Michelle Rhee, the superintendent of schools in the District of Columbia, is moving to abolish tenure for teachers. Because tenure is the third rail of public education, she claims she isn’t. But she is. Rhee is in charge of one of the most troubled systems in the country — or perhaps just the most visibly troubled, since the collapse of public schools in the nation’s capital are a particularly vivid barometer of the terrible state of urban public education more generally. Her current plan is to reduce the number of tenured teachers in the system by offering salary incentives for teachers to give up their tenure and simply teach well.
Rhee’s approach to change doesn’t help sell what is actually a sensible plan: if you have followed her career, you know that she reacts to dissent in the ranks with the polish of your average despot. Her rock ‘em, sock ‘em administrative style makes her a lightning rod in a world that combusts regularly over the latest plan to educate millions of children without liberating public schools from the property tax funding system that gives rich public schools to the suburban rich and poor public schools to the urban poor. Rhee is controversial, not just because of her aggressive advocacy of free-market solutions, like charter schools and for-profit providers, but because of her youth, gender and — what few people ever comment on — that she is a Korean-American executive officer of a black system, in a city that is funded (or not, depending on how you look at it) by a very white Congress.
So Rhee occupies the third corner of a triangulated racial relationship, and is a referee in a pseudo-colonial struggle between the Federal government and the District of Columbia. You’ve got to wonder why anyone would take this job. For this reason, and my ongoing interest in progressive education, I am always eager for news of her latest battle with those who failed to resist standardized testing or No Child Left Behind but do resist anything that actually might create better schools, the American Federation of Teachers.
To give some ground to her enemies, Rhee can be breathtakingly nasty. On September 8, 2008, I heard an interview with her on National Public Radio‘s All Things Considered in which the interviewer raised the question about whether nurturing a collaborative relationship with the teachers’ union should be more of a priority than aggressive new pay policies that bypassed the union and rewarded teachers regardless of seniority. “Where has that gotten us so far?” Rhee shot back acerbically. “Being collaborative and holding hands and singing ‘Kum Ba Yah?’”
But criticizing Rhee for her lack of tact and sensitivity begs the question of whether, in a failing school system, tenure should be an absolute value, even though — importantly — it protects teachers who are actually working for politicians. Is tenure in the secondary school system a different animal from tenure in higher education in some regards, and thus more disposable? Perhaps: the differences are certainly greater than the similarities from my perspective, particularly since, for better or for worse, it doesn’t seem very difficult to get a job teaching secondary school. But there are other differences. There is no particular status to obtaining tenure as a public school teacher, as there is with a college or university job: it merely signifies that you have been judged minimally competent in the classroom and have not given the system any reason to fire you. It awards job security, and puts the teacher on a seniority ladder. That most teachers are also unionized means that the tenure system and union membership are almost coextensive with each other. And unfortunately, what this means is that wonderful, creative new schools springing up in urban school districts have to give priority in their hiring to old, tired, burned out teachers who are available because they have failed at other schools (or helped other schools fail) rather than to the energetic, young teachers who will invest in the school’s success.
So why do we have tenure in secondary schools at all? Mostly, it is the legacy of Joe McCarthy and the Red Scare: it ensures that teachers are not fired for political reasons as they were in the 1950s, and well into the 1960s. But unfortunately — assuming that people more or less doing a good job who are not controversial don’t need to be protected — tenure, at the level of secondary education, has more of a tendency to safeguard the lazy and incompetent than those advocating for radical forms of social justice. Ask Debbi Almontaser, for example. The same Randi Weingarten who has opposed Michelle Rhee’s plan to overhaul the teaching staff in the D.C. schools and claimed that ending the tenure system will create “highly paid, transitory teachers who will spend much of their time looking over their shoulders at one another” is the same president of the AFT who threw tenured principal Almontaser under the bus for defending an Arab-American women’s group that printed a T-shirt with the slogan “Intifada NYC.”
Almontaser didn’t make the T-shirt, she didn’t sell it, and she didn’t wear it: she merely explained publicly that intifada has a more complex history than those focused on contemporary struggles between Israel and the Palestinian resistance might be aware of. In other words, she defended the right to free speech, and as a consequence was reminded by schools chancellor Joel Klein and her union president that as a tenured principal she has no free speech. Almontaser, a rising star in the school reform movement and a skilled interfaith educator, was removed from her school, the Khalil Ghibran International Academy. She is now riding a desk down at the school board, where she does nothing every day in the company of teachers who touch children inappropriately.
So what we can conclude is that Michelle Rhee is a danger to free expression because she has questioned whether tenure is serving her school system, while Randi Weingarten and New York Schools Chancellor Joel Klein (who pressured Almontaser to resign from her school and was recently mentioned as a possible Secretary of Education in the Obama administration) reenforced a chilling environment in which pro-Arab speech has been effectively suppressed. Their support for tenure seems to mean that a teacher or principle has the right to be paid indefinitely after her career is destroyed for purely political reasons.
And that has nothing to do with teaching, learning or free speech, does it?