IN 1965, my third-grade teacher, Mrs. Dixon -- a 200-pound woman not to be trifled with -- delivered the most extraordinary astronomy lesson. "There isn't," she explained to us, "any gravity on the moon."
"But Mrs. Dixon," someone protested, "how will the astronauts walk around up there?"
Mrs. Dixon lost a beat but quickly rebounded. "They're going to take the gravity along in their shoes!" she replied triumphantly.
Now I don't know for a fact that Mrs. Dixon is still imparting notions of portable gravity to her charges in New Jersey elementary schools, but it's a safe bet that she was never fired. Why? Because in 90 percent of American public school districts, the tenure system makes it almost impossible to fire a teacher for incompetence.
In New York City, John J. Cardinale, a tenured public school teacher, was repeatedly charged with assaulting his students. Despite numerous complaints and several abortive disciplinary proceedings, Mr. Cardinale remained on the faculty -- until one day, he shoved a stranger onto the subway tracks in Manhattan and killed him.
A past president of the Chicago Board of Education, addressing his first meeting with school principals who supervised 30,000 teachers, asked, "How many teachers have been dismissed for incompetence in the past year?" There was silence. The answer was zero. Administrative procedures had been started against six but without resolution.
The overwhelming majority of public school teachers are dedicated professionals who do a critical job for too little money and too little appreciation, but it stretches credulity to believe that among 30,000 anythings -- judges, mechanics or teachers -- there aren't some who fall short.
Since the 1983 publication of "A Nation At Risk" (the Education Department's gloomy assessment of American schools), states have implemented any number of sound and sensible education reforms: teacher competency tests, alternative certification, raising teacher salaries, magnet schools, merit pay and experimentation with apprenticeship and master teacher programs.
The great taboo has remained the tenure system.
Tenure got started in the 1940s. The original rationale was to prevent teaching positions from being treated as political patronage jobs. Tenure was to the schools what the civil service was to other government employ.
But in the intervening 40 years, the tenure system has calcified. It now protects teachers not just from political caprice but from accountability.
Layer upon layer of administrative hearings and court reviews have been piled upon the required measures for getting rid of a bad apple.
The process of firing someone who is teaching sixth-grade arithmetic but cannot perform sixth-grade arithmetic can take years and costs the taxpayers more than $30,000 a shot. It's little wonder that so few discharges are attempted.
And yet, there is nothing more soul-deadening to a child than a bad teacher. It's like blocking out the sun.
Teacher unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, claim that systems of peer review can weed out incompetent teachers -- and they are making some good faith efforts. But how realistic is it to believe that fellow union members will ask the school board to fire one of their own?
Resistance to tenure reform is now based not on the fear of political reprisals but on the implausible idea that without tenure protection vindictive principals will wield indiscriminate swords. But as Professor Edward Wynne of the University of Illinois points out, that fear is disingenuous. "Most supervisors do not want to fire somewhat inadequate employees. Bringing in and training new employees is usually arduous. The discharge of an experienced worker is a traumatic event . . . rarely carried out in a casual or flighty fashion."
It is true that permitting principals more discretion on hiring and firing will lead to some injustices, but that may be the price we have to pay to learn that, yes, there is gravity on the moon.
Mona Charen is on maternity leave. This column was syndicated in May 1988.