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Steve Hansen: Eliminating tenure may not be the best course of action

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Posted: Tuesday, June 17, 2014 12:00 am

Local historian Greg Gores taught his classes a common adage. The precept was heard in the Soviet Union long before its demise in the 1980s. Loosely translated and echoed by the workers, it was: “They pretend to dictate the impossible and we pretend to carry it out.”

While the 20th century Russian empire may have collapsed, its methodology can still be found in the American public school system, which has been “reforming” education for almost six decades.

A characteristic shared with the old USSR, along with other communist countries, is top-down, centralized planning. In the case of our schools, it comes from lawmakers — coupled with details created by federal and state agencies.

As comparative examples, the Soviets and Chinese had their Five Year Plan and Great Leap Forward. American public schools had Goals 2000 and still have the remnants of No Child Left Behind.

The objectives always look great on paper but usually fail in the end. When that happens, the fault is never placed at the feet of those who created the strategies. Instead, it is blamed on the workers, who were ordered to carry out the mechanics of the “impossible.”

If the goals of a plan are not met, the situation is re-evaluated and a new one is formulated — often with the same results. In schools, this has been going on since 1957, when the Russians awakened a sleepy America with the launch of the first space satellite.

The latest “blame the workers” campaign is an attack by a California judge, who reportedly found teacher tenure to be “unconstitutional.” Apparently, the “evidence” presented was that “ineffective” teachers were being unfairly placed in low-income neighborhoods.

Whether or not objective and well-researched facts would support this conclusion is questionable. This case will be appealed.

But taking a second look, is a failing educational system really the fault of our teachers, or is it simply another example of placing blame for failure to “pretend to carry out the impossible”?

First of all, many people have forgotten why tenure was created. There are basically two reasons: One is to prevent teachers from being dismissed for political reasons. The second is to encourage young educators, who have high turnover rates, to stay in a difficult profession that demands the “impossible.”

Is this to say that there are no incompetent teachers out there? Of course not. That would be the same as saying there are no incompetent politicians, accountants, contractors, doctors, lawyers, judges or laggards in any other profession. And yes, there are those who have appointments with these people tomorrow!

On the other hand, it is difficult and expensive to fire an unproductive teacher in California. The long “due process” procedure can go on for many months — even years — while a teacher in question can sit home and collect full salary. The price to a school district can be over $200,000, and chances are good that the district will lose anyway.

The solution? Maybe it is some kind of compromise that protects teachers from political harassment, but at the same time streamlines procedures for moving out the obviously incompetent.

Also, part of this solution should be moving school curricula and other important decisions back into the hands of the local districts, where realistic objectives can be formulated. At that level, specific needs of community students can be better served. If we took the bureaucratic chains off teachers, who knows what creative competencies might emerge?

A University of the Pacific School of Education professor summed up the problem of centralized planning. He told me, “No new idea in education lasts longer than two years.”

However, the insightful scholar may have underestimated the real progress made over the last half-century. Because of this advancement, it might be more accurate to say, “No new idea in education lasts longer than five years.”

Steve Hansen is a Lodi writer.

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