• April 8, 2011 |

    Tending to Tenure

    education, examined

    article by fred milgrim


    In the United States, the issue of education is highly polarized. The disparities among our school systems, from primary to tertiary, and public to private, are quite baffling, and yet, very few people are willing to do anything about it.


    In Finland, the teaching profession is one of the most coveted careers. There, the field of teaching is more or less equivalent to areas like medicine or law in the U.S. Teachers undergo extensive training, and only the top tier candidates are allowed to become educators.


    It is a depressing reality that, as many advances as the U.S. has made, there has been a drop in the quality of the American public education system.


    A March 12 New York Times op-ed on the current battle between Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and a host of others in the educational field cited a study by McKinsey & Company, which states that 47% of K-12 teachers come from the bottom third of their college classes. It also notes that workforce discrimination once forced many women into teaching, but now, brilliant women are spreading themselves more thinly across more desirable vocations. Don’t get me wrong—I believe in equal opportunity, but it seems that it has adversely affected the quality of teaching available to American students.


    Of course, it makes sense to look outside the teaching profession. No matter the gender of the teacher, there just isn’t as much money in teaching for newly minted (and highly indebted) Masters degree recipients.


    The same op-ed offers this example: in 1970, a New York City starting teacher’s salary was only $2,000 less than that of a new lawyer entering a reputable law firm. Now, the difference is $115,000.


    So, let’s get to the source of the problem—we don’t pay our teachers enough. Think back to 2008 when CEOs were being asked to forego their million dollar bonuses and all hell broke loose. Now, Governor Walker wants to balance the state budget by cutting into public school funding,  because a median salary of $39,000 plus dental benefits is stifling the economy, whereas the trillions of dollars we have poured into our ongoing wars are not.


    The cycle is vicious. We can’t attract good teachers because we refuse to pay them what they deserve—while other countries respect and reward their educators, we are quick to strip them of vital resources. So we force unqualified teachers into the system, in turn causing officials to point fingers at “lazy” teachers who fail to produce the desired test scores. But we cannot and will not affect change by decreasing salaries even more.


    The only way to improve the quality of teaching in public schools is to throw a wrench into the system and increase salaries, because something’s got to give. Sure, revenue would have to come from somewhere. The op-ed suggests two options—the McKinsey study shows that having an above average teacher, even at the kindergarten level, actually increases a student’s lifetime income. Further research suggests that the Japanese system, which employs larger classrooms equipped with better teachers, is beneficial to students’ learning and would thus garner higher wages and more respect for the teaching profession.


    It seems necessary that we reevaluate our hiring methods for public school teachers. We could start by injecting some of our State budget into the system in order to attract more desirable candidates. By hiring fewer teachers, we could save money and avoid bringing average teachers into classrooms. Think about your classes at Brown—it doesn’t matter whether you’re in a lecture or a 20 person seminar—if a teacher is great s/he can excite a class, if merely average, students don’t try to mask their boredom.


    A friend of mine teaching for Teach For America in inner city Boston overheard a coworker yelling at a student one day for getting a D on a test. He heard the teacher say, “Look at me, I got Cs and Ds when I was in school and now I’m a teacher. You don’t want to be a teacher, do you?”


    Regardless of the student’s reply, it’s a frightening reality that even the teachers have written themselves off. How can you get an 11-year-old motivated when you have no self-respect?


    So we have addressed the low end of the spectrum, but what about the upper echelon? America has one of the most prominent tertiary school systems, compared to its abysmal primary and secondary schools. Perhaps our primary school system could take a page out of Brown’s playbook and study the recent tenure changes, less than a month old.


    Back in 2009, during the reaccreditation process, peer universities referenced our unusually high tenure rate (72% of all faculty, and 87% of those that apply are granted tenure). In response, the Provost (at the request of The Corporation of Brown University) put together a committee to reassess the process. In short, the committee approved changes that make it harder for faculty to receive tenure.


    Our numbers were definitely high. Is it possible that we are protecting faculty that, like some in the K-12 system, just shouldn’t be here? Perhaps the changes are warranted, but I’m always leery of private corporations making financial decisions concerning the common good, and specifically, education.


    Where do we draw the line between fiscal responsibility and cutting too many corners? The government has always been stingy with education. At least Brown’s private interests are backed by important academic standards. According to the Brown Daily Herald, the tenure review committee, consisting of nine tenured faculty members and two administrators, announced at the beginning of the processes that the high tenure acceptance rate “imposes constraints on hiring and restricts opportunities, limits the ability to expand into new and important areas of scholarship (and) reduces the turnover that is vital to intellectual renewal.”


    This seems like a fair point—and parallel to the one I’m making about public education. My gut reaction to the tenure changes was one of sympathy for our faculty, but after giving it some thought, it would be hypocritical of me to suggest that we axe crappy public school teachers while spoon-feeding professors at a private university.


    Talking with one of my professors, the generally well liked (and newly tenured, yay!) Deak Nabers of the English department put a few things into perspective.


    “I was treated incredibly fairly,” said Nabers, “and Brown wants that.” He emphasized that everyone wants to be given a chance and that Brown has fostered a positive reputation for professors. It’s an attractive place to be. That said, he seemed to take the position that the undergraduate student body at Brown is outstanding. Part of the desire to toughen the tenure review process is to make sure that the faculty is as top notch as its student body, to keep the increasingly bright classes on their toes.


    Here we are again, though, with the vicious cycle—which he too recognized. The brightest and easiest students to teach get taught by the best teachers, who receive the best pay, garner high esteem, and receive the most job security. Meanwhile, kindergarten teachers, who arguably have the greatest influence on a child’s trajectory, receive none of these things.


    Even the discussion of tenure amendments comes back to public school shortcomings. I think about a fifth grade classroom in Providence where I volunteer once a week, and when I compare this environment to my own Massachusetts suburban public school, I shudder at the disadvantages that these students face. It’s glaringly clear that the system needs to be reinvigorated.


    My consolation, for now, is that Brown students are lining up to join organizations like TFA, which have made it their goal to revive public schools around the country.


    If we want this country to thrive in the future, we need to stop the inequity here. While taking away the salaries of our teachers might momentarily boost limping state budgets, it only perpetuates the real problem. If we continue to tell ourselves that subpar schools and teachers are satisfactory, then we will continue to churn out generations of underachieving adults. After all, I assume that is part of Brown’s mission too—to have the best faculty in order to foster “intellectual renewal.”


    The means are different, but the ends have to be the same: better teachers. Brown is concerned that its faculty is too pampered, so hiring processes need to be more stringent. Hell, maybe we should just trash tenure and make it incentive based. For the American public school, though, selective hiring is only part of the answer. Yes, I believe that we should be more careful in choosing our teachers, but taking away funds from an already depleted field will not yield results. So put money back into the system, cut corners by increasing classroom size… do something. I just don’t think it is fair to criticize our teachers until we give them a chance to succeed.


    Our sustained growth relies on our ability to enhance the reputation of our educators, public and private, so that our fifth graders want to grow up to be teachers.