Is Matt Damon Right That Tenure is Vital for K-12 Teachers?


A coupla days ago, actor Matt Damon did an "Ask Me Anything" on Reddit. In answer to one of the questions, he uncorked this reference to a 2011 exchange he had with Reason at a pro-teacher rally:

We would never let business men design warheads, why would you cut out educators when you're designing education policy? This was for one of those libertarian websites and they had an attack question planned about tenure. Diane Ravitch was there, she's a huge figure in education and she jumped in and just set them straight about what having tenure meant. It just basically means you have the right to be represented, and have your side of something heard if someone is trying to get rid of you.

There's a lot of things to agree with in Damon's comments about education. Yes, No Child Left Behind is an expensive and ineffective boondoggle (also, a bipartisan one). And K-12 education is fairly obsessed with standardarized tests, a problem that will only get worse as "Common Core" guidelines fully start influencing curricula around the country. As Matt Welch and I point out somewhere in The Declaration of Independents, K-12 education is so ossified that it's still following a 19th-century agricultural schedule that even farmers don't use anymore.

But Damon's understanding of the role of teacher tenure as it applies to K-12 teachers is simply wrong (as is his characterization of Reason's offending question that starts his rant, on display below). To pretend that tenure for elementary and secondary-school teachers—which typically kicks in after a few years on the job—is simply about wrongful termination underscores Damon's complete lack of knowledge of how public education works. And it has nothing in common with tenure at the college and university level, which is far more rigorous and includes important (though often overstated) safeguards for academic freedom. Teachers are among the very most politically powerful entities in any given local or state decision-making process. Far from somehow being disenfranchised in the setting of educational policy and especially in terms of job dismissal, teachers are doing pretty damn swell. If you want a particularly egregious example of just how far legal protections for teachers can go, check out this 2006 Reason piece by John Stossel. Titled "How do I fire an incompetent teacher?," it documents the virtual impossibility of booting godawful employees from the New York City public school system. That's an extreme situation, but the general outline holds true everywhere.

Damon is hardly alone is suggesting that tenure is some sort of noble bulwark against a particularly nasty and brutish public-sector work jungle. Here's Erik Kain writing at Forbes in 2011:

Teachers need protection from over-zealous bosses and ideological politicians. This is the same thinking behind seniority rules, which protect more expensive teachers (i.e. veterans) from being laid off due to budget cuts. Teaching is not a high-paying job compared to jobs in the private sector, and one of the benefits is some job security.

Kain was writing about a Chicago Tribune infographic bemoaning how long it takes to get rid of substandard teachers. Do people really believe that, absent the current system of tenuring, politicians would be firing massive numbers of teachers? Or that "over-zealous bosses" would fire public-school teachers more readily than, I don't know, private-school teachers? Is K-12 education a unique field that would get rid of experienced (and presumably more effective) workers simply because they cost more?

How is it that good workers in all sorts of industries and fields manage to keep their jobs, get promotions, and be evaluated fairly but K-12 teachers need tenure early on in their careers? Could it have less to do with any sort of pressing need and more to do with the political clout wielded by teachers unions and professional associations? And a taxpaying public essentially held hostage by the same? I'm just throwing out some ideas here…

To that latter point, Damon and others routinely assert that public school teachers don't make good money. That is flatly false. Public school teachers make on average about $13,000 a year more in straight salary than their private-school counterparts, and the compensation gap grows still wider when retirement and health benefits are added in. And when teacher pay is compared to other professionals' pay on an hourly basis, teachers do extremely well. The idea that public-sector workers are trading salary for security is a well-documented myth.

As it happens, National School Choice Week, which annually celebrates a true grassroots movement pushing towards increasing options for all K-12 students, just ended recently (check out this Reason TV video about the future of school choice). I'm curious if Damon believes that's a righteous cause. I think I know the answer. Last year, Damon took a bunch of shit for opting out of sending his children to Los Angeles Unified School District schools. He argued that they weren't "progressive" enough for his tastes, so he had no choice but to opt for a private school. It's great that he exercised his right to choose. But does he support the right of parents without his economic means to do the same? How much do you want to bet that whatever private schools his kids attend have far weaker tenure protections than the LAUSD?

Here's the original Reason TV video with Damon being interviewed by Michelle Fields. Produced by Jim Epstein, who also enters the fray:

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  1. Uh, yea. My wife is an ‘extremely’ successful financial adviser. I will provide no more details. Teachers do exceptionally well according to her. They play the system like lecherous parasites, also.

    1. Teaching is part time job.

      1. Also, can I have some details on your wife’s job?

        1. Playa, no. Do you even realize how insanely secretive shit in the financial world is?

          1. I was joking. My inner child couldn’t help himself.

            1. I have a piece of spearmint gum for your inner child then.

              1. A piece of gum and ride home in his windowless van

          2. And yeah, I get it. My brother was involved in some some of the tax shelters being sold by a certain large firm that got into a lot of trouble a few years ago.

        2. BTW that chick in the video is smoking hot 😀

      2. Since when?

        1. My 5 year old’s public school kindergarten teacher works the following hours: 11:20 am – 2:45 pm, M-F. Her pay is about 75K a year, plus benefits and paid vacation.

          The school has the following holidays (which don’t count against paid vacation): All federal government holidays, 1 week for Thanksgiving, 2 weeks for Christmas, 1 week February ski holiday, 1 week for Spring Break, and the entire summer months of June, July, and August.

          I consider that to be a part time job.

          1. Oh, and complete job security.

            1. I getya now, clever pal!

            2. A highly paid part-time job with no chance of being fired.
              And you left out lifetime benes.
              All you have to do is be willing to sell your soul.

              1. If I were married to a flight attendant or pilot, I would consider selling my soul. Summers off and free travel? Tough to say no.

                1. playa manhattan|2.8.14 @ 10:46PM|#
                  “If I were married to a flight attendant or pilot, I would consider selling my soul. Summers off and free travel? Tough to say no.”

                  Either of those are not taxpayer-funded.

              2. Plus, you can double-dip.

                1. Not according to the teachers! They are so over-worked, it takes the entire summer to recover from the experience! Why, they actually work more than 8 hours a day sometimes!

                  1. They claim to spend hours a day at home preparing lesson plans. If you’ve been teaching a subject for many years and actually need to do that, well, that’s just sad.

                    1. One semester more like it. I mean there are resources out the for making lesson plans. After the first one or two times all you should be doing is tweaking or adjusting for how efficiently time was used in each class, some minor updates over time, and some new takes on how to get the material across.

                      I’m assuming that every summer what they actually do is scrub their brains of everything they learned about the job the previous year with copious amounts of alcohol.

                  2. In seventh grade, the pair of social studies teachers that everyone had a class with either one or the other were a lesbian couple. They spent every summer of the previous decade they had been together traveling to a different country in Asia, Africa and South America. Their class rooms were like museums consisting of the artifacts they brought back.

                    Quite a good gig they had going.

                    1. And, at age 50, they can spend the whole year traveling. Heroes.

                    2. Were they hot?

                    3. One, very much so. Her nick name was Torpedo Tits because she had Jane Russel rack. The other was a homely mouse, and at least five or six years older.

          2. my wife is a teacher and she only makes 50k a year working on average year round 45 hours a week. granted that is clumped into 9 months a year so that is more like what 55 hours a week? She is also in one of the highest paid districts in Chicagoland area…not all teachers get paid ridiculous part time salaries. Also she will never get tenures because they fire her and rehire her every year so they don’t have to tenure her. Pretty crappy. Plus in Chicago area district…or at least heres….tenure doesn’t really mean crap anymore. They can fire you after 3 complaints if they choose to.

    1. I agree that MATT DAMON.

  2. The smartest thing said by a celebrity this week:…..-drug-laws

    A troubling component of this sad loss is the complete absence of hedonism. Like a lot of drug addicts, probably most, who “go over”, Hoffman was alone when he died.

    1. When Brand isn’t sucking Guardian feminist clits which tend to be dry and brittle he actually has a few cogent life points to make.

    2. “A troubling component of this sad loss is the complete absence of hedonism. Like a lot of drug addicts, probably most, who “go over”, Hoffman was alone when he died.”

      Not sure I understand. Is being alone an issue?

      1. Not an issue per se. It’s just that dying in the bathroom in your underwear with a needle in your arm isn’t as glamorous as having your heart explode after doing lines off of a hooker’s tits.

        1. Gotcha.
          Not sure the appeal to glam is a ‘smart thing’, but I didn’t read the link.

      2. What playa manhattan said. Makes me wonder if brand saw the BreitBart site crap where Shapiro blamed hedonism and libertarianism for Hoffman’s death.

  3. Is Matt Damon Right

    NO. Next question.

  4. “We would never let business men design warheads, why would you cut out educators when you’re designing education policy?”

    Francisco! That’s one of your BEST responses to Tony!
    Way to GO!

  5. “He argued that they weren’t “progressive” enough for his tastes”

    in L.A.

    Jesus, he could have found half a dozen that would have raised his kids to start the next communist revolution, but NOOOOOOOOO. He needed to ensure they got their neoliberal indoctrination AND! Organic Whole-Grain Muffins, with soy butter. Progressive. With extra hypocrisy sauce. DAMN THOSE CAPITALIST BASTARDS!

    1. Funny, the other day I saw a bumper sticker that I thought read Liquidate A Progressive For Transhumanist Advancement, but I misread it. It said something else identifying a local school and a supporter of it. I was dissapointed.

  6. Teachers have brought all the common core standards and testing fiascos down on themselves. Until my daughter hit middle school I never realized what the real problem is.

    The real problem is that all these teachers make teaching more about themselves than they do the students or the material. They think of themselves as some kind of intellectual performers who know better what material to teach than anyone else does. The result is a bunch of feel good BS that often leaves out critical standard material – hence the need for common core standards.

    Most of them feel that using a textbook is beneath them since they know better what the kids should learn. The end result is that many of the kids spend more time struggling to organize piddly binders of stupid handouts rather than simply being able to reference their textbook for studying and homework. And on top of that, the smarter more motivated kids can’t even skip ahead (like I used to do).

    I had one teacher friend of mine even claim that you don’t actually need to learn algebra, geometry, trig and calculus in that order. I work in an engineering field and I’m pretty sure that you do.

    In my neck of the woods – upstate NY – the median teacher salary is $75k a year and if I see one more teacher posting on facebook about how special and important their job is and how they SHOULD be paid like Doctors I’m going to wretch.

  7. We would never let business men design warheads,

    MATT DAMON understands that most of the conventional warheads in America’s missile arsenal are designed by large defense contractors who then bid the designs to the DoD? Surely MATT DAMON knows that Lockheed Martin receives contracts out the ying-yang from FedGov to make these instruments of death from far away and high above….right?

    why would you cut out educators when you’re designing education policy?

    That’s interesting. Why should people who have failed in the past in be given any credence in the future? Why should the same edu-crats who have beaten the drum for “send more money, send more money, send more money” and we’ve seen no improvement for the increase, why continue listening to them?

    1. Actually businesses do make weapons, and therefore businessmen design them, with the help of engineers.

      Strawman…’why would you cut out educators when you’re designing education policy?’ For the same reason it is a businessman running the company that makes warheads. Not a designer. People with vested interests tend to make decisions that reflect their interests, and not necessarily the interests of all parties.

    2. “That’s interesting. Why should people who have failed in the past in be given any credence in the future? Why should the same edu-crats who have beaten the drum for “send more money, send more money, send more money” and we’ve seen no improvement for the increase, why continue listening to them?”

      People keep listening to Krugman, don’t they?

      1. I blame the schools.

    3. The businessmen don’t design the warheads.

      Of course Damon’s analogy fails because teachers designing education policy would be like the President designing warheads.

  8. It seems pretty obvious he is gearing up for a run for politics. He has always thought of himself as the character in Good Will Hunting. I’ll give him until 2020 to make his move. But, he might do it in 2016. He wants to be the Democratic Reagan, an actor turned President.

    1. If he’s going to run for Governor I just pray it’s the Massholes that get him and not me in California.

      But I can’t imagine a Hollywood elitist liberal with obnoxious views on gun control and the environment getting elected president.

      1. I think he sees himself as a Congress sort of guy, before going for the Presidency.

        He can act like a President. He can read lines well. He thinks he is brilliant. He might do well. He has got a Kennedy-ish-ness about him.

      2. Minnesota seems to best place for joke candidates to actually win office.

  9. My sister JUST got tenure Friday. At a private university. Of course, she has a PhD and two Masters, plus a couple decades of job experience not in academia.

    My wife taught in public schools (HS mostly) for 20 years. She finally “retired” (she was just subbing) last year – literally couldn’t stand the bullshit any more. And mostly it wasn’t about academics – it was the administrivia and bureaucracy and union shit…she binned it. Thanks, public school system!

    Also – MATT DAMON! Yeah, he’s utterly clueless what he’s talking about. Shocker.

    1. My sister is trying to break into the public school system. She’s supposed to start an apprentice program with a teacher soon while she’s going to school.

      And I heard the exact same story from my two libertarian English teachers about how bullshit the bureaucracy is. My favorite story is when my Objectivist AP Lit teacher said she literally started crying in frustration because this district bureaucrat she was arguing with about what books she could buy for her classes was so incredibly dense and ignorant that it was overwhelming.

      1. My wife mostly avoided it. But she finally got fed up. Too bad, cause she was kind of specializing in all the “special needs” classes no one wants to take on. She liked it.

        Fuck public schools. They’re worse than ever.

        1. The CTA is the most formidable political organization in CA right now.

          1. Moonbeam approves of this message!

      2. When my daughter decided to make Education her major, I tried to talk her out of it. When she decided to go into hock with Sallie Mae and polish off her Masters while she was at it, I tried to talk her out of it.

        She called me at least twice a week in desperation. “These people are insane. It’s all gibberish.” She sent me essays to “proofread”, and I would insert the appropriate bullshit academia-speak for her. I eventually taught her to speak bullshit on her own, and after that she sailed through.

        When she began job searching, I begged her to look at the private sector first, because she was only going to run into the same shit she had just escaped from in a public school. She didn’t listen.

        She took a two year contract teaching 2nd grade; where she immediately ran head-first into a clueless authoritarian stereotype of a principal and a TA inherited from the previous teacher (10 years together)who was pissed that she couldn’t coast on the same old routine like she had been, and spread made up shit about my daughter (largely to the same principal).

        At the end of the two years, she told them to take a flying fuck. She’s now managing an Applebee’s………

      3. two libertarian English teachers…Objectivist AP Lit teacher

        You’re just making shit up.

    2. Nothing against your sister, but tenure ain’t gonna be worth much when the dot-edu bubble collapses in a couple of years. I got out while I could.

  10. GV|2.8.14 @ 11:29PM|#
    “Existing charter schools work no better than public schools. Because it isn’t the school that really matters, it’s the individual that matters.”
    So no teachers matter at all and, uh, either you’re educated or you aren’t, ’cause, uh that’s the way it is?

    “This is just more cultural marxist bullshit.”
    What you;ve posted is certainly bullshit, but I’m not sure about the marxist.

  11. Why is he rapping? This is so bad.

  12. Sadbeard: Your marriage makes income inequality worse

    There are more college-educated men than there used to be, many more college-educated women, and those women are more likely to be in the workforce. Aside from these family dynamics, the earnings gap between college graduates and less-educated workers grew enormously in the 1980s before leveling off in more recent years.

    The combination of these trends has driven much more income inequality.

    On a public policy level, there’s no reasonable way to discourage these trends. The trend toward assortative mating isn’t amenable to “fixing” through the policy process…In reality, a healthy chunk of the runup in inequality is a kind of side effect of benign or even positive social changes.

    But there’s no need to take a blas? view of the trends, either. Not only is the prosperous man of the early 21st century much more likely to be married to a women who also earns a substantial income than was his predecessor of 50 years ago, but he also pays a lower income tax rate. Many of the drivers of inequality aren’t public policy choices or anything that we would want to reverse. But the sensible role of policy is to lean against possible negative side effects…we’ve mostly done the opposite.

    If you like your marriage you can keep your marriage.

    1. In the future, if the government is going to force me to marry a dumb, poor chick, she’d better be pretty fucking hot.

      1. Notice how he initially rejects out of hand the idea that the government should do something to alter the trend of educated people getting married to each other…before he goes and leaves the door open for “sensible” policy to nudge people towards decisions that will benefit society.

        In any case I think if we are going to look at this from a marriage perspective, the fact that more and more poor people tend to not get married and still have children that repeat the cycle is probably a bigger explanation for there is a larger gap in income.

        1. He hints at the solution to this “problem”:
          “Not only is the prosperous man of the early 21st century much more likely to be married to a women who also earns a substantial income than was his predecessor of 50 years ago, but he also pays a lower income tax rate.”

          More Taxes!!!

    2. Many of the drivers of inequality aren’t public policy choices or anything that we would want to reverse. But the sensible role of policy is to lean against possible negative side effects…we’ve mostly done the opposite.


  13. Man responsible for olympic ring mishap found dead in Sochi.

    Not sure if this is true, to take it FWIW.

    1. Someone made a video that offended Muslims. Move along here, nothing to see…

    2. Aaaand I just found out what the daily currant is… My bad.

    3. The daily currant is a parody site. So hopefully no.

      I know, it’s really hard to tell nowadays.

      1. I’m new to the internet. Like that girl on the commercial aired every 5 minutes.

        1. You must watch FBN.

  14. Message to Congress:

    No one should take advantage of who they are

    No man has got it made

    If he thinks he does, he’s wrong

    It’s been one of those Lynyrd Skynyrd type days. I gots me a bad attitude. I guess I should be expecting a visit from the special attitude adjustment squadron. Too badz for them, I don’t have any puppies.

  15. Teachers totally need tenure because they’re paid hardly anything. Like, they have to buy their classes school supplies with their own money, and stuff. I know because a teacher told me, and teachers are definitely not incompetent self-righteous pig-ignorant incurious hostile whiners with martyr complexes and they would totally save the world if THOSE TEABAGGING BASTARDS hadn’t slashed budgets and cut out art programs and doubled class sizes.

    1. Ya know – there *are* teachers who do this. But the funny thing is that tenure won’t protect *those* teachers.

      Because those teachers are either good and dedicated to the job and the administration isn’t looking to get rid of them or their working for some Podunk little school in some out of the way district which has no money and no-one pays attention to so the administration can fire whoever it wants, no-one with power’s going to care.

      Tenure protects those teachers who the administration *wants* to get rid of. The shitty ones. The chick who comes in stinking of drink and sex. The dude who tries to feel up the girls. The far left arsehole who won’t shut up about diversity and why aren’t we teaching our kids about anal.

      That’s who tenure protects.

      1. The chick who comes in stinking of drink and sex

        Too true, if my experience is only anecdotal. Ex-GF is 1st grade teacher in Maryland. One of the other teachers was a drunk. It took three years, but the principle was finally able to get the drunk promoted into an administrative type job. Once in administration they were finally able to fire her, even though it took another two years.

  16. What, exactly, are Matt Damon’s qualifications to speak on anything except, perhaps – and only perhaps – acting? Why should we pay any more attention to what he says than to what he shits when he uses the toilet?

    1. “What, exactly, are Matt Damon’s qualifications to speak?”

      What are yours?

      1. Ah. Tu quoque!

        All he did is make a statement – which is correct because Damon is talking about a subject in which he’s not an expert.

        So stop turning tables.

        1. Fail. Are all the commentators here experts on every subject on which they opine? Certainly not. So don’t hold Damon to a higher standard than your own. If he’s an inexpert crackpot, then so is everyone here.

        2. Gonna have to agree with the troll here. Matt Damon is as qualified to speak on these matters as anyone else here. The original poster is engaging in an ad hominem attack.

          1. Libertarians have creepy free-speech issues when it comes to other people expressing their opinions. Free speech for me, but not for thee? How hypocritical. Anyway, before any of you respond, I’ll need to see your qualifications. Otherwise, why should I pay any more attention to what you say than to what you shit when you use the toilet?

          2. This would be true if the central element in Damon’s argument was that only teachers should speak about education because nobody else knows what they’re talking about.

            IF THAT’S TRUE, then Matt Damon should also not speak.

            When the terms of your own argument silence you, it’s OK for me to point it out.

            1. That wasn’t in Matt Damon’s argument, so you’re just talking about nonsense. The closest he came was insisting that teachers should be involved in the discussion.


  18. Given the quality of commentary on this subject, I’m gonna assume that everyone here attended public schools.

    1. Public and later private here.

      I’m guessing you’re a smart-alec. Perhaps even a progressive.

      Know why?

      You’re good at making snarky comments without offering an opinion.

  19. I see our edu-troll found this post.

  20. Uh, does anyone actually believe anymore that teachers’ pay is low? The average teacher in New Jersey makes $63,111 for 10 months of work a year. And the average starting salary is $44,872.

    And this is just salary; it doesn’t include the financial value of fringe benefits that teachers get, which are substantially higher than in the private sector.

    1. My wife is a public teacher and earns a very, very good salary.

      No, teacher’s pay isn’t ‘low’ and they’re complaining is beginning to ring hollow. They earn great coin and benefits. Mind you, her health plan is garbage.

      The sober ones know this.

      1. ‘their.’

  21. That dude is jsut cool and he knows it.

  22. There was a meme going on last year about how breaking bad worst have existed if there was affordable healthcare/ single payer. They of course failed to do actual research into the health benefits of ABQ teachers or that it was a government health plan that denied his treatments. There were a couple of good threads here on the subject.

    Anyway, I agree the problem is that in too many places teachers are teaching to some fads instead of the actual foundations of math science etc. Too many kids come out knowing about the “importance” of organic vegetables and not how to solve for x.

    The most important thing for education is to let parents decide who is teaching their kids and to let bad teachers get fired and bad schools get shut down. Or maybe we need to shovel more education to teachers unions, I’m not sure.

  23. Is K-12 education a unique field that would get rid of experienced (and presumably more effective) workers simply because they cost more?

    I would bet that rigorous testing would show that K-12 education, like ANY customer service oriented field, has an inverse relationship between experience and effectiveness, with limited exceptions.

    The longer anyone who has to perform customer service is on the job, the less effective they become, as a general rule.

    Maybe the real reason teachers want tenure and seniority rules is because if they didn’t have them, the younger teachers would outcompete the older ones 90% of the time, and the older teachers don’t like that.

    1. The longer anyone who has to perform customer service is on the job, the less effective they become, as a general rule.

      I don’t believe that even as a general rule. Good customer service is a skill. And teaching is absolutely a skill. Some lazy people slipping through the cracks and going through the motions doesn’t change that.

  24. If they want to keep the tenure system, make it more rigorous like the system at universities. It’s a tough row to ho. You’ve basically got to “prove yourself” for 5-7 years as an assistant prof. You have to prove you are a good teacher. You have to prove that your research is worth a shit and that you can bring in the government bacon. Sure, as an 8th grade Social Studies teacher, you’re not begging the federal government to fund your research, but there could still be a rigorous gauntlet to pass through before you’re guaranteed a position for life.

  25. INTRINSICALLY PATERNALISTIC!!! Oh man, every time he says that, I lose it big time. So hilarious.

  26. We hate Matt Damon because he’s a lefty actor but we love righty actors (all seven of them). Not that we’re advocating team politics or anything.


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