Teacher Tenure Necessary, Says Teachers' Unions The main function of teacher tenure is to protect good teachers from unfair dismissal. But critics of the policy say the policy also protects incompetent and low performing educators, and makes it nearly impossible to fire them. Host Michel Martin speaks with National Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten about the future of teacher tenure in public schools.

Teacher Tenure Necessary, Says Teachers' Unions

Teacher Tenure Necessary, Says Teachers' Unions

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The main function of teacher tenure is to protect good teachers from unfair dismissal. But critics of the policy say the policy also protects incompetent and low performing educators, and makes it nearly impossible to fire them. Host Michel Martin speaks with National Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten about the future of teacher tenure in public schools.


And now to Randi Weingarten. She is president of the nation's second largest teachers' union, the American Federation of Teachers. And she's with us once again. Welcome back to the program. It's always good to have you.

RANDI WEINGARTEN: And it's always great to be with you.

MARTIN: Now, you just heard Mayor Villaraigosa say that teacher tenure is a concept whose time has just come and gone. He also says that, you know, it's too easy to get tenure and, further, he makes the point that if something isn't done about this, that this is one of the things that makes taxpayers less willing to invest in the schools.

So, first, I want to ask you about that. And I do want to mention, by the way, 'cause you've talked about this on this program, you've already backed some changes to teacher tenure in a number of jurisdictions around the country. But I just want to ask you to address those particular points first.

WEINGARTEN: So, I did listen to the mayor's interview. And, you know, what I was thinking about was that talk is cheap and that I am these days all about the hows. And a lot of the folks on other side just come up with the same points over and over again regardless of what the facts are. So, he's absolutely right. Performance should be a driver. That's why the AFT has been fixated on how do we fix the evaluation system?

Because for years what has happened is that the tenure process, meaning a court process, has been adjudicating performance. So what we've tried to do is say, how do you have a comprehensive real good evaluation system for teachers that includes teacher development, that requires management to be responsible and the teachers to be responsible. And then what to do you do to make sure that the tenure process, the due process is not cumbersome, but it is really a fair process.

MARTIN: Are you saying, really, the real issue here is that there's no mechanism for teachers to get better? And that's what everybody really wants. Is that what you're saying?

WEINGARTEN: Well, I'm saying, actually, two things. That we've had for a hundred years, what I call the drive-by evaluation system; meaning when I was a schoolteacher in New York City, my principal, who was terrific, by the way, would come in for 20 minutes and would observe me. And that would be the basis of my evaluation.

So, performance has always driven school systems. But the performance mechanism was a faulty one. So, what's happening is that management, like Michelle Rhee or the mayor of L.A., instead of saying the performance system has been faulty, let's fix that, they blame the due process system which was intended simply to figure out if things were being handled fairly.

MARTIN: Well, but their argument is that tenure makes all that other stuff moot. I mean, their argument is that no other job works that way really, where people, you know, once you've passed a probationary period, you can't be fired unless you do something really wrong. And their argument is that tenure is awarded too easily at a point where you really can't evaluate fairly.

His argument, for example, is that in Los Angeles, after a probationary period, you get tenure unless somebody complains. And that no other job works that way. Is that a fair point?

WEINGARTEN: It's actually not a fair point. Where he's right is that tenure should be earned, not given as a right. And ultimately, you know, I chuckle about this some because in 2004, when I was the president of the teachers' union in New York City, I said to my then mayor, who Mayor Villaraigosa actually complimented today, I said to Mayor Bloomberg and to then chancellor Joel Klein, I said, let the union police our own profession because we're tired of you complaining about tenure and about due process and then actually doing nothing about it.

MARTIN: Well, I mean, is that really the union's job to police itself? Or is the job to be accountable to its members to protect their benefits and prerogatives?

WEINGARTEN: Our job is about trying to get the tools and conditions for teachers. You noticed in the whole interview with the mayor, he didn't say one thing about the tools and conditions that teachers need to teach and that students need to learn. So, ultimately, our job is to make sure that kids have the best learning environment possible and that teachers are treated with respect.

Now, having said all of this, tenure needs to be reformed. And, in fact, our union just this week adopted the recommendations that Ken Feinberg gave us about how you reform it. Because at the end of the day, this is not an either- or situation.

I recall a case in New York called the Blige case where a principal had a list of teachers she didn't like. And she instructed her assistant principals to rate them unsatisfactory even before the assistant principals actually went in to observe their classes. So, ultimately, you need to have a fair process. And it has to make sure that we protect children.

And so this is a false choice. We need to get rid of the cumbersome processes, reform due process and we also need to make sure that we protect teachers from false allegations. And the last thing is, performance is of course is the driver, but let's do it right.

MARTIN: Where's a place, in your view, in the minute we have left, where you think it is being done right?

WEINGARTEN: You know, so this is funny, two minutes away from Los Angeles, ABC is the name of the school district. It's in Los Angeles County.

MARTIN: And what's right about it?

WEINGARTEN: So, what's right about it is that they have a peer review system in terms of evaluation, meaning that peers work with each other. The administration and the teachers work together. And what they've done is each and every year, even with the crisis in California, they have improved student achievement. They are working together to help on instruction.

MARTIN: If we get together two years from now, three years from now, five years from now, are we still going to be having this argument?

WEINGARTEN: You know, we'll still be having this debate if folks on both sides don't get real and say, what is it that we need to do to change things? At the end of the day, the most important thing is working together. Figuring out what kids need and stop having these debates where we're trying to win arguments as opposed to solve problems.

MARTIN: Randi Weingarten is one of this country's most visible leaders in education. She's the president of the American Federation of Teachers. That's the country's second largest teachers' union. And she joined us in our studios in Washington, D.C. Thank you so much for joining us once again.

WEINGARTEN: Thank you.

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