Teacher Tenure, or Who should we keep around?

A teacher writing on a blackboard.
What makes a good teacher?

I read an interesting article in the New York Times yesterday about several governors trying to come up with plans to end teacher tenure.  Or maybe not end it, but reform it.

As someone who is studying to be a teacher I find this an interesting subject, but I am not really sure where I stand on the issue of teacher tenure.  On the one hand it does help protect some of the most important professionals who do their jobs for little pay and little respect, but on the other hand it protects those who have been there the longest not those who have done their jobs the best.

That is my ultimate problem with tenure — it protects the wrong teachers.  Just because someone has been teaching for 10 or 15 years does not mean they are a good teacher, it may even mean they are bad teachers who are not up-to-date with the latest in educational practices and methodologies.  But new teachers, who may not have the in-class experience, but certainly have the newest training and the enthusiastic attitude are punished simply because they are new.

The article quotes Florida’s new Republican governor, Rick Scott, who told the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce last month: “Good teachers know they don’t need tenure. There is no reason to have it except to protect those that don’t perform as they should.”  I agree with that statement, the system of tenure seems to protect teachers who do not perform well, because what school district would get rid of teachers who perform well over those who do not?  In any other professional field if someone does not keep up with the latest theories and perform their job well they suffer the consequences.  Now, I’m all for giving teachers more benefits, more incentives, more credit for the hard work that they do, but tenuring teachers just because they managed to survive for several years seems, to me, the wrong approach.

On the other hand, the article quotes, “Why aren’t governors standing up and saying, ‘In our state, we’ll devise a system where nobody will ever get into a classroom who isn’t competent’?” said Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association. “Instead they are saying, ‘Let’s make it easy to fire teachers.’ That’s the wrong goal.”  Yes, that is the wrong goal, but there is a logical fallacy in that statement. That is the wrong goal, but that is not the goal that those who want to get rid of teacher tenure are aiming for.  No one wants to make it easier to fire teachers just because, they want to make it easier to get rid of teachers who do not continue to do well.  Yes, we want to ‘devise a system where nobody will get into a classroom who isn’t competent’ but once someone, who is qualified, gets into the classroom, their job is not over.  They must keep working to improve themselves as educators, and those who will not should not be allowed to keep teaching, over those who will.

But I must cede a point to those in favor of teacher tenure, as Ada Beth Cutler, dean of the education college at Montclair State University in New Jersey, said, “One of the fears I hear from teachers is that in these tough budget times, what’s going to stop someone from firing someone at the top of the pay scale?”  That is a valid concern, and just about the only one I can find in favor of tenure.  There needs to be some sort of protection in place for those who are good teachers, who consistently do well in the classroom to keep their jobs.  But most companies have some policies in place that protect workers from being fired arbitrarily, surely some of these could be applied to our public schools.  There should be a review, an investigation, a detailed case made for every teacher that is fired, clearly explaining the reasons — and budget cuts cannot be one of those reasons.

If there must be a teacher tenure, why can we not use the same procedure used by many Universities and academic organization to ascertain which papers and articles get published: peer review.  If teachers are peer reviewed and granted tenure based on a peer review, that comes up for review periodically, then they can enjoy protection from an administration that may be seeking to trim the budget, but we are not needlessly paying people who are no longer doing well at their jobs.

That is my thought on the matter.  I don’t see a very big need for teacher tenure if the same protections that keep any other worker in any other field from being randomly fired were applied to education and if we rate our teachers partly on a peer review process that allows colleagues to evaluate their performance.


9 thoughts on “Teacher Tenure, or Who should we keep around?

  1. Thank you for addressing this, Dteeps. I also intend to teach, and while in general I have been opposed to tenure, it’s because I have had bad experiences with teachers in the past that probably would’ve been long-fired if it hadn’t been for tenure.

    I found your comments useful, partially because they were very specific, breaking apart the issue to examine the different pieces.

  2. Down with tenure! There are huge protections that unions secured for workers around the turn of the century (also rendering unions rather obsolete in their pure form). There is one state that requires only one year of teaching for tenure, and the bulk only require 3…that’s ridiculous to gain a permanent post after such a short time. I believe performance over time shows a teacher’s value.

    As far as firing those on the higher end, that’s the beauty of meritocracy. People should be paid what they’re worth, and then no one is “over-paid” and no one has to worry about losing their job.

    On a slightly related note, I think it’s stupid that unions require higher pay for higher degrees, too, when there are studies to show there is no correlation between teacher education and student performance (K-12, that is), and that’s what causes the problem. Heck, I know some former students that had school in a one-room schoolhouse with a teacher little over 18 years old, and they turned out well. Not saying that we should go back to that, but I think too much emphasis is put on the wrong things.

  3. I am actually one of those few in favor of tenure and that is because of this:

    It is super easy to fire people who do unpopular things if there are no regulations on how to do the firing. And brilliant, smart, inspiring, creative people are generally unpopular. We love Galileo now, but man did the authorities rag on him while he was living. Thomas More was a great writer and philosopher, but he ultimately lost his life because of his stance on issues.

    Sure, we might not execute intellectuals these days, but we can fire them. We can blacklist them. We can ruin their careers and make sure their ideas which go against the status quo will never see the light of day again. If you don’t think this kind of thing happens, then walk into a PTA and yell “evolution!” and “climate change!” and watch everyone kill each other in a bloodbath.

    Tenure used to be voted on by the teachers for the teachers. I like that idea. I think Pres. Obama mentioned as much in Audacity of Hope that if you want to know who the good teachers are in a school, go into the teacher’s lounge and find out. Yeah, that can make things really political, but get any group of humans together to just hang out and it gets political. Teachers actually know what’s going on. They teach classes, they observe each other, and the decent ones will know who to give props to.

    But here’s an idea of people who have no idea what teaching is about or which ones are the good ones: Administrators and governors.

    The whole “get rid of tenure” thing makes me mad because I wish we all lived in a world where intellectual rigor and brilliance was universally affected, but we don’t. I came from a high school where the counselor who had a Ph.D in actual adolescent psychology and was universally respected by her peers and the entire student body was sacked because she had the audacity to suggest to a student that she should take less AP classes instead of more (and deny our school administration of more accolades and funding). So no, we should keep tenure, put it back into the hands of the teachers, and just let them do their own job without the government telling them what to do.

    If we were really serious about improving schools, like Roekel says, tenure is not the answer. It’s like people screaming about how we have to balance the budget and so we should get rid of earmarks, which make up a very very very small percentage of the budget. Let’s actually institute some real change and overhaul, such as eliminating wasteful spending on administrative overhead, improving parental involvement through community outreach and revitalization, and allowing teachers to experiment and innovate within the classroom. Let’s talk about peer-rated performance-based pay. Tenure is a non-issue at best, and getting rid of the very idea as a cultural norm is disingenuously dangerous.

    Here’s an idea — let’s fire half of the administrators and use that money to hire only graduate degree minimum teachers who actually studied the subject they will teach. Do you know who that will actually hurt? The administrators and the elected officials, who actually hold all the power. Teachers have relatively little power to enact any kind of political or administrative change — why do you think everyone bashes on them so much in the Great American Educational Debates?

    Gah. I need to walk off this anger, haha.

    1. Good points. I agree that teacher pay should be peer-rated and performance-based.
      And there are more things wrong with our educational system than tenure.
      My biggest problem with tenure is that it protects the wrong people- teachers who have been teaching the longest are not necessarily the teachers who are the best and most worth keeping around.

      1. Tenure originally was used to keep around the most respected teachers. Tenure shouldn’t be an automatic reward simply because you can endure the grind the longest, and that needs to be fixed, yes. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

    2. I do understand the job security issue. However, the worker has FAR more protections on his side without needing tenure (due process, union agreements, non-discrimination acts, and all manner of labor laws). In fact, I think it’s often the school that has to walk on eggshells. Rarely is it the case that a teacher (or worker) is fired without reason. Instead, we constantly hear of the teachers that should have been sacked years prior to their third or fourth “disciplinary action”, and there’s nothing the school can do.

      Granted, I don’t think tenure itself is the biggest issue, but only a result of the larger problems, first and foremost being the political mind that teachers unions have become ever since guaranteeing labor protections. The problem is that currently, the administration, the parents, the teachers, and the government are all in their stranglehold. They no longer represent the teachers, but thrive in themselves. Breaking that up results in freedoms monetarily and politically, but most of all it results in our students being the centre of the field of education.

      I completely agree that getting rid of the inflated administration as well as involving parents and the community are the biggest things that need to happen. Unfortunately, these days, parents expect all learning to happen at school rather than the home. Why do we need more hours at school if our parents are there at home to expand our horizons? How can we say our students are so far behind the rest of the world when our country is clearly at the top and has the greatest potential (that isn’t to say all is well, but people focus on the wrong things often: our students have much more potential than any other country).

      I will say, I do like much of what the current Secretary of Education is pushing (not all, but much).

      A few things I don’t believe will help in K-12: money, class size, graduate-level teachers, tenure, more administration…

      A few fun reads:

  4. I like your commentary, Ted, but I feel like Tenure isn’t directly connected with the real problem. The real problem is unwillingness to accept new ideas, and the belief that somehow administrators should be paid these truckloads of money.

    I feel your pain, bud. And as I may have said before, for these very reasons, I intend to change the face of American Education.

    1. Good luck! I hope it works out and you don’t end up making a Faustian bargain and after winning the revolution, discover yourself in an office as the Head Bureaucrat for Education ten years later!

      That’s usually how these kinds of revolutions work, right? :p

  5. Is there no way to fire a professor with tenure? At my University there is a professor that is the most despicable person I’ve ever met; yet after stealing money from one of the clubs and the many verbal harassments towards students, he still has a job.

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