Tenure protects Miss Napoleon, Ms. God

Thanks to teacher tenure, Glenn Garvin knows a lot about UFOs, Venusian civilization and the thriving cities on the dark side of the moon, he writes in the Miami Herald. His elderly Spanish teacher devoted her class to the space travels and alien encounters of George Adamski.

. . . our comparatively rare forays into Spanish grammar were usually derailed: Any kid who muffed a line in one of the conversational dialogues we were supposed to memorize and recite (Hola Juan, cómo estás? Estoy bien, gracias, y tú?) could immediately reduce the class to chaos by shouting, “It’s not my fault, Miss Napoleon, my mind was seized by Master Control in Ship X-7!”

I didn’t know any other teachers who were as flat-out daft as old Miss Napoleon, but there were several who used their classrooms for stuff other than teaching their assigned subjects. One science teacher, who ran a private martial-arts club on weekends, gave us extra credit if we helped him organize karate tournaments; another, who doubled as the baseball coach, excused us from class to help spruce up the field.

Gov. Charlie Crist’s veto of SB 6 ensures that it will remain extremely difficult, slow and costly to fire Florida teachers, Garvin writes.

When a Duval County typing teacher was caught throwing books at her students and demanding that they refer to her as Ms. God (their reluctance to do so, she explained to administrators, was proof they were possessed by evil spirits), it took three years to fire her.

A few bad teachers can do a lot of damage, Eric Hanushek, a Hoover Institution fellow, tells Garvin. “The bottom 5 to 10 percent of teachers have a dramatic impact on schools. In a school with 30 teachers, we’re talking about the bottom two or three. They’re almost always identified. Everybody knows who they are, but we do nothing about them.”

About Joanne


  1. The school admins might not do anything, or might not be able to do anything, but parents can and do.

    After my youngest – as a public-school 4th grader – had one of the worst teachers we have ever met, we switched the child to a private school.

    Ancedotally, I am meeting more families who are home schooling. And this includes non-religious families and Catholic families who have local Catholic grade schools available to them.

    My prediction is that fewer motivated and smart children will attend public schools and private schools with terrible teachers. The parents will move them.

    And the impending fiscal problems/crises that many states and localities will have won’t help. We may end up with REALLY small class sizes in lousy schools.

  2. So just to recap: if a state has a slow and costly process for firing ineffective (possibly insane) teachers, that the good and effective teachers have nothing to do with creating or maintaining, the good teachers should pay for that with their hard-earned tenure?

    Just want to make sure I’m reading this right.

  3. I agree that bad teachers need to go. I agree that there are some bad teachers. However, my real issue with you (why I quit subscribing to your feed) is that you fail to recognize the sheer number of great teachers out there. When you constantly focus on “reform” and getting rid of bad teachers who continue to perpetuate the myth that schools are filled with lousy teachers.

  4. Richard Aubrey says:

    Sure way to tell which teachers are losers; when other teachers will insure their own kids aren’t in those classes.
    Helps to be plugged in to the system so even non-teachers can tell which teachers to avoid for their own kids.
    If you’re not…your kids get the losers.

  5. To the (apparently) teachers that are upset about Ms Jacob’s lack of support for tenure and good teachers, I do not think that she is anti-teacher, nor do I think that she underestimates the number or value of good teachers. But the public school system is horribly broken, and it just keeps getting worse. There are surely lots of problems, but the inability to fire the worst teachers is any obvious problem, and is likely only second or third to the inability to get rid of the worst students (and their families) and the difficulty of firing bad/bloated/ineffective administrators.

    Most companies where I have worked had a periodic “low performer round” where people are required to cut the bottom 5 or 10 percent of their workforce. If it hadn’t happened in a while, it was relatively painless, and the people that remained were pleased to see the back of those that are fired.

    Just think about how much better your job would be (if you are teachers), if you could get rid of the worst 10% of your fellow teachers, disruptive students and their annoying parents, and knuckled-headed administrators. (And at the companies at which I worked, people were FORCED to get rid of a fixed percentage, they just had to defend that all of the people they were retaining were worth it – I never heard of that being a big problem, as the only people that never admitted a hiring mistake were managers that got ejected during those rounds.)

  6. A typical outsider’s belief system:
    – that the “bad” teacher is “bad” for all kinds of kid.
    – that the “good” teacher is equally “good” for all kinds of kid.
    – that it’s “easy” to tell them apart.
    – that the administrators use teaching ability to decide.

  7. Miss Eyre,
    I never heard that tenure was hard to earn before. Please tell us more about the pains that you went through to “earn” tenure.

  8. Richard Aubrey says:

    If other teachers keep their kids out of somebody’s class, does that tell you something?
    Are outsiders allowed to draw a conclusion?
    Those teachers who are good for some kids and bad for others may well be…how can I put this? a chimera. Fabrication. Phantom.
    Now, I am aware that my terrifying, bladder-loosening twelfth-grade comp teacher might not have been good for slackers and those whose parents think stealing other kids’ lunch money is a good idea, but that doesn’t make her a candidate for firing. She was a good teacher and, through me, managed to help some engineer buddies write coherent paragraphs in college.

  9. I personally am very comfortable saying that I earned my tenure. Among the tough tasks I had, and performed at least reasonably well at, in my first three probationary years were the following:

    –Designing my own curriculum entirely from scratch (2 different curricula) for the first two years that I taught English language arts

    –Being an advisor to a group of students despite no training in how to be an advisor (that is, run a program for kids that entails, among other things, conflict resolution, decision-making, college and career planning, anti-drug and anti-alcohol education, study skills, etc…the many intangibles that high-need populations often need badly)

    –Directing extracurriculars that included a film club, book clubs, and a choir

    –Planning lessons with little and usually no assistance

    –Attending professional developments on evenings and weekends

    –Earning my master’s degree (in addition to the aforementioned professional developments) in the first two years that I taught

    –Handling behavior problems including a number of genuinely emotionally disturbed students, one of whom physically assaulted me

    Now, that is far from an exhaustive list of what I took on in my first three years. But if I survived those three years AND also managed to show a substantial increase in student achievement–which I did, by any measure you’d care to examine, including standardized test scores–then I am 100% okay with saying that I earned my tenure.

  10. But, Miss Eyre, there are entire schools, entire school systems, where all you have to do to earn tenure is show up on time. I’m not kidding, I taught in one of them. This convesation is becoming useless because one side won’t admit that there are great teachers teachng in good schools; the other won’t admit that there are many, many terrible teachers and even more mediocre teachers.

  11. And, again, that is teachers’ fault? The teachers grant themselves tenure? Maybe I should have taught there.

    Sarcasm aside, why is no one faulting these clearly ineffective principals who are very poor judges of teaching skill and character to have allowed so many shoddy teachers to slip through?

  12. Also, why is no one faulting the administrative side of things even higher than principals for running termination processes that are so ungodly slow? Don’t blame the union here. The UFT contract stipulates a 60-day timeline for investigating charges of incompetence among other things. 60 days seems, to me, plenty of time to be able to document a truly incompetent teacher. Sufficient evidence of a teacher who is a danger to students surely can be compiled in a matter of hours once an incident arises, and the teacher can and should be terminated swiftly. If the case drags on for months or years, is that the teacher’s fault, or does it suggest that those bringing the charges have a weak case?

  13. Ponderosa says:

    I’ll admit there are some terrible teachers out there. But they’re not the main problem with American education. The main problem is that the whole system is anti-knowledge. Foreign systems simply impart more knowledge. We try to avoid this hard work by teaching “critical thinking skills” and having kids engage in activities that fail to impart knowledge. Making kids study organized bodies of knowledge and learn them by heart is tantamount to child abuse in the minds of many Americans, including educators.

    Until we have a big shift in philosophy, our system will languish regardless of whether or not we slash the botton 10%. Please read E.D. Hirsch and Diane Ravitch everybody.

  14. Why do public school teachers need tenure? Other than university professors, no other profession includes tenue. It’s just a job protection racket.

  15. It seems that there are lots of opinions out there on tenure for teachers. My thoughts:

    1. Tenure is too easy to gain. Miss Eyre, I am sure you do a great job for your kids. However, I am willing to bet you can think of at least a few teachers at your school who taught for three years and now have a free pass that they do not deserve.

    2. This one’s for Ponderosa. Aside from the fact that critical thinking is not actually taught in schools, you really think that it is less necessary than other skills? You are completely backwards in your thinking. The Puritans made their students memorize things. Much of the world has moved past that. Unfortunately, in our multiple-choice testing world, we seem to be stuck there.

    3. Most teachers start out not very good. It’s just a fact. Miss Eyre, I’m sure you’re a much better teacher now than you were in your first two years. If you weren’t, you wouldn’t consider yourself a good teacher (hopefully).

    4. The cuts being discussed to the bottom 5 or 10 percent of teachers are not those who are “bad for some students.” They are the ones who are good for few or no students. If you don’t think they exist, visit a school for a day. It’s easy to find them. The kids even know who they are.

    5. Going back to the first comment, pulling kids out of schools won’t solve anything. Schools lose funding if they have fewer kids. The class sizes will stay the same because there will be fewer teachers and thus fewer classes. There needs to be a way for parents to be involved in decision-making for schools. You should be empowered as a parent to tell a school when a teacher needs to be replaced (obviously with protections for the teachers to a certain extent).

  16. Miss Eyre, I do fault those principals and administrators. But you can’t seriously think that the union contract has nothing to do with how long it takes and how difficult it is to fire an incomepetent teacher, and I say that as a long-time union member and supporter. And more to the point, this whole argument arises because teaching as a profession has not put forth a fair, balanced way to evaluate teachers and make tenture and termination decisions. We make suggestions, but when push comes to shove we settle for years of service and degrees.

  17. I don’t think university professors or teachers should have tenure. I don’t think that public employees, at any level, should be allowed to unionize, either. It’s a fundamental conflict of interest.

  18. Don Bemont says:

    “The bottom 5 to 10 percent of teachers have a dramatic impact on schools. In a school with 30 teachers, we’re talking about the bottom two or three. They’re almost always identified. Everybody knows who they are, but we do nothing about them.”

    If only it were true that those bottom two or three (heck, I’d double the numbers and say 10-20%) were the ones removed, I’d be totally in favor… It’s just that those of us who have spent a lot of time around public schools have a pretty good idea that that is not at all the way it would play out.

    Ironically, many of the critics of tenure on this blog lean towards the conservative side, and those people would be the people most displeased by the results, at least in terms of impact on students.

    Let’s face it, the most incompetent and least energetic teachers cause their bosses relatively little heartache. It’s the ones who stand up against the fad of the year, the latest PR scheme, the pressure to fake the grades — those are the teachers who aggravate the bosses, and who would be brought to heel by the end of tenure.

    H.L. Mencken once wrote, “There is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.”

    I am well aware that, to some extent, the movement against tenure is more anti-union than pro-education, and that many people would be quite satisfied with ending tenure, even if not a single student benefited. However, for those of you whose motivation has to do with education, I can tell you, you are being played on this issue.

  19. Agreed, Don. But how can we make the tenure system support good teachers but not retain bad ones? this really does have to be done.

  20. I love how they pull out these wacky teachers to base reform on — yet all have fits when we base our lessons on the lowest performing children.

  21. CarolineSF says:

    My blog post, below, emphasizes that state by state, lower student achievement correlates with teachers with WEAK job security.


    Education historian/commentator Diane Ravitch points out that the states with non-union teachers (who thus have little or no job security) tend to have lower academic achievement than the states with strong teachers’ unions.

    That should put to rest the myth that bad teachers with ironclad job security are the cause of the challenges facing public education.

    As Ravitch adds, the state reported to have the consistently highest academic achievement is Massachusetts — a strong union state. (It’s also widely called “Taxachusetts” by the right — could there be a connection?) Ravitch emphasizes that she’s not necessarily saying that unionization and job security LEAD TO higher academic achievement, but the facts show that unionization and job security clearly don’t work AGAINST higher academic achievement. They are correlated.

    I thought it was worth looking for some data. But not officially being a statistician, I wasn’t really sure of the best measure of state-by-state academic achievement.

    So I decided to look at one measure that interests me. That’s the list of “cut scores” for National Merit semifinalists. National Merit recognition is based on the PSAT scores of 11th-graders. The cut score for recognition varies from state to state. That’s explained this way on Wikipedia:

    “The minimum Selection Index for recognition as a Semifinalist … is set by the NMSC [National Merit Scholarship Corporation] in each state at whatever score yields about the 99th percentile.”

    The organization FairTest has posted a list of the cut scores for the high school graduating class of 2010, which range from 201 (Wyoming) to 221 (Massachusetts, Maryland and New Jersey). California’s is 218.

    The National Right to Work Legal Foundation posts a the list of Right-to-Work states (which don’t allow workplaces to require union membership, meaning unions are toothless) and what the Foundation calls Force Unionism states. I took those lists, added each state’s Class of 2010 National Merit cut scores and averaged.

    The results:

    * Right-to-Work states: average cut score 208.4545
    * Forced Unionism states: average cut score 213.6897

    That result seems to show that unionized teachers correlate with higher academic achievement, and non-union teachers correlate with lower academic achievement.

    If I’m missing confounding factors, I can’t see what they would be. It’s true that not all 11th-graders take the PSAT, and the culture probably varies state by state as to whether taking the PSAT is more widely encouraged or less. But that wouldn’t seem to confound the basic finding.

    By the way, the lowest-cut-score state — Wyoming at 201 — is a Right-to-Work state, and the three that are tied for highest — Massachusetts, Maryland and New Jersey –are strong labor states.

  22. Ex-PhysicsTeacher says:


    Critical thinking can’t occur without knowledge. Newton believed in alchemy, Was it because he lacked critical thinking skills — or knowledge.

    The problem with education, at least science education, is precisely due to the obsession with process and not information.

    There is a saying that shit flows downhill. Who’s at the top of the hill? Education schools and administration.

    Last year, during one of our science faculty meetings it was decided that it would be a good idea for everyone to stop counting homework grades. The justification was a web page someone stumbled over. Some self-proclaimed expert wrote a few pages on why he thought this was a good idea. This was all the proof that administration needed. From what I understand, it became the official policy this past year.

    I can’t imagine this being a positive step. The top quartile generally will do work whether it counts or not, but the bottom certainly won’t. Come test time the questions will need to be dumbed-down just so the last group can “succeed”.

    A few years from now, when achievement drops more, you’ll again blame the teachers, the people who were too busy to dig up the silly web page to begin with.

  23. I am an nontenured teacher, but I believe would like to be tenured some day. It does bother me that “earning” tenure is so easy, but I think it should exist. That said, tenure should not simply be handed out if you are “passable/didn’t kill any kids along the way.” I also think that administrators opinions should not be the only considered when a teacher is up for tenure, but all stakeholders.

    Teachers should be evaluated on a sliding scale, not pass/fail. Given our incredible ability to compile data and process it, I do not think it is unreasonable to say that teachers should be evaluated by the administrators, their colleagues (teachers) in their building, parents and the students themselves. An algorithm can certainly be set up to determine what “grade” a teacher gets based on those reports and it could be much like the grades given in K-16 schools in this country. If you are a teacher who gets an F or D, the administration should have the ability to fire you at will. If you receive an A for a set number of years, you should be awarded some level of job security. Perhaps if you get a B you can be afforded the same level after a longer period of time, or some variation thereof.

    The current trend in teacher accountability is headed towards using test scores to determine how well a teacher performs. I think if you talk to most reasonable people they will agree that there are a lot of problems with that. If you get feedback from all stakeholders, however, and the majority of people are happy with what a teacher is doing, I think that sort of data would speak for itself.

    Long story short, tenure is not a bad thing, but it should mean something. It should be redesigned. When I’m tenured I want people to say, “Wow, that must mean he’s a great teacher,” not, “Well, that guy survived three years in a classroom.”

  24. There are many serious problems with public schooling but I don’t think the existence of a lot of bad teachers is one of them.

    In my 35 years of being a teacher and 16 years of being a parent, I’ve encountered just a couple of bad teachers.

    That’s not 5 or 10 percent. That’s less than 1 percent.

    The sampling isn’t scientific. I could be wrong. I could be lucky. I could be a bad teacher myself and not know it. But what I’ve seen, it’s less than 1 percent.

    Both happened to be at my school, not my son’s, and the district got rid of them before the year was out. (One teacher had a mentally unbalanced obsession with geography; the other was pathologically timid.)

    I don’t know how it is outside California, or even outside my district, but within my district tenure means very little.

    If Ms. God was throwing books in my school, she would be fired that day.

    Without tenure, a teacher can be fired without the district needing to show cause. With tenure, the district has to show cause which isn’t very hard to do when administrators lie. It’s just paperwork which can be completed after the teacher is actually fired. Firing for incompetence requires a lot of paperwork so they usually invent other charges.

    I sure wish tenure is everything everybody says it is, because I have tenure and I’d love to have the freedom to speak my mind and try out some new ideas. But tenure for a public school teacher isn’t anything like tenure for a college professor. There is no such thing as academic freedom. I have tenure and I not only have to behave, but I have to conform and I have to please some administrators who happen to be assholes.

    The protection of tenure is a myth. If they want to get rid of you, it’s really quite easy. I’ve seen it happen.

    Again, I’m speaking about my district in the Bay Area. Any place that has to tolerate a Ms. God throwing books is a place that’s quite different from where I work.

    When people complain that a major problem with public schooling is that tenure is preventing the dismissal of a lot of bad teachers, they’re not talking about the world I work in. Bad teachers are a rarity and tenure doesn’t mean a thing.

  25. Ari,

    Think critically for a minute: do we make great scientists by exercising their critical thinking muscles on random problems (say, analyzing poems) or by loading their brains with the accumulated knowledge and lore of prior generations of scientists? I think you’ll agree it’s the latter. Sadly few in America seem to understand that rote learning is the mother of high-level thinking. We think we can just install a few all-purpose thinking skills and, voila, you’ve got a darn good historian, lit critic, mechanic, Greek speaker, doctor, etc. Scarcely any of that stultifying old-fashioned memorization required.

    Look, our schools have happily jettisoned much rote learning in the name of more “meaningful” activities allegedly designed to foster critical thinking. Is this making our kids smarter? It’s making them dumber. Dare to consider this: some old-fashioned methods are eternally valuable. The antiquated methods that made Newton and Jefferson and Martin Luther King so brilliant are the antiquated methods we should continue to use to prepare our kids for the future. Of course, teachers can and should attempt to make the learning palatable. But, palatable or not, learning core knowledge by heart is what our students should be doing. This is what AP courses do. It’s what Chinese and Indian schools do. It’s what French schools do. It’s what American schools should do too.

  26. tim-10-ber says:

    Ben F and Robert Wright — thank you for your comments!

  27. Ben F,

    Agree with you completely. Unfortunately many school districts seem to have missed that concept in their haste to misapply Bloom’s Taxonomy too quickly and too early.

  28. Principals in many districts tend to be more focused on the politics of a situation then the educational aspects of the situation. That is a result of our current educational system in many states. With a principal like this, which is very common, which of the following two teachers do you think he would fire?

    Teacher A has been teaching for 23 years, and has classes that consist of assigning worksheets to the students while they sit at their desk at read the newspaper. All of their students recieve As or Bs despite their work, since it is easier to grade on “effort” than teach and assess actual student knowledge. This is especially true for the star atheletes. As a result, they have very few parent complaints. Their state test scores are lower than average, but not signicantly so.

    Teacher B is energic and passionate about their subject matter. They have high standards for all their students, and grade accordingly. Their grades are a mixture of As, Bs, Cs, Ds, and Fs, correlated with student mastery of their subject matter. Those who are not willing to work at learning do not succeed in their class. Several parents have complained that their class is “too hard”, and the school quarterback was ineligible to play because he wouldn’t try to learn the subject matter and had failed their course.

    All too often, the principal will fire based on what is easiest for them, not what is best for the students as a whole.

  29. Paul, that is 100% correct.

    A teacher’s primary job is make the principal’s job easier.

  30. Oh, here’s an example of how powerful tenure is.

    One of the best teachers at our school, young, energetic, dedicated, let slip from his lips one morning, “If you don’t start doing your homework, you’re going to wind up without a job and on welfare when you get older.”

    The student was black. It upset her. She told her mom, the mom called the district office and the teacher was fired before 5 PM that very day.

    He wasn’t even allowed back on campus to collect his personal items. A friend had to box them up and deliver them to him.

    We have tenure, yes, but in name only.

  31. School reform does NOT need to start with the teachers. The first aspect of school reform should be an overhaul of administration and the politics of who gets those positions. Only once administration and the current mindset is changed can true reform of the teachers begin.

  32. Like almost all private sector employees I earn my tenure everyday.

  33. The question isn’t whether there are lots of lousy, or crazy, teachers but whether tenure, and the difficulty it causes in getting rid of lousy, or crazy, teachers is worth whatever benefit’s supposed to accrue and whether that benefit offsets the damage that those lousy and crazy teachers cause.

    More then the extreme cases though, tenure protects teachers whose performance is marginal and who also cause damage and it’s a pretty hard to argue with the fact that it’s easier to do harm then to undo it. So if it’s education that’s the highest priority then teachers have to meet a standard that ensures that they don’t do harm.

    If education is just one priority among several, as for instance it is in the extant public education system, then tenure makes all sorts of sense since teacher job security elbows out educational considerations teachers having rather more ability to make elected officials uncomfortable then do the kids.

  34. Caroline, while I appreciate the sentiment, I’m not sure the analysis holds up under further scrutiny. Cut scores are based on the top students, not the general population. That means it’s disproportionately kids from private schools, rather than ones where the unions actually function. In addition, looking at it state-by-state makes no sense. Unions have deals with districts, not states. I’d love to see some numbers comparing districts with unions to those without. I’m sure LAUSD is not going to help your numbers.

  35. Ex-PhysicsTeacher says:

    I recently met a retired science teacher from Canada. Over the course of a couple of decades he taught physics, chemistry, and biology The trifecta.

    I told him the most annoying thing about teaching was having a former English teacher as a boss. He said that in Canada they have a head of the science department who does evaluations. I said that we too have a science department head, but that this person has no authority and that all decisions are made by the assistant principal as are all evaluations.

    He said “We would never do that in Canada”. Canada seems to be ahead of us in educational achievement. Go figure.

    I don’t understand why people in this country seem to take it as an article of faith that teacher evaluations are to be performed by administrators whose own expertise in the subject matter may be severely limited. Canada’s way would be an improvement, but I think we could do even better than that. Teachers (in a particular subject are and age group) who are nearing retirement, or retired already, would be the perfect evaluators for new or younger teachers.

    Many people who’ve never been teachers don’t seem to understand how idiotic the current system is. Imagine an airline pilot observing and evaluating the performance of an oil tanker pilot. They’re both operating large vehicles, both need to be sober and conscious, but the similarity pretty much ends there. But this is how teacher evaluation is done in the US given my experience with it.


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by JoanneLeeJacobs. JoanneLeeJacobs said: New blog post: Tenure protects Miss Napoleon, Ms. God http://www.joannejacobs.com/2010/04/tenure-protects-miss-napoleon-ms-god/ […]