Is Matt Damon Right That Tenure is Vital for K-12 Teachers?

A coupla days ago, actor Matt Damon
did an “Ask Me
Anything” on Reddit
. In answer to one of the questions, he
uncorked this reference to a 2011 exchange he had with Reason at a
pro-teacher rally:

We would never let business men design warheads, why would you
cut out educators when you’re designing education policy? This was
for one of those libertarian websites and they had an attack
question planned about tenure. Diane Ravitch was there, she’s a
huge figure in education and she jumped in and just set them
straight about what having tenure meant. It just basically means
you have the right to be represented, and have your side of
something heard if someone is trying to get rid of you.

There’s a lot of things to agree with in Damon’s comments about
education. Yes, No Child Left Behind is an expensive and
ineffective boondoggle (also, a bipartisan one). And K-12 education
is fairly obsessed with standardarized tests, a problem that will
only get worse as “Common Core” guidelines fully start influencing
curricula around the country. As Matt Welch and I point out
somewhere in The Declaration of Independents, K-12
education is so ossified that it’s still following a 19th-century
agricultural schedule that even farmer don’t use anymore.

But Damon’s understanding of the role of teacher tenure as it
applies to K-12 teachers is simply wrong (as is his
characterization of Reason‘s offending question that
starts his rant, on display below). To pretend that tenure for
elementary and secondary-school teachers – which typically kicks in
after a few years on the job – is simply about wrongful termination
underscores Damon’s complete lack of knowledge of how public
education works. And it has nothing in common with tenure at the
college and university level, which is far more rigorous and
includes important (though often overstated) safeguards for
academic freedom. Teachers are among the very most politically
powerful entities in any given local or state decision-making
process. Far from somehow being disenfranchised in the setting of
educational policy and especially in terms of job dismissal,
teachers are doing pretty damn swell. If you want a particularly
egregious example of just how far legal protections for teachers
can go, check out this 2006 Reason piece by John Stossel.
Titled “How
do I fire an incompetent teacher?
,” it documents the virtual
impossibility of booting godawful employees from the New York City
public school system. That’s an extreme situation, but the general
outline holds true everywhere.

Damon is hardly alone is suggesting that tenure is some sort of
noble bulwark against a particularly nasty and brutish
public-sector work jungle. Here’s Erik Kain writing at Forbes in

Teachers need protection from over-zealous bosses and
ideological politicians. This is the same thinking behind seniority
rules, which protect more expensive teachers
(i.e. veterans) from being laid off due to budget cuts. Teaching is
not a high-paying job compared to jobs in the private sector, and
one of the benefits is some job security.

Kain was writing about a Chicago Tribune infographic
bemoaning how long it takes to get rid of substandard teachers. Do
people really believe that, absent the current system of tenuring,
politicians would be firing massive numbers of teachers? Or that
“over-zealous bosses” would fire public-school teachers more
readily than, I don’t know, private-school teachers? Is K-12
education a unique field that would get rid of experienced (and
presumably more effective) workers simply because they cost

How is it that good workers in all sorts of industries and
fields manage to keep their jobs, get promotions, and be evaluated
fairly but K-12 teachers need tenure early on in their careers?
Could it have less to do with any sort of pressing need and more to
do with the political clout wielded by teachers unions and
professional associations? And a taxpaying public essentially held
hostage by the same? I’m just throwing out some ideas

To that latter point, Damon and others routinely assert that
public school teachers don’t make good money. That is flatly false.
school teachers make
on average about $13,000 a year more in
straight salary than their private-school counterparts, and the
compensation gap grows still wider when retirement and health
benefits are added in. And when teacher pay is compared to other
professionals’ pay on an
hourly basis
, teachers do extremely well. The idea that
public-sector workers are trading salary for security is a
well-documented myth

As it happens, National
School Choice Week
, which annually celebrates a true grassroots
movement pushing towards increasing options for all K-12 students,
just ended recently (check
out this Reason TV video
about the future of school choice).
I’m curious if Damon believes that’s a righteous cause. I think I
know the answer. Last year,
Damon took a bunch of shit
for opting out of sending his
children to Los Angeles Unified School District schools. He argued
that they weren’t “progressive” enough for his tastes, so he had no
choice but to opt for a private school. It’s great that he
exercised his right to choose. But does he support the right of
parents without his economic means to do the same? How much do you
want to bet that whatever private schools his kids attend have far
weaker tenure protections than the LAUSD?

Here’s the original Reason TV video with Damon being interviewed
by Michelle Fields. Produced by Jim Epstein, who also enters the


from Hit & Run

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