Attacks on tenure based on facile teacher ideals and stereotypes  

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By Anthony Owens 

Tapping facile stereotypes of teachers often promoted in popular media, a Los Angeles judge recently ruled against teacher tenure, alleging that following due process before firing teachers violates the constitutionally protected  right to an equal education for all. In reality, tenure is merely a contractual obligation which prohibits the firing of veteran educators without due process. More importantly for our (or any) democracy, which depends on scientific inquiry and free speech for its very survival, tenure helps insulate educators from both personal and political attacks:

“’Let’s be clear: [Vergara v. California] was never about helping students, but is yet another attempt by millionaires and corporate special interests to undermine the teaching profession and push their own ideological agenda on public schools and students while working to privatize public education,’ Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association  told the Washington Post.

Education Policies Examiner, Charles Ferris, reminds us that not long ago in a pre-tenure world “married women, and certainly pregnant women, weren’t allowed to teach in public schools. Any teacher not towing the correct political line, or refusing to do any number of not so good things for those in power, were very likely to be fired.”

Defending tenure and teachers at the recent Save Our Schools March, Matt Damon recently rebuked a libertarian reporter for echoing negative fallacies about tenure while interviewing him.

Foes of tenure and teacher unions, such as this judge and sitting Republican Governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, have a long history of exploiting media stereotypes of teachers to drum up support for privatizing public education or using public schools to indoctrinate students with myopic corporatist or Evangelical-Christian world views.

One such idealized caricature of teachers commonly exploited by foes of tenure is the teacher-as-savior ideal, based most famously on a real-life mathematics teacher, the legendary (and late) Jaime Escalante.

Most people recognize the media caricature of this superhero teacher who singlehandedly overcomes all odds — including systemic challenges to learning, such as an allegedly bureaucratic and dysfunctional public education system, poverty and racial inequality — helping even the most recalcitrant and under-prepared students grow to love learning and kick some serious academic butt.

Foes of tenure and public education argue that the savior-teachers all work at charter and private schools, leaving behind nothing but the impotent burnouts and dictators dragging down the public schools; remember the Propofol-like economics teacher putting students under in John Hughes’ iconic 1986 film, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” or Paul Gleason as Principal Richard Vernon, the bumbling, uncoool and abusive dictator of Saturday detention in 1985’s “The Breakfast Club?”

They are what you get at public schools, the foes of tenure would have us believe. Never mind that Los Angeles’ Garfield High School, where Escalante did his “magic” in 1988’s “Stand and Deliver,” is a public school in the Los Angeles Unified School district, the second largest public school system in the nation; only the New York public school system has more enrolled students.

The caricature of teacher-as-savior, however, does not apply even to the teacher who had done more than anyone in recent history to inspire it. Escalante’s teaching style was far from perfect, according to a Los Angeles Times Education Writer, Amy Pyle. In 1998 she reported that his penchant for harshly scolding students and never planning lessons at Sacramento’s Hiram Johnson High School in the 90s likely lead to serious problems for him as a teacher and for his students, problems such as parental resistance, low enrollment and high student attrition rates in his classes.

Pyle speculated that perhaps his teaching methods, which worked well with a mostly Latino student body and community at Garfield High, the school where he allegedly helped and inspired hundreds of students a year to take the AP Calculus test, made it hard for him to “connect with a very different crop of students … at Hiram Johnson, [where] the student body [was] an amalgam of working-class white, Asian, black and Latino” students.

Hence, even the real-life model for the savior-as-teacher ideal, Jaime Escalante himself, might easily lose his teaching job in the era of accountability via standardized testing, despite the currently endangered due process that tenure and union representation contractually ensure.

Imagine a dystopia in which activist school boards — unrestrained by the due process ensured by the tenure system and teacher unions — replace educators who teach the science of climate change with those who teach climate-change denial. Imagine replacing those who teach evolution with those who teach “Young Earth Creationism,” the unscientific belief that the god of Judeo-Christianity created the universe and all life between 5,700 – 10,000 years ago, empirical evidence proving the Earth to be much, much older, such as radiometric dating, be damned.

If the foes of tenure keep scoring legal victories like the one in California, public education is in serious trouble.


Anthony Owens is a freelance writer whose online articles on topics in education have appeared in Global Post, Seattle PI, E-How, and Examiner. Formerly he taught language arts and literature at secondary and post-secondary institutions, and he currently works full-time for the State of Maryland’s Department of Human Resources. He holds a Master of Education in instruction and learning from the University of Pittsburgh and a Master of Fine Arts in literature and creative writing from Bennington College in Vermont.

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