Frank Bruni’s recent piece, “The Trouble with Tenure,” is yet another example of an uninformed and un-nuanced op-ed on education reform in the New York Times. This one even has the audacity of claiming to add a positive note to the ongoing discourse.
Unfortunately, it only further muddles the debate rather than shed enlightenment. After spending 400 or so words on the need to get rid of bad teachers, Mr. Bruni ends with this:
(Mike) Johnston frames it well.
“Our focus is not on teachers because they are the problem,” he said. “Our focus is on teachers because they are the solution.”
Hardly an inspirational, solution oriented piece. Johnston — a TFA alum and former principal, now a state senator — has sponsored and helped to pass legislation eroding tenure in Colorado. Presumably, “Because teachers are the solution.”
However, it seems to me that the whole tenure question is a red herring in transforming student learning. Instead of focusing on conditions under which students thrive and that promote vigorous learning, we are focused on using test scores to fire teachers. In short, we are asking the wrong questions and the net result? We are finding the wrong answers.
It’s time to flip the question. Rather than, “How can we get rid of bad teachers?” let’s ask, “How can we attract and keep the best teachers?”
The fact is, over 50% of teachers leave the profession in the first five years. They leave for complex and myriad reasons, many of which boil down to just one: Job Conditions.
Low pay. Long hours. High stress. Increased pressure. Higher and higher expectations with fewer and fewer resources. Greater focus on testing and test scores. Low morale made all the worse by a steady stream of pieces such as Mr. Bruni’s. It is no wonder teachers leave in droves.
With baby boomers beginning to retire we are on a collision course with a serious teacher shortage. And, because teaching conditions can be so demoralizing, the shortage may be exacerbated by a trend toward teachers spending less and less time in the classroom. (TFA cadres, for example.)
Interestingly, the New York Times published an insightful millennials piece in the Sunday Styles section by Sam Tanenhaus, titled, “Generation Nice.” Using data and findings from a Pew report on millennials (“Confident. Connected. Open to Change.“) Mr. Tanenhaus reported on millennials’ collective trend toward doing good rather than doing (financially) well. He writes,
Taken together, these habits and tastes look less like narcissism than communalism. And its highest value isn’t self-promotion, but its opposite, empathy — an open-minded and -hearted connection to others.
It is time, in my opinion, for us to reconsider where we as a society put our education reform focus. Rather than ponder how to fire teachers, we need to ponder how to engage and sustain the brightest minds in the classroom. What classroom conditions make for engaged learners (teachers and students alike)? What do classrooms that are designed to leverage the good will of millennials run like? Feel like?
We need to think about the teaching conditions that can leverage and take advantage of what millennials might bring to the job — their connectedness, their drive to do right by the world, and their creativity. What would it take to make teaching an attractive career before and after entering the field?
What does learning and schooling look like when it is inspiring to both teacher and student? It is time we flipped the question and start pondering conditions in which learning happens best. And less on how to hand out pink slips.
Image: Roland O’Daniel, under CC License.