Jul 10

Alumni Featured on Slate Podcast on Teacher Tenure

Posted by John Kuckens in Graduate Admissions on Jul 10, 2014
The Gist featuring Mike Pesca - Slate
Bank Street alumni at Slate's The Gist podcast
Left to right: Alisa Algava, Margaret Ryan, Mike Pesca, and Ada Rosario Dolch

Slate produces original reporting and commentary on social, business, technology and political stories, and it has earned a bookmark button in many a browser over the years, including mine. Attending the taping of a podcast at Slate was one of the more unique events I’ve covered for this blog.

Listen to the full podcast at Slate.com

This assignment was fascinating on many levels — putting faces and a setting to Slate’s busy headquarters being just one. Meeting Bank Street alums Ada Rosario Dolch, Margaret Ryan, and Alisa Algava was another. These educational leaders were invited to be interviewed by Mike Pesca at Slate for his podcast The Gist.

Mike Pesca was an NPR correspondent for more than 10 years, and has been on programs like All Things Considered, and Wait Wait…Don't Tell Me! Andrea Silenzi is the senior producer of The Gist, and watching her skillfully multitask several projects at once on two computers all while manning the sound equipment was yet another part of this experience. It was hard not to be mesmerized by her work while trying to listen to the conversation.

You can think of this post as my abridged “transcript” of the full discussion, in which Ada, Margaret, and Alisa responded to questions including:

  • Does tenure prevent firing bad teachers?
  • If the worst teachers could be dismissed how much better would schools get?
  • Without tenure would average to above average teachers lose protections, making the profession less attractive?
  • Do good teachers resent rules that complicates the dismissal of bad teachers?

The three Bank Street alums have all had experience at the administrative level. Ada spent 30 years teaching, including being an administrator at the High School for Leadership and Public Service from 1995 to 2004. Her leadership at the Trinity Place School included guiding 500 students and staff away from the crumbling WTC towers on 9/11. She is now retired and tenured. Margaret is the co-founder and director of Harlem Link Charter School, and has been teaching since 1995. Alisa is head of Randolph School, north of New York City.

Mike kicked things off by mentioning the case in Oakland where teacher tenure was recently ruled unconstitutional. In this case, plaintiffs sued the school district for having ineffective teachers protected by their tenure. Therefore, tenure was made out to be a negative, damaging part of the school culture.

Ada observed that in her experience, tenure wasn’t much of an issue. “It provides a fairness” which, she argued, “can guide teachers through changes or removal.” Margaret remarked that she never saw the need for tenure, especially when teachers are effective. “But,” she said, “due to poor leadership in many schools, there is a lack of equity. Tenure protects teachers from principals with questionable tactics.”

Mike asked if the worst teachers could more easily be removed if tenure were not an issue. Ada felt that an administration “needs to be more involved with poor teachers from the start in September.” Ada suggested that principals should be more like master teachers — there to guide their young teachers.

Before the taping began, Ada mentioned to me research about how doctors are trained in this fashion. An older doctor will lead a group of younger doctors on “rounds,” showing them how to diagnose and treat patients, and asking them for ideas in order to shape their thinking. This is how a principal should be utilized in the school, Ada said. Alisa also felt that administrators should have more of a role in shaping the weakest teachers as opposed to a mentality of “getting rid of” the worst ones. It is better to have principals with integrity for the process of removing bad teachers.

Margaret observed that the schools in the most need are not getting quality teachers. Some of these are ineffective teachers, defined as those who actually cause harm to children academically or social/emotionally. This creates a bad climate, where good teachers work to undo the work of a bad teacher, or a bad teacher will undo the work of a good one from year to year. When principals are kept behind desks, they can’t be in the classroom helping these struggling teachers or making staffing changes sooner. With this example, Margaret pointed out one of the frustrations with tenure that administrators have.

Ada felt that this creates challenges for new principals. “New principals have a lot of school culture to adjust to,” she said. “They need to be in classrooms to identify the needs of young teachers. We can’t blame teachers for everything — there’s more to it than that.”

Mike asked the group about “rubber rooms,” the oft-quoted by the media phenomenon where tenured teachers who cannot be fired collect a paycheck from the city while sitting in a closed room doing crosswords and eating donuts and totally not going stir-crazy. Alisa quickly countered that those room don’t exist anymore. This is true (more information here). Alisa advocated reforming the system, for the sake of unions and teachers. Ada felt that tenure after two or three years is too short a time; five seems better to her, because “teachers must hone their skills.”

Regarding hiring, Margaret finds that as a principal, she gets lots of good candidates who are not on tenure yet, meaning that a tenured teacher doesn’t necessarily equal a good teacher. Tenure, she said, can make it hard for a principal to fire someone who doesn’t mesh well with the team of teachers. Perhaps they are not doing anything wrong or illegal, but they are just not the right fit for the school.

But in Alisa’s view, tenure can also protect good teachers. If for example there is a principal with a horrible vision for the school, they might seek to get rid of teachers who are actually being effective — an “armageddon” situation. So, she argued, tenure attracts and keeps good teachers.

Likewise, Ada felt that tenure allows teachers to take risks in sharing their opinions with administration. Margaret added that changing tenure is not a silver bullet to fix education problems.

Regarding the Oakland ruling, Alisa asked, “Where do these changes come from? In that instance, support for the bill was funded by Silicon Valley millionaires. So people want to blame teachers for the problems stemming from tenure, yet it’s okay for technology and hedge funds to be funding bills related to education.”

There is truth to this. Alan Singer at Huffington Post writes:

The "real" plaintiff in the case was actually David Welch, a wealthy Silicon Valley entrepreneur. Welch founded a group called Students Matter in 2010, organized the students and their families as plaintiffs, and spent approximately three million dollars to hire a law firm and support the case in court. Students Matter is also supported by major charter school advocates such as Steve Barr, founder of Green Dot Charter Schools. Barr did not take part in the suit, but endorsed it.

Overall, it seemed that Ada and Alisa were more in favor of tenure, and Margaret less so. However, she said, the benefits outweigh the risks. Ada felt that tenure should be allowed but not until teachers have proven themselves for longer in the classroom.

What stands out most about this discussion was that three Bank Street alums — progressive educators with varying points of view — came to the table not to debate the “right way” for questions about teacher tenure to be resolved, but to share ideas toward a common end: making sure good teachers are supported, and that all children have access to a quality education.

A big thank you to all involved in getting me in there to cover the story.

tagged alumni, podcast, slate, tenure
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