Ted Rall got it wrong on tenure and 'underpaid' teachers

Ted Rall's Feb. 6 blog post and cartoon, "Stop tenure tyranny and show some love for our hardworking teachers," is long on demagoguery and little else. Even the title of the piece misses the mark.

Contrary to what Rall writes, teachers in California's public schools do not get tenure. What they achieve after two years on the job is "permanent status." What other job affords workers something called permanence? And getting rid of an underperforming teacher who has reached that lofty perch is just about impossible. But Rall makes the claim that "tenure doesn't prevent districts from firing teachers. It makes it hard. (Not impossible: 2% of teachers get fired for poor performance annually.)"

The 2% figure is a half-truth. During the first two years on the job, a teacher can be let go relatively easily for poor performance. Maybe 2% of newbies don't cut it. But what Rall doesn’t tell you is that, in California, due to the permanence and byzantine dismissal statutes enshrined in the state education code, only about 10 teachers a year out of nearly 300,000 (0.003%) who have attained permanence lose their jobs. Of those, just two teachers get fired for poor performance.

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This is disgraceful, and most teachers know it. In fact, according to a recent survey of teachers working in Los Angeles conducted by the National Council on Teacher Quality, 68% reported that "there were tenured teachers currently working in their schools who should be dismissed for poor performance."

Then Rall goes off the rails, saying that what's wrong with tenure is that "only teachers can get it." (When you go to a doctor for a serious medical condition, do you want to see the best one or any old quack who still has an "MD" after his name?)

Rall then ventures into other areas. He laments his mother’s (a retired public school teacher) "crummy salary." In fact, the most recent study on teacher pay shows that when perks like healthcare and pension packages are taken into consideration, today’s teachers are in fact overpaid. Armed with mounds of documentation, the Heritage Foundation's Jason Richwine and American Enterprise Institute’s Andrew Biggs write:

"Workers who switch from non-teaching jobs to teaching jobs receive a wage increase of roughly 9 percent, while teachers who change to non-teaching jobs see their wages decrease by approximately 3 percent....

"When retiree health coverage for teachers is included, it is worth roughly an additional 10 percent of wages, whereas private sector employees often do not receive this benefit at all....

"Taking all of this into account, teachers actually receive salary and benefits that are 52 percent greater than fair market levels."

Then Rall gets political and again misses the mark. He claims:

"During the last few decades, particularly since the Reagan administration, the right has waged war on teachers and their unions. From No Child Left Behind to the sneakily anti-union, anti-professionalization outfit Teach for America to the Common Core curriculum, conservatives are holding teachers accountable for their kids' academic performance"

Reagan? Just what is Rall alluding to?

When he talks about "the sneakily anti-union, anti-professionalization outfit Teach for America," does he mean the very successful organization that identifies young teacher-leaders and trains them for service, founded and run by social justice advocates who have made (some) peace with the National Education Assn.? That TFA?

And Common Core? Sorry, but it is a bipartisan issue. In fact, teacher union chiefs whom Rall might consider allies, including National Education Assn. President Dennis Van Roekel and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, support it.

As for Rall's complaint that "conservatives are holding teachers accountable for their kids' academic performance" -- good grief. If teachers shouldn't be held accountable, why are they teaching? And for crying out loud, it's not just conservatives who are demanding teacher accountability. Students First's Michelle Rhee, American Federation of Children's Kevin Chavous, Democrats for Education Reform's Joe Williams and former California state Sen. Gloria Romero all want more teacher accountability -- and none of them qualify as right-wingers.

Ironically, Rall's piece ends with an editor's note correcting a minor inaccuracy. I wish that were the only thing Rall gets wrong.


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Larry Sand, a former public school teacher for 28 years, is the president of the nonprofit California Teachers Empowerment Network

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