“Tenure Protects Bad Teachers” and Branding: The Fight for the Hearts and Minds of the Public

We never order a gelatin dessert, we order Jell-O, we don’t ask for a petroleum gel, we buy Vaseline, the advertising gurus successfully brand products. A political application: only dyed in the wool democrats refer to the Affordable Care Act, we call the law Obamacare, branding a law by tying it to an increasingly unpopular president is an effective strategy.

The branding of a product is the embedding of a “sticky idea.”

According to Chip and Dan Heath in Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die there are six principles that help you craft a sticky message:

Simplicity, Unexpectedness, Concreteness, Credibility, Emotions, and Stories

By Simplicity the Heath’s mean, keep it simple and profound.

“We must relentlessly prioritize. Saying something short is not the mission — sound bites are not the ideal. Proverbs are the ideal. We must create ideas that are both simple and profound. The Golden Rule is the ultimate model of simplicity: a one-sentence statement so profound that the individual could spend a lifetime learning to follow it.”

Tap into emotions to convey your point. We’re wired to feel things for people, not abstractions:

“How do we get people to care about our ideas? We make them feel something … Research that we are wired to feel things for people, not for abstractions.”

Tell stories to get people to act on your ideas:

“How do we get people to act on our ideas? We tell stories. … Research shows that mentally rehearsing a situation helps up perform better when we encounter that situation in the physical environment. Similarly, hearing stories acts as a kind of mental flight simulator, preparing us to respond more quickly and effectively.”

“Tenure protects bad teachers” has been embedded in the minds of the public, it is a sticky idea. The Silicon Valley billionaire and the judge hearing the case are victims of a successful campaign, they have allowed an idea, a deeply flawed idea, to enter and embed in their subconscious.

Diane Ravitch, in her inimitable fashion, tells us that the data that the judge relied upon is fatally flawed, Jesse Rothstein, in a NY Times op ed (“Taking on Teacher Tenure Backfires” writes,

… Eliminating tenure will do little to address the real barriers to effective teaching in impoverished schools, and may even make them worse.

The lack of effective teachers in impoverished schools contributes to [the achievement] gap, but tenure isn’t the cause. Teaching in those schools is a hard job, and many teachers prefer (slightly) easier jobs in less troubled settings. That leads to high turnover and difficulty in filling positions. Left with a dwindling pool of teachers, principals are unlikely to dismiss them, whether they have tenure or not.

A NY Times editorial (“A New Battle for Equal Education”) supports the decision, and, sort of begrudgingly, supports “reasonable due process rights for teachers,”

Teachers deserve reasonable due process rights and job protections. But the unions can either work to change the anachronistic policies cited by the court or they will have change thrust upon them.

In the battle for the hearts and minds of the public the West Coast teacher unions and the New York teachers unions took vastly different approaches. The California Teachers Association has battled for years to prevent any changes in tenure laws – the California law grants tenure after serving an 18 month probationary period and the procedures for removing tenured teachers are complex and the process lengthy, it can take years. The result: almost every teacher achieves tenure and the dismissal of a tenured teacher is exceedingly rare. The attrition rates, especially in the schools teaching the poorest kids are high – half of new teachers leave voluntarily within five years.

The image of kids failing in high poverty schools and the California tenure laws allowed the “messagers,” the framers of public opinion to embed the sticky idea, “tenure protects bad teachers.”

The New York City teacher union has been led by Randi Weingarten, currently the president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and now by Michael Mulgrew.

The AFT has taken a different approach which Weingarten calls “solution-driven unionism,”

Solution-driven unionism is rooted in solving problems, not winning arguments. AFT affiliates are pursuing this approach, and we are encouraging many more to follow suit. We know that this tough climate — marked by increasing poverty, continuing budget cuts, and a recession-fueled resurgence in attacks on unions and public services — can’t stop us from having a proactive quality education agenda. To the contrary — while we will continue to fight for the resources children need, we must also devise innovative, creative and new approaches to help all children succeed.

The UFT has worked diligently with a wide range of citywide and community-based organizations, from the NAACP to parent groups across the city. This type of coalition-building embeds “sticky ideas,” A Zogby Analytics poll,

New Yorkers now trust the oft-maligned teachers more than they trust the mayor’s office: almost half of all respondents said that teachers should “play the largest role in determining New York City’s education policy,” compared with 28 percent who thought that the mayor-appointed schools chancellor should.

In 2009 the NYC Department of Education changed the administrative procedures for the granting of tenure. After a three year probationary period the vast percentage of teachers received tenure, the Department changed the process – principals received data sets linking pupil performance to each teacher, teachers were required to submit “artifacts,” examples of student work as well as a review of supervisory observations.

Rather than a major public battle the union provided workshops across the city, every probationary teacher had the opportunity to meet with a union expert to assist in creating their portfolio and well as how to respond in meetings with their principals. While the number of teachers with extended probationary periods increased significantly the percentage of teachers who were denied tenure only increased by one percent.

A just-released study finds, (

“The receipt of tenure had become an expectation for nearly all teachers.’Tenure was rarely based on strong evidence of accomplishment.’

.. the percent of teachers granted tenure dropped from more than 90 percent to less than 60 percent while a substantially greater share of teachers had their tenure period extended. While denial of tenure increased from two percent in 2008 to just three percent in 2012, teachers whose probationary period was extended rose from less than 5 percent to over 40 percent of teachers. Extended teachers were given an additional year to demonstrate effective teaching consistent with the Effectiveness Framework.

Despite not altering the proportion of teachers denied tenure, the tenure reform meaningfully affected the composition of teachers. Researchers found that teachers who were extended were more than 50 percent more likely to transfer to another school within the district or to exit teaching in the district than otherwise similar teachers who were granted tenure. The authors compared the effectiveness of extended teachers who transferred or exited to all teachers entering these schools to assess whether the quality of teachers improves as a result of the policy.

“The extended teachers who leave their schools were less effective than the teachers likely to replace them” said Susanna Loeb, professor of education at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, a coauthor. “Likely replacement teachers are much more likely to be rated Effective or Highly Effective than the extended teachers who leave.

The New York State Teacher Union (NYSUT) fully participated in the creation of a teacher evaluation law – moving from a system solely based on principal assessment at the school level to a multiple measures system that involves measuring all teachers against similarly situated teachers across the state. The exceedingly dense system, in the first year, only found 1% of teachers ineffective.

In New York City the union negotiated changes in the teacher disciplinary procedures to expedite the process.

The recent teacher contract received a “thumbs up” from the editorial board of the NY Times,

There was no snarling at City Hall when Mayor Bill de Blasio and the teachers’ union announced a very significant labor agreement on Thursday Dispensing with the unproductive tension that tarnished the Bloomberg administration, the two sides showed that real progress can be made — on both the fiscal and the educational sides of the contract — when there is good will instead of disdain. On the whole, the agreement represents a good deal for the city and its students.

Even the Citizens’ Budget Commission, the self-proclaimed guardian of the City coffers gave the contract a qualified approval.

The tentative agreement between the city and the teachers union resolves major uncertainty surrounding the city’s financial plan and ensures some stability in labor relations with a major segment of the city workforce for the next five years.

It establishes a reasonable pattern for other city workers, but its affordability rests on ensuring concrete savings from health care costs.

Union leadership cannot be guided by the anger of members, in California teacher anger over attempts to modify tenure rules was popular, and a losing position. “Solution-driven unionism,” means pragmatism driven unionism; picking your fights and understanding that crafting solutions is far more effective than a win or lose approach.

Every year the UFT gives a million dollars in scholarships to deserving high school graduates, the UFT is supporting legislation to change the multiple choice test score method for admission to specialized high schools (Stuyvesant, Brooklyn Tech, etc.), which results in only a handful of Black and Hispanic students passing the test, to a multiple measures system, a change strongly supported by the NAACP.

Union leadership in New York City has created a climate in which the public sees the union at the forefront of working to create better schools in partnership with parents, in spite of a snarky barrage of negative articles in the print media. Teacher tenure is not an issue.

Every day, on Twitter, on Facebook, in blogs, in computer downloads the battle goes on … the battle for the hearts and minds, in the battle to convince legislators, to convince parents and voters, the battle to brand policies, to embed sticky ideas, the teacher union works to brand themselves as allies and partners of parent and families.

And, no, it is not obvious, the public is overwhelmed with messages, we have moved from a 24-hour news cycle to a 24-second news cycle. The “winners” will not be decided by the best ideas, the “winners” will be decided by those who can change public opinion, to build consensus, to win over the hearts and minds of the electorate.

BTW, eliminating tenure would probably increase a district budget. Howard Wainer, the author of Uneducated Guesses: Using Evidence to Uncover Misguided Education Policies, in a brief, powerful paper identified a district that ended tenure for superintendents, over the years after the elimination of tenure the teacher-superintendent salary gap widened significantly. To attract superintendents the district had to increase salaries, when given a choice teachers would clearly choose to work in districts with tenure and the only way to attract teachers would be to pay them more than in non-tenure districts.The elimination of tenure: a perfect example a “misguided education policy.”


3 responses to ““Tenure Protects Bad Teachers” and Branding: The Fight for the Hearts and Minds of the Public

  1. Ken Karcinell

    Tenure doesnt protect bad teachers, bad principals do..Or illiterate ones do. One of the things that we all learned during the rascist 60s and 70s, where school boards routinely denied Tenure applications, and were routinely ignored by “estopple”, was that tenure wasa good thing for all as it certainly did afford job security.How many times were there exposes on school board chairman and memebers outwardly boasting about their intentions to withhold the issuance of Tenure achievement letters ? Good principals recognized the fact that it behooved them to have a tenured staff, which by his or her training had reached a plateau of effective instruction. They knew that if they didnt have such a staff, that good teachers could be supplanted by others if they didnt have regular assigmnments with tenure. Leads to stabilty!We all knew that when you have a work force consisting of 7o,ooo employees there were gonna be “bad” ones. Whether they were thieves, perverts or just your average ineffective classroom instructors, they were entitled to protection under their contracts. But for those of us who were properly schooled in knowing how to write non conjectural letters for the file as well as definitive Obs reports, and knowing how to document other aspects of negative behavior, the ability to get such people out of your school was there. As a principal it wasnt your job to get them out of the system, just out of your school. And if you had thorough command of your “Principal” skills,there were a myriad of ways to accomplish that task.In this respect, I was always governed by Malcolms edict “by any means necessary”. For all those years the Union ,DOE and City could never come to terms on abolishing or shortening the reasonableness of someones right to due process. It all came to fruition with Bloomburgs RUBBER ROOM. Acquiring tenure free status does not to be sure go hand in hand with improved instruction.That doesnt happen w/o improved leadership. So when we see the likes of Principal Hawkins who after two years of supposedly being “put in check”, still doing the same idiotic things she has previously been held in contempt for, you have to ask yourself, what about school leadership ? Is that something which needs to be re-visited? The same people who want to eliminate tenure, have no answer fro classrooms w/o teachers. And that will be a bi product to what has happened in Cali and will happen whereevr it is implemented. Even the so called Union Free School Districts in LI, grant tenure. Job security in the private sector is subject to our national and local economies. Non tenured teachers are subject to imbecilic rule and ultimately demoralized staff, acts of intimidation and a scenario where the lunatics will truly run the asylum. Civil Service is what it is, because of the need to stop abuse of power and corrupty officiating. Removal of tenure will do nothing but become a part of so many parts that are problematic with our system already.


  2. Marc Korashan

    Ed’s ;last point on the potential cost of eliminating tenure is part of Rothstein’s analysis. He found that “firing bad teachers actually makes it harder to recruit new good ones, since new teachers don’t know which type they will be. That risk must be offset with higher salaries — but that in turn could force increases in class size that themselves harm student achievement>”

    This analysis underlines the complexity of the issues involved in trying to improve schools. Those on the outside, like Judge Treu, look for simple top-down solutions; no tenure, fire bad teachers, get new and better ones. But any truly thoughtful analysis will demonstrate that there is not a huge pool of great teachers waiting to be hired. Tenure and other working condition issues will determine whether individuals will look to enter the profession or stay in it and build real skills.

    There is no simple solution to improving schools and those who insist there is seem to have other agendas, such as breaking the power of Teacher Unions to make electing right wing politicians easier. Hedge fund managers funding the lawsuits and the charters want to privatize education to take money out of the system. “Follow the money!” is the way to understand most of the arguments in the current school reform debates (although no one goes into teaching to get rich).

    The real solutions for schools will have to grow from the bottom up in each individual school and community. This means empowering students, parents and teachers to look critically at their practice and giving them the authority to make changes to find what works.

    The new UFT contract takes some steps in that direction and we have to hope that with support from the Union schools will demonstrate that this “Teacher Voice” model can work by taking full advantage of those elements.


  3. Peter:

    Very interesting that you make Randi Weingarten a hero. In fact, it was her pushing of the disastrous 2005 contract that created the ATR pool, the extra 37.5 minutes, and no more grievances when given a the letter to the file.

    Randi a hero? Not in my world.


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