I'm gradually catching up with the Real Times which aired whilst I was in the States and last night, I managed to catch the episode which aired on 13th March.
During the panel discussion, which included Georgetown professor Eric Michael Dyson and conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart, Bill touched on the idea that President Obama, in recent weeks, had been unafraid to address various traditional political third rails, as subject to being changed; and the third rail Bill emphasised was teachers and the teachers' unions.
In a speech about education funding that week, the President suggested that his Administration would establish merit pay for teachers, reckoning that good teachers needed to be rewarded for good performances and good results. It was an effort to re-invigorate the teaching profession, and I remember the unions getting pretty hot under the collar in disapproval.
On that point, Bill and Breitbart, his conservative guest, seemed to be in agreement: that children had suffered in the educational system, primarily because of bad teachers.
That stuck in my craw, on hearing that expostulated in that way, because - well, for awhile after I finished uni in the late Seventies, I was a teacher, myself. But then, reason and open-mindedness returned, and I heard out the rest of the argument. Whilst Breitbart reckoned that teachers going into the profession were just bad, Bill's argument was that the system of tenure was what was allowing the majority of bad teachers to remain in the system.
That made sense. And as an ex-teacher, I would agree with that.
Now, I've been away from the teaching profession since 1981, but it's nice to know that plus ca change, plus ca reste la meme. Or rather, some things never change, and now I truly realise how deeply conservative and averse to change the teaching profession is.
Basically, public education works this way with teachers: A teacher is employed for a certain teaching position. He or she is employed on a one-year contract. At the end of that year, if you perform well and if there's a need for you at that school, your contract is renewed and you get the pay raise negotiated by your union. You get another one-year contract. At the end of the second year, your position is re-evaluated. Good performance, good enrollment, you're in. If you don't make the grade or there isn't a demand for the subject you teach, then you're out.
Now comes the all-decisive third year. If you make it to THREE years at one school, and if - at the end of the third year - your performance is up to par and there's a need for you to be in your position, you're given tenure.
Tenure means that you cannot get fired, unless you commit a serious crime. Tenure means that if only two kids signed up for the course you taught, you'd just be moved to another school in the district or kept on teaching another subject. Tenure, at the best of times, ensures that a really good teacher teaching an interesting subject, will stay at a particular school.
But tenure at the worst of times, means a teacher will do just enough for the first three years they're at a school, to get the tenured position, then they'll sit back and rest on their laurels. They can't be touched.
Tenure can be political.
At the first school where I taught, I lasted two years. I had good evaluations and my classes were over-subscribed. But I made friends with a clique of teachers who were decidedly against the ruling clique of tenured teachers who were special favourites of the principal at the time. I think the beginning of my end at that school was not allowing a kid to opt out of a Spanish test to go get the yearbook ads laid out. The yearbook advisor was the principal's best friend, so my card was marked.
It was frustrating because I could see that some of the tenured teachers there were just marking time, themselves. Those who weren't favourites, were disgruntled and low on morale due to the fact that their pay was low. (Hey, teaching's a vocation; no one ever entered the profession to become a millionaire). At any rate, the tenured few were not the teaching few.
So Bill might have a point there too. Maybe tenure now equates with job security, but it doesn't give a person in such an important position as educating the future of our nation the right to 'opt out' of his responsibility for an easy life.
I went on to teach for two more years. Again, good evaluations, classes over-subscribed, kids got good achievement results in the subjects I taught them; but I didn't get tenure in that job either. I left after two years again ... this time to get married and move abroad.