Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Teacher Tenure

[That title is actually a teaser;  our contribution to the debate will be of a very general sort, applicable to eristics in general, and not specifically to this.]

I recently finished reading the autobiography of R.G. Collingwood, an English philosopher (by trade) and historian (by predilection).   The principle point he argues in that book, and in his own mature philosophical publications, is that:  Before one can judge the validity of a thesis (and the key here is more worth than truth, the latter issue being less clear-cut than it traditionally makes out) one must first determine, to what question was that intended as an answer.   This perspective extends to quite practical matters:  Before engaging in a dig (for archaeology was his violon d’Ingres), you must know what it is that you are trying to find, or you will merely spoil the site.

The media this evening is (quite properly) abuzz  with this:

A California judge ruled Tuesday that teacher tenure laws deprive students of their right to an education under the state Constitution and violate their civil rights.

Different news outlets  are spinning this  in very different ways:  As a (Republican-inspired) attack on teachers unions;  as a defense (worthy of Sir Galahad) of the special interests of racial minorities;  and other flavors as well.

I shall have nothing specific to say about any of this, never having taught at a pre-college level.   It is a very, very vexed question.  -- Or rather, an inhomogeneous complexus of vexed questions;  for Collingwood’s caveat  is very valid here.  Quite apart from the complexities of analysis, of any given aspect of the case, the very case itself  presents itself, from the very outset, in the light of at least four distinct areas of broader concern -- four traditions of thought and argument:

(1) sub specie Labor Relations
(2) sub specie Education Policy
(3) sub specie Race Relations
(4) sub specie Constitutional law.

Any competent overall assessment of the merits of the case -- such as, indeed, a sitting judge is forced to render, if only by refusing to review (he does not enjoy the luxury, of professors of philosophy, who can argue the matter endlessly, in footnotes to Plato) -- would need to address all of these.  But even that “all” is something of an oversimplification, since (so to speak) those four orthogonal vectors, though they form a basis for a noëtic space, do not themselves supply a metric, whereby their separate contributions might be combined.
(For more on the matter, for those mathematically inclined, consult this.)


Attempting to see how this story was being reported across the outlets, I went to Google News, where the featured article was this:


But when you go to that page, instead of letting you read the article, you are hit with a pop-up, to wit:

Answer a question to continue reading this page
Have you used one of the following methods for hair removal in the last 12 months?
Salon service (waxing, laser, etc)
No, none of the above
At home waxing
Hair removal cream
At home bleach
[Class assignment:  Debate the relative merits of (a) bikini wax  (b) Brazil wax. 
Cite appropriate authorities where needed.]

Sometimes I think this nation is not worth saving.


Footnote:   This skeletal contribution, is merely meta-critical, virtually devoid of empirical (or political, or psychological) content.   For a case in which we do venture to grapple in detail with an issue of public note (with what success, you must judge yourselves), try this:

We also offer a couple of very minor observations about education specifically. 

* To end-run the question of tenure -- simply do away with teachers!  (This is a trendy trend; the same thing is happening to libraries.)

* California is something of a hothouse or petri-dish for bizarrely overreaching legal intrusions into education.  We examine one here:

[Flash update]  Making up for our own abstention from discipline-specific comment, our longtime friend and colleague, Dr. Keith Massey,  currently a teacher of Latin in high school (though with several other careers under his belt, including a stint in Canon Law), and the author of several books, offers the following viewpoint (and, I believe, very judicious one) :

Philosophically, I agree. The best teacher for all those poor kids is not always the one with tenure and seniority. So if those poor kids ever once ever had a teacher who was not the best available because the best available was let go from lack of seniority, those poor kids received unequal conditions.

The problem is, staffing schools, including the ones for those poor kids, will be *impossible* if you don't provide significant incentives for dedicated people willing to make modest salaries for the common good. Tenure and seniority provide the incentives that a teacher need not fear that slighting the wrong parent by giving a fair grade will mean termination and that staying on the job long enough to make a bit more than a modest salary will put a target on your back.

Push the current system even a bit and you will quickly find all the nation's youth taught only by fresh graduates with no experience teaching a few years for 30k and then burning out to make room for the next wave of the same.

And apparently there is a movement that wants to blow up the system to establish just that...

[Update] More canny commentary:

I am a little confused by the slippage between equal education and good education in the court’s opinion. After canvassing several major state court precedents about educational equality, the court writes:

    While these cases addressed the issue of a lack of equality of education based on the discrete facts raised therein, here this Court is directly faced with issues that compel it to apply these constitutional principles to the quality of the educational experience.

The boldface is in the original. It almost seems like argument by pun.

Later on, the court seems to backtrack and suggest that the case is about equality, not just quality, after all; it says that the “ineffective” teachers have a disparate impact on poor and non-white students. That’s a hook, at least, but as my colleague Eric Posner points out, if it’s true it seems like the more natural remedy would be to address the unequal allocation of teachers directly, not to go after tenure.

1 comment:

  1. Ha ha. I caught you in an error, possibly a typo: it should be "principal", not "principle." I'll stop now.