August 28, 2014

Race, Urban Teaching, And Can The Education Community Talk About Anything In A Sensible Way These Days?

By Bellwether

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A Washington Post column on tenure and race is getting some attention. It argues that Vergara-like efforts to reform tenure laws are really an attack on black professionals. The author, ed school dean Andre Perry, acknowledges that parts of the Vergara case have merit:

Vergara’s defenders are onto something when they say schools need faster ways to remove ineffective, racist, sexist and uncommitted teachers. I personally believe that, along with evaluations, the period before one is granted tenure should at least be longer than the duration after which the average teacher leaves the profession (4-5 years). Still, changes like these can be made in the current framework of teacher tenure laws.

But he argues that,

Vergara activists must not only prove how gutting tenure laws leads to better schooling; they must show how the entire community benefits.

Ignore for a moment that the Vergara decision didn’t actually jettison all due process rights, that’s a talking point. The judge explicitly pointed out that the case was about changes to due process. In other words, changes within the “framework” of tenure laws (that he left it up to the legislature to sort out if the ruling stands on appeal). And Vergara-advocates want longer tenure periods and faster dismissal, too. Other than last in/first out rules that’s what the case was about!

So while one can quibble with those issues as well as with some of Perry’s assertions (that raising the bar for teaching must come at the expense of diversity, for instance), the more basic point – that there is an inescapable racial dimension to urban reform efforts – is an important one to discuss, whether you agree with him or not.

It’s hard, though, to have that discussion because of what the column doesn’t say rather than what it does. Perry is correct that the effect of some personnel reforms in urban schools have been layoffs of black teachers. Richard Whitmire quickly pointed that out on Twitter. Yet Perry doesn’t just say that’s the effect of some reforms, he seems to be implicitly arguing that it’s the intent. Or at a minimum he’s not clearly saying that it’s not, which in America’s combustible dialogue about race is not a small thing. He writes that,

…an attack on bad teacher tenure laws (and ineffective teachers in general) is actually an attack on black professionals.

In today’s weaponized education debate that unfortunate and inflammatory tone is catnip for the usual suspects. For instance, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten (consider her a known offender here, in the past she has been quick to whip up racial animosity even as she has called for changing the tone of the education conversation) took to Twitter with a few tweets touting the article). It should probably go without saying that she offered no nuance or caveats.

In a way it’s an interesting issue for Weingarten to seize on because in many ways Perry’s argument is an anagram of a different issue embroiling the teachers unions – how to deal with sex abusers in schools. Union leaders are frequently accused of wanting to shield sex offenders from consequences. In my experience this isn’t the case, they’re as appalled by that conduct as the rest of us. But they do believe that a substantial due process procedure is necessary to protect all teachers even if it has the inadvertent effect of complicating efforts to address sexual abuse. I disagree with the prevailing policies now but I don’t think those defending them countenance sexual abuse, they just see a different set of trade-offs.

That nuance, which is shared by many, is of course mostly lost.

In the same way, there is a great deal of concern about the impact of demographic changes to urban teaching forces, the effects of personnel policies, and so forth. Reasonable people can disagree about where the trade-offs are and how policies should account for them. But it’s a charged conversation and an easy one for the usual suspects to hijack especially with language like Perry employs.

Why does this matter? It’s about a lot more than a poorly reasoned op-ed. Another combustible and important issue that is commonly discussed behind the scenes but not as much in public – race and urban education reform – is beginning to get a more public airing. It’s a chance to repeat the same mistakes or learn something. Takeaway number one: These are complicated issues.

So let’s hope that the conversation has some texture to it that reflects that, even if it’s just a quick but sincere disclaimer that there is often a big distinction between effects and intent.

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