Opinion: What’s Good for Our Teachers Is Good for Our Students

Mark Weber | April 16, 2014 | Opinion
Attempts to deprecate or demonize teachers when they stand up for themselves are bad for our kids' education

Mark Weber
Why is teaching the only profession in New Jersey (and the nation) where employees are criticized for standing up for themselves?

In Newark, the teachers union has decried a plan, proposed by State Superintendent Cami Anderson, to bypass laws requiring the use of seniority in layoffs. Considering the NTU just ratified a contract in 2012 that included unprecedented provisions for merit pay and teacher evaluation, the Newark Teachers Union felt blindsided by Anderson’s request for a waiver from seniority laws.

Her response?

An op-ed in the Huffington Post that chides her critics for criticizing what she describes as “. . . bold proposals that challenge sacred cows — and adult interests embedded in the status quo.”

In other words: Anderson thinks it’s wrong for Newark’s teachers to demand that the laws that protect the interests of educators in other districts apply to them as well, because standing up for themselves perpetuates a “status quo” harmful to children.

New Jersey’s former Education Commissioner Chris Cerf was also given to making oblique statements that took teachers and their unions to task when they advocated for themselves. Cerf saw himself as a crusader who stood up against those who “… focus on adult interests at the expense of children’s interests.”

Cerf used this same language back in 2010 when describing teacher tenure. He said these workplace protections “put the interests of adults ahead of the interests of children.” (Never mind that Cerf didn’t present any evidence showing that eliminating tenure leads to better student outcomes. All that mattered was the ultimately illogical argument that if tenure was good for teachers, it must be bad for students.)

Of course, no public official has done more to vilify teachers for daring to defend themselves than Gov. Chris Christie. Back in 2011, when Christie was demanding teachers take a pay freeze and pay more for their health care, the governor openly mocked teachers who questioned why they were being asked to sacrifice while the millionaire tax expired on the governor’s desk.

Christie sarcastically imagined a student distraught over his teacher’s pay cut: “‘Just pay for my teacher’s health benefits,’” he pleads, “‘and I’ll get A’s, I swear. But I just cannot take the stress that’s being presented by a 1½ percent contribution to health benefits.’”

It apparently never dawned on our wealthy governor that to teachers — college-educated workers (often with substantial student loans) with median salaries of $62,583 – 1.5 percent of their salaries might actually be significant.

Nor did it occur to Christie that a better way to save taxpayers money would be to rein in runaway premium costs. The 2013 projected increase in school employees’ premium costs was 13.3 percent, way in excess of the inflation rate.

There has been no reporting that Christie is at all concerned about the “adult interests” that are served by this unchecked explosion of healthcare costs. The only adults Christie cares to challenge on acting in their own interests are, apparently, teachers.

Let me be clear: if there were, in fact, any policies that could be shown to benefit students to the detriment of teachers, they would have to be considered. But the current “reformy” policies pushed by Christie and Anderson that degrade teacher workplace protections and compensation have never been proved to be good for children in public schools.

Take layoff policies. In its application for the layoff waiver, Anderson’s administration cites research that purports to show that so-called “value-based” layoffs would retain better teachers. But these studies are, at best, illustrations: they are not based on analyzing the outcomes of actual policies implemented in actual school districts.

What none of the studies can account for, then, is what happens to the pool of teacher applicants when a district adopts layoffs that ignore seniority. Where is any evidence that Newark will be able to attract and retain quality educators when its neighboring districts base their layoffs — layoffs that are likely much less frequent and less intense because those districts don’t suffer the leeching effects of charter schools — on seniority?

Think about it: if you were a well-qualified, proven educator, why would you ever consider taking a job in Newark, where you could be dismissed at any point in your career without due process, if you were offered a similar position down the road in Millburn, where seniority is respected?

Tenure is another example. Why would anyone go into teaching — a demanding, high-skill job that requires a college degree yet pays modestly (at best) — if she thought she would be subjected to the political pressures inherent in other types of public employment?

Back in 2011, the Elizabeth School board was found to have been exerting pressure on employees to give political contributions to favored candidates. How much worse would this pressure have been without tenure? How many Tammany Halls would we create in New Jersey without a system of due process for teacher dismissals? Whatever attractions the teaching profession has for bright young people would be greatly diminished in a world that did not offer teachers some modicum of security when they do their jobs well.

All this raises a larger point: what sort of people do we want teaching in our schools? Educators who demand that they be respected and treated as the career professionals they are? Or employees who meekly accept frozen pay, diminished benefits, and degraded workplace protections?

Who are the better role models for our students? Who are the people more likely to be able to command a classroom and lead their lessons with poise and confidence? Career educators who believe enough in their own abilities to insist on fair wages and tenure protections are employees who set a tone in their schools and their communities of respect, self-reliance, and integrity.

The notion that teachers, alone among all professions, shouldn’t act in their own interests is simply absurd. Yes, there needs to be accountability; yes, there are limits on what we can pay teachers.

But standing up for yourself isn’t a character flaw; it is a virtue. So if we want put an excellent teacher in front of every student, let’s start by acknowledging that teachers have every right to act in their own, enlightened self-interest.

And let’s stop assuming that any policy that is good for teachers must be bad for students. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, it’s reasonable to assume that making teachers happy is much more likely to make students happy.