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On the Attack on Teachers' Tenure

On the Attack on Teachers’ Tenure

By Dennis Loo (8/18/12)

The New York Times’ lead story today (8/18/12) is about the denial of tenure this year to nearly half of New York City teachers reaching the end of their probations. This is part of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s goal to (cue Bill Clinton’s identical wording for his attack on welfare) end “tenure as we know it.” But it is more than Bloomberg, of course: this is part of a national, and indeed international, movement to undermine job security across the board for employees and to transform education specifically wholly along a business model. It is the implementation of the neoliberal model.

While those who tout the alleged virtues of raising teaching standards claim that they are doing so in the interest of the students and children - by making performance central to whether a teacher is kept or fired - the real goal has nothing to do with teaching ability and performance. In fact, the criteria being used to retain, suspend or fire teachers are not raising teaching performance. Instead they undermine it by fundamentally reducing teaching to getting students to do “better” on the now incessantly administered standardized tests. In addition, having teachers evaluated by administrators is about as good as having sports writers evaluating coaches: what do administrators know about good teaching practices? If they’re so good at teaching, they’d be doing (more of) it.

The real goal here is to turn education, especially of those not going to the elite schools, into rote recitation and thereby produce a more easily manipulated and happy population of consumers rather than active and aware citizens. If this sounds conspiratorial to some - and it might to those who have not had recent contact with what has been happening in education, either as a teacher or as a student - then consider the following. As Benjamin Bloom laid out in his Taxonomy of Learning Domains, there are stages to cognitive development. If what students are being trained in is primarily recall and recognition - being told, in effect, what the answer is to specific questions - then what they are developing is only the lowest stage of cognitive development. Yet this is precisely what is being emphasized in the so-called "standards" movement - aka "reform" movement. K-12 teachers have said to me that they "don't have time anymore to teach" because they're so busy getting students ready for the next high-stakes test.

I see the results in the university of all too many students now who are otherwise bright but who have a very noticeable difficulty that was not present in the same degree in previous cohorts: thinking holistically. They have been so thoroughly imbued in the idea that education means memorization of discrete facts and factoids, that when asked to put pieces together, most students show both greater difficulty and greater resistance than prior generations of students. I had a student anonymously complain last year, for example, that I did not “dumb down” the material in Classical Social Theory class. Theory class, if anywhere, is where you are supposed to learn to think theoretically – to use abstractions, to take empirical data (the concrete, particular, and specific) - and think inductively in order to identify patterns, and to take theory – the abstract - and think deductively about concrete instances as to whether or not the theory fits the concrete instances.

When asked a question, I gave, this person complained, long, detailed answers filled with analogies – which I would have thought was exactly what someone might praise me for (and indeed, most students praise me for this very thing) – when what this person wanted, as they said, was a simple answer.

That’s what theory does, of course: it gives you a simple answer to complicated questions. Society, of course, is very simple, right? And theory isn't supposed to provide people with the tools to think in more sophisticated ways, so that they can figure things out and see beneath the surface appearance of things. No, if one is studying theory, it should give simple, dumbed down answers, that students can dutifully write down in their notes, so that they can give these very answers back by rote.

In the Times article, we find this gem of truth:

“Tenure does not afford any advantages in pay or job assignments, or guarantee permanent employment. Its most important benefit is to grant teachers certain protections against dismissal without justification, including the right to a hearing before an arbitrator.”

This is precisely right. Tenure has nothing to do with job performance. Tenure historically originates from the need and desire to protect teachers from being fired because they are at odds with the prevailing orthodoxy. Think Socrates and why he was forced to eat hemlock. Tenure’s a critical bulwark against intimidation and capriciousness by those in authority. Its purpose is freedom of thought and expression. If teachers can’t exercise freedom of thought and inquiry, then what kind of teachers are they? And what are children and students learning if they can’t feel free to explore and test out ideas against science and against reason?

For more on these issues, please go to In Defense of Higher Education at

This is a handout that I give my students in my classes in order to give them an idea of where I'm coming from and what they can expect in my classes.




Benjamin Bloom has described two basic stages to cognitive development. The first and lower stage consists of recognition and recall, comprehension and application. The second, and higher, stage consists of analysis, synthesis and evaluation. Higher education should be designed to ensure that students achieve this higher stage.

Stage I:

Recognition and recall is what you are being tested for when you are asked on a test, for example, to repeat a definition for a term. Rote memorization is an example of this process. When you know a second language enough to understand some words and phrases, you are using recognition and recall. To actually speak well in that second language, you need to understand the language better, using stage II skills (see below).

Comprehension means that you understand what you are reading, hearing or seeing on the level of “it makes sense to me.” This is the level at which students often stop in their studying. Comprehension is not yet at the level at which you can fully explain a concept to someone else.

Application means taking a concept and using that concept in a specific and concrete way. This goes beyond being able to recite a definition for a concept since in application one is actually using the concept. When you are given a question that cites a hypothetical or real situation, and you are asked which concept best explains that situation, you are being asked to apply your knowledge.

Stage II:

Analysis means taking something apart, and understanding its component parts and their inter-relationships. For example, analysis of a car might involve taking that car apart, and being able to explain what each part does. Analysis of a language could involve looking at sentence structure and the rules for forming sentences. Analysis of a movie would be movie criticism.

Synthesis means being able to create something new from disparate parts. Synthesis occurs on the basis of analysis, but is a higher stage in that it involves the creation of something that did not exist before. For example, synthesis would be to take certain parts of a car and by using some other parts put together a tractor or some other machine. When you take words and write a new poem, you have done synthesis. If instead of simply analyzing a movie or play, you wrote a screenplay or play, this would be synthesis.

Evaluation is the highest stage of cognitive development in Bloom's taxonomy. It builds upon all of the preceding. It is the ability to assess the strengths and weaknesses of an argument and compare and contrast different arguments. It is Meta-Analysis. Without this, you would be unable to reach a true independent judgment. Instead, you would have to accept the opinions of others. A plethora of information is available today, and information is, of course, important. But what is even more important is the ability to sift through the information and sources and the ability to figure out what’s valid and what is not.

Bloom argues that if college classes do not call for undergraduates to develop the higher-level cognitive skills, then the student has not received a higher education. Course expectations that require you to use higher level cognitive skills are of course more difficult, but if you are only being tested for recognition and recall then you may never develop higher order intellectual skills. Thus, for example, a professor who tells you beforehand exactly what you should know (for example, for a test) is in effect telling you what you can afford to ignore in what he/she was trying to teach you. This would be the equivalent of going to someone to teach you how to hit a baseball who told you ahead of each pitch exactly what kind of pitch he was going to give you. You’d think that you were a really great hitter based on this until you got into an actual game where the pitcher didn’t tell you beforehand what he was going to send your way. Life is a little bit like that pitcher, sending curves, sliders, fastballs and even screwballs your way. A proper higher education will help you deal with all of those pitches and situations. This is what you can expect in my class. You have a right to expect nothing less.

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