Punchback                                Page 13


Myth: Incompetent Staff Can't Be Fired


Journalist Joe Klein wrote in Time magazine last summer that “the protection of incompetence [of teachers] is a national scandal.” Whoopi Goldberg, daughter of a teacher, piled on where Michelle Rhee had gone before, claiming “teachers who do not do a good job in teaching have no right to have tenure.”

Punchback - Gene Glass

Campbell Brown, a former TV journalist, launched her nationwide anti-tenure campaign by repeating the absurd opinion of a Harvard economist that one “incompetent” 3rd-grade teacher would cost the class a million dollars in lifetime earnings. Brown is taking her roadshow to Minnesota, Connecticut, New York and New Jersey, hoping for a verdict like the Vergara case in California.

Contrary to wide belief, tenure is not a guarantee of lifetime employment. Tenure grants the right of due process to employees facing removal. It is essential in the work of teachers whose responsibilities are so critical in the lives of children. Without due process, teachers would be subject to dismissal for saying something the tea party or the American Civil Liberties Union doesn’t like.

Due process is as old as the Magna Carta. It protects workers against arbitrary power of governing bodies. It guarantees (1) timely notice of impending personnel actions; (2) the right to grieve the action; (3) the right to counsel; (4) the right to question witnesses; and (5) the right to appeal. Due process is fair and sensible. Critics claim that due process takes too long; they want to replace it with expeditious firing.

Incompatible Claims

The notion that our public schools are staffed by many incompetent nincompoops just waiting for retirement clashes with two well-established facts:

almost 40 percent of teachers leave the profession within the first four or five years, and

many pre-service teacher candidates discover long before assuming responsibility for a classroom that they lack what it takes to succeed.

Can it be true that teacher turnover is at historically high levels and that our nation’s schools are filled with poorly performing educators who plan never to leave their jobs? No, it can’t. Consider workers in three other professions — nursing, social work and accounting. These professionals are not granted tenure. So if tenure protects bad teachers, then the turnover rate of teachers should be substantially lower than the turnover rate of nurses, social workers and accountants. The turnover rate for teachers is not lower. But it’s also not higher, according to labor economists.

Those who trumpet the business model for managing schools tell fairy tales about CEOs firing dozens of useless employees each morning before breakfast. Well, CEOs don’t act this way. Nor do school administrators. They don’t hire teachers, watch them perform for a while, then say, “Nope, he’s lousy. I’ll fire him.”

Not only is this not the case in education, it’s seldom the case in any responsibly managed business. Employees who are not working out — whether in public education, Walmart or IBM — usually are gently and humanely urged to leave, counseled into other lines of work or redeployed rather than brutally tossed to the curb. Even the word “fired” is being replaced with “outplacement.” Tens of thousands of teachers in training and even teachers on continuous contracts are diverted into other vocations each year. Are administrators to be blamed for dealing with teachers humanely and letting them leave with their self-respect intact?

Perpetuating Myths

Why has the Teacher Incompetence National Disaster Myth taken hold? What motives might be perpetuating the myth?

I can think of two reasons. The corporate privatizers don’t want charter school teachers unionizing and demanding tenure because then they’d have to pay them more money. If experienced teachers can be quickly let go without due process, they can be replaced with lower-paid inexperienced newbies.

Whoopi Goldberg had it wrong, and Michelle Rhee has been learning hard lessons about incompetence herself. Joe Klein perhaps thought he was reporting a national disaster. Instead, he has been parroting an insult of a nation of hard-working educators.

Gene Glass is Regents’ professor emeritus at Arizona State University and senior researcher at the National Education Policy Center. He is co-author with David C. Berliner of 50 Myths and Lies that Threaten America’s Public Schools (Teachers College Press, 2014). E-mail: glass@asu.edu. Twitter: @GeneVGlass

Give your feedback

Share this article

Order this issue