March 10, 2015
Cynthia DiBartolo, CEO, Tigress Financial Partners
In his 2015 State of the State address Governor Andrew Cuomo, speaking about the challenges facing New York’s public schools, attacked teacher tenure, claiming that it protects ineffective educators from being fired. To me this seemed like classic scapegoating, but to my surprise, many of my colleagues in the business community echoed similar views.
I believe many New Yorkers, especially those in the business sector, simply do not understand tenure, its real functions and value, and that their views are too often informed by myths that have been increasingly circulated by private sector ‘reform’ advocates and for-profit charter organizations.
A common misconception is that tenure guarantees teachers a job for life. This is simply untrue. Tenure ensures the right of a veteran teacher to a fair hearing in the event that charges are levied against them that could end their career, and protects them from being dismissed for unfair, political, or discriminatory reasons. Tenure has been revised in New York three times in recent years to ensure that due process hearings are expeditious and fair, and a majority of these cases are settled before a hearing is even required.
Some even claim that tenure is merely a tool used by unions to maintain and strengthen membership. In fact, unions do not negotiate tenure. Tenure was first enacted in New York in 1897 to protect teachers against unfair firing, 70 years before public sector unions gained the right to bargain.
Another misconception is that tenure serves no function other than to protect teachers from unfair dismissal. Tenure is also critical in ensuring teachers have the freedom to provide our children with a rounded, full education. Without tenure, teachers and classrooms can become hostage to political censorship or the prejudice of private interests and individuals.
Tenured teachers have earned the right to voice their opposition to (or simply their disagreement with) education boards or administrators over issues like ineffective teaching modules, over-testing, or lack of academic resources. Without tenure, teachers have no protection from being fired for speaking out on behalf of their curriculum, their peers, their students, or their school.
Tenure affords teachers the freedom to innovate and implement creative and relevant curricula, without fear of reprisal. This is critical for any quality educator, especially now, when teachers are increasingly threatened by blanket “reform” legislation and standardized test based evaluation systems that intimidate them, administrators, and principles, into moving education away from real learning toward the mere recitation of material needed to pass a test and earn an “effective” rating.
Cuomo seems to think that a standardized test based evaluation system can be used to identify and dispose of bad teachers. Just fill in the scores and supposedly you can get fair, objective, accurate results that can be used to make the tough decisions needed to reform our public schools. This is an incredible oversimplification that ignores (among other things) the circumstance and context of the school, the students, and the teachers in question. Any effective reform to our school system must acknowledge and respect these differences, not simply ignore them or try to cover them up.
We need high standards for both teachers and students, however, I find no reason to believe that eroding due process rights for our educators will help us address student achievement in New York. Business, labor, and government depend on quality education available to all in order for our economy and society at large to succeed. This is impossible if we do not provide our veteran teachers the protection they deserve and the opportunity to teach our children to the best of their ability.
Cynthia DiBartolo is the CEO of Tigress Financial Partners. Ms. DiBartolo is a Chairperson of the Greater New York Chamber of Commerce and serves as an Executive Board Member of the Business and Labor Coalition of New York.