July 13, 2020

Modernizing arcane teacher tenure laws is not an “attack,” it’s good policy

Can black teachers survive reform of teacher tenure laws?


I’ve recently pointed out we don’t have the teacher workforce need.

To be blunt, over 80% of America’s teachers are white at a time when children of color are emerging as the majority of students. It’s all too possible for black and brown students to end their entire k-12 student career without ever having been taught by a teacher of color.

That’s just wrong for so many reasons.

So any comprehensive school reform effort must be include a focus on indigenous teachers (those who teach where they are from).

Still, even with my full-throated support of preparing, hiring, and retaining black teachers, a recent Washington Post article by Dr. Andre Perry goes too far. His puzzling conclusion that challenging “bad tenure laws” is an “attack” on black teachers and black professionals is bizarre. He seems to see schools more as employers than institutions responsible for the care and development of children.

To support his claims he pulls together several data points about minority participation in unions that show blacks have a stronghold in unions. Then he implies anything that impacts public sector unions is negative for the black working class.

Apparently, the proposal to reform teacher tenure and to connect teacher employment with their ability to achieve results for children is a threat to unionists overall, and therefore, to black people dependent on government jobs.

While I’m sympathetic to the fact we need more black teachers and black schools for black students, I’m appalled by the suggestion that the way to get there is to judge teachers crudely by their date of hire rather than their ability to teach.

That will never make sense if student learning is the one goal of public funding for education.

Yes, jobs are important. And, we’ve seen public sector jobs decline big time. We’ve lost 600,000 of them just since 2008. And, yes, that has impacted black workers more than white.

I expect good liberals to ask how we can reverse that trend.

By contrast, always forward thinking, progressives will ask why black employment is dependent on state employers? Have we missed the fact that white workers have profited greatly by excelling in the private sector while we cling nostalgically to yesteryear?

The impact is clear. The economic separtion of the races took place while white educated household joined the new economy, and we stuck with the state. The chart below from the the Institute on Assets and Social Policy shows the expanding of a wealth gap between white and black households that “ballooned” from about $85,000 in 1984 to $237,000 in 2009.

wealth gap

You might think the black-white wealth gap is driven by many factors. That’s true. But most of us know educational attainment is key to competing in a tough economy.

That is why we must demand an effective system of public education. Realizing the practical, material, social, and political gravity of poorly performing schools, efforts to improve them are life or death. 

While some of our public intellectuals are stuck in the paleoliberal university time-warp where they continue to reheat the vision of unionized government employment as the cornerstone of black economic survival, we need to hear from other voices with better ideas.

John Hope Bryant, author of “How The Poor Can Save Capitalism,” may be such a voice. He articulates a pathway to rebuilding the middle-class more in line with how the world actually works.

He says while “the route to success has changed, for too many in the black and minority community, their game plan has not…”


For much of the past century, African Americans pursued social justice through government intervention, the ballot box, and ultimately elective office. While the number of black mayors and elected officials in this country is impressive, the number of black entrepreneurs is not. As a result, job creation in underserved communities, and among the black middle class, is stagnant.

Public sector unionism was a way to middle-class status (for some). Innovation and intellectual property are the way there now.

But enough about economics, and back to education.

It’s troubling Dr. Perry said so little about the research that came out of California’s celebrated Vergara v. California lawsuit which challenged teacher dismissal, layoff, and tenure statutes.

What about the byzantine teacher dismissal policies proven to keep “grossly ineffective” teachers in classrooms; or how those teachers end up teaching more poor children of color than white students; or how that impacts achievement and harms children for life (e.g. it costs a classroom of 28 students a loss of $1.4 million in lifetime earnings)?

He cares about retaining black teachers. So do I. But tenure, seniority, and “last in, first out” fails to get us there. These policies allow for high-quality teachers of color to lose their jobs even when they are more effective than their colleagues with tenure.


See the chart below. It shows how LIFO played out in Minneapolis Public Schools. The result was that over the last decade the percentage of black teachers was reduced from a high of 8% to a low of 4%. Black teachers were released at a much higher rate than white teachers. It should be of interest to Dr. Perry that one of those black teachers was LeAnn Stephens, Minnesota’s 2006 teacher of the year.

Source: Freedom of Information request from Minneapolis Public Schools

Dr. Perry might serve us better by telling us which school reforms he supports rather than sounding the one-note horn about how the monolithic “reformers” of his imagination are not seeing the one important light he harbors while they tend to the million others pertinent to good schooling that he ignores (e.g. teaching, learning, curriculum, school design, data usage, etc.).

While I believe we should be producing a bumper crop of high quality black teachers to lead in black neighborhoods, I realize that historically that goal has been part of a social commitment to self-determination and justice, not just a job.

Like Dr. Perry, I believe school reform deserves critique. But, because of the importance of its mission it also needs fair critics who are equally willing to address the monumental shortcomings of public schools that draws calls for reform in the first place.

That said, if bad tenure law – those that protect ineffective teachers and harm children – are needed to keep black people in jobs, God help us all.

The battle for a few jobs might be won, but the heritage and future of the black race will be lost.


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