D.C. schools superintendent Michelle Rhee managed to avoid for her parallel Erasuregate under the pressures of No Child Left Behind.

Of course, this then, leads to the question, who can speak up, for their conscience, without fear for losing their job? The need to have the freedom to speak up about wrong-doing is why tenure is so important. Without tenure protection for teachers to speak up about wrong-doing, the climate for misuse of power and wrongful directives can worsen.

This leads us once again to the case of New York City teacher Francesco Portelos. As noted last September in "What the Francesco Portelos Case Means for All Teachers," it is essential for teachers to be able to speak up about wrong-doing or to merely ask questions, to bring clarity into the governance of schools, without fear for reprisals. (However, while it is welcome that he has retained his job, it is wrongful that he was fined and was sent into rotation. We would expect that this present administration would respect legal precedent and would set a new, gentler tone towards teachers in city policy.) We often hear that tenure extends due process to teachers. When one witnesses the multi-million dollar over-reach in the prosection of the Portelos case, and the over-reach in the city's resolution in his case, we cannot help but note that the quality of the due process for the teacher's behalf is weak.

How unfortunate that the media are so inclined to villainize teachers that they cannot slow down to understand that he was stating that they often speak on behalf of students. The corollary is that administrators by their actions create climates whereby teachers are afraid to speak up. As Arthur Goldstein reminds readers in his fine op-ed piece,"Teacher Tenure: For Good Apples, Too," in Wednesday's Daily News, an untenured teacher advocating for administrators to abide by a student's special education Individualized Education Plan (IEP) can get fired for doing so. Goldstein noted that he, himself --once tenureed-- threatened to file a grievance on the fact that he did not have an adequate number of books for his students, at that a week after that, he was given a brand-new set of books for his students. He went on to note,
Tenure doesn’t only protect the so-called bad apples, or teachers accused of misconduct or incompetence. It protects all teachers. This is a tough job, and despite what you read in the papers, it also entails advocating for our students, your kids, whether or not the administration is comfortable with it.
I meet passionate and effective teachers everywhere I go. How many will stand up for your kids when schools don’t provide the services they need? How many will demand deserving kids pass classes even if they fail a standardized test? How many will tell state Education Commissioner John King that failing 70% of New York City’s students is not only counterintuitive, but also counterproductive?
It’s hard to say. Abolish tenure and that number will drop very close to zero.
Remove the protection that tenure provides and you lessen the possibility whereby teachers will speak up to protect students' safety, to advocate for working water fountains, clean restrooms, books for students, staffed libraries, adequately comprehensive curricula. Need we go on?

Hall's scandals in Atlanta, Rhee's Erasuregate in D.C., these were the legacy of No Child Left Behind. What scandals are the legacy of Obama and Duncan's Race to the Top and Common Core? Remove tenure and the likelihood of some future expose will be even more remote.