• Unions: Good for bad teachers, bad for kids

      A just-retired public school principal writes me after my special:

      You nailed the problems and issues in today's public education... with the current teacher unions, textbook companies, and especially teacher TENURE... teacher "tenure" is all but stopping 21st Century educational reform all over the United States.

      Tenure is bad. Some teachers are more effective than others - yet the union frowns on giving the best teachers extra pay for excellence. They even frown on paying lousy teachers less. They snarl at the idea of ever firing a teacher. Public school teachers typically get tenure once they've taught for about 3 years. After that, the union and civil service protection make it just about impossible to fire them. They basically have a job for life.

      In Patterson, NJ, it's ex-police detective Jim Smith's job to investigate claims against bad teachers and to try to go through the union-created, insane process of trying to fire REALLY bad ones. He says it's so hard to fire anyone that it took years to fire a teacher who hit kids. "It took me four years and $283,000. $127,000 in legal fees plus what it cost to have a substitute fill in, all the while he's sitting home having popcorn," said Smith.

      This is not how it works in real life: the private sector. Remember when GE was a phenomenal growth company, rather than the bloated "partner" with Big Government it is now? Its CEO at the time, Jack Welch, said what was crucial was "identifying the bottom 10 percent of employees, giving them a year to improve, and then firing them if they didn't get better."

      That idea influenced charter school leader Deborah Kenny, and because her schools are non-union, she can fire. It's made a difference. Her students outscore the union school's students on all the standardized tests. "We fired as many as we must and as little as we can." She says the good teachers want the bad teachers out. "Somebody who doesn't carry their weight... brings down the morale of the whole team of teachers."

      I asked some charter teachers if it bothered them that they could get fired at any minute. "If I'm not doing my job per se and I was fired for that, so be it," said one. Another told me, "If I was a doctor and I wasn't good, I mean I wouldn't have a job, no one would come to me, right?"

      But the unions say that failing teachers should be given chances to improve. Lots of chances. "We need to lift up the low performers and help them do better," Nathan Saunders, head of the DC teachers union told me. "There's a cost of firing teachers... the quality of life of that person is deeply affected by that termination."

      Boo-hoo. Notice that he didn't mention the kids who are stuck in that class with the teacher being a second, third, or fourth chance?

      Former DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee told me a story about visiting a high school where class after class had terrible attendance. She asked a teacher,

      "Where are all the kids?" She was told that low-attendance was expected on a Friday, especially when it was raining. She then noticed a crowded classroom. "There are 30 kids ... not enough desks for the kids that were there. I'm watching the teacher. This is a pretty engaging lesson. So I go up to one of the kids, a young man. And I said, "What do you think about the teacher?" He said, "This is my best teacher, bar none."

      Rhee later left the school and saw that same student and two of his friends leaving.

      "I said, 'Excuse me, young man. Where do you think you're going?' And they said to me, 'Well, our first period teacher, the one that you saw, he's great. So we came to school. But our second period teacher is not so good, so we're going to roll.' This is not the picture that the American public has of truants! These children were making a very conscious decision to wake up early and to come to school for first period, cause they knew they were going to get something out of it, and then to leave after that because they weren't going to get any value."

      And yet, thanks to teachers unions and tenure, that great teacher gets paid no more than the others.

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