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The Misguided War on Tenure: Some Peaceful Solutions

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A recent Time magazine cover had this headline: “ROTTEN APPLES: It's Nearly Impossible to Fire a Bad Teacher. Some Tech Millionaires May Have Found a Way to Change That." Driving the emotionally charged and factually deficient war on teacher tenure, language like this reflects an increasingly widespread attack on tenure as the major villain in lowering teacher quality.

Most people who care about quality education are presented with conflicting perspectives that are often confusing. The sensationalistic journalism reflected in the Time story fuels the fires of irrationality and anger adding to the problem rather than educating the public in any constructive way. Polls suggest that a majority of Americans are opposed to tenure. An increasing number of states are tying the granting and continuation of tenure to student test results.

The polarization between teacher organizations and policymakers regarding tenure has also increased. As both sides approach education's challenging problems with emotion rather than objective analysis, they make the search for effective solutions more difficult. Attacking and defending is a recipe for stalemate.

Why We Need Security of Employment: A Personal Odyssey

While I will try to be objective and focus on helping you better understand the pros and cons of tenure -- or, more accurately, teacher job security -- I want you to know that I strongly support both teacher job security and high teacher quality.

I begin with by own experience because I think it's instructive. I taught high school for ten years. The principal who hired me not only supported my getting tenure, she also did everything she could to help me get it. The principal who replaced her would never have supported my getting tenure and was happy to see me leave. My teaching had actually improved over those ten years, but there was a political conflict between our department and the principal having to do with a curriculum that helped to constructively empower students. Tenure protected me from being fired for political reasons.

That is the primary reason for tenure: providing security of employment to protect academic freedom.

However, I left high school teaching to get my doctorate so that I could train teachers, and a primary reason was that ineffective teachers in my school, protected by tenure, dismayed me. I wanted to do what I could to help improve teaching quality.

Tenure and the Protection of Ineffective Teachers

Jump ahead about 15 years, and I'm the chair of the Department of Secondary Education at San Francisco State. I inherited a department in which almost all faculty members were tenured. Some were excellent, but a few were appallingly bad. I still remember a student walking into my office saying, "I can't stand it. He just sits there and pontificates. He has no notes. There is no curriculum. I want to strangle him." This frustrated me. I hate bad teaching. Teaching quality matters to me more than words can possibly describe.

There is a clear downside to tenure: it continues to be used to protect ineffective teachers from being fired.

But I think eliminating tenure is the wrong solution because it doesn't effectively address the problem.

A Bogus Argument Against Tenure

One argument against tenure is that in other occupations, no one gets tenure. But using private industry as a guide to excellence is a bogus argument. The quality of work in the American workforce is as varied as that in teaching, and for a majority of Americans, job satisfaction is low.

We Can Have Both Tenure and Effective Teaching

The answer is:

  1. Improving the way in which tenure is granted
  2. Improving the way in which teachers are evaluated
  3. Tying teacher salaries to post-tenure review, not seniority.

As things are now, effective teachers continue to be undervalued and underpaid. So the challenge is:

  1. Preserving tenure
  2. Rewarding excellent teachers
  3. Insuring higher teaching quality.

Tenure should be awarded only to teachers with proven effectiveness as based on multiple measures that include test results, peer and administrator observation, and student feedback. This should be developed and implemented by a team that includes peers and administrators.

The Critical Role of Post-Tenure Review

Periodic post-tenure review should be a meaningful process administered in the same way. Tenured teachers who are evaluated positively should receive meaningful pay increases. Those who are not should be given additional training to increase their effectiveness. If, after this training, the review team still assesses a teacher to be ineffective, that teacher should be terminated.

A Challenge for Teacher Unions

Teacher organizations have not promoted post-tenure review and have opposed merit pay, partially because of the justifiable fear that the process will be tied to test results and controlled by state legislators. But it is easier to play the role of victims, as too many local teacher organizations have done, than it is to provide strong professional leadership in changing the process. Policymakers and educators must cooperate in developing effective multiple modes of teacher evaluation, and in changing the whole system of teacher evaluation, teacher support, and teacher rewards.

I want to underscore that teacher organizations have a responsibility to advocate and develop this process. But educational administrators, parent leaders, and educational policymakers have an equal responsibility to help solve the problem though coordinated, cooperative work with teacher organizations.

Rational and Non-Defensive Solutions

There needs to be rational analysis and a continual education of the public that counters the current media-fueled atmosphere of anti-union, anti-tenure hysteria. The right answers are there. But implementing them in a climate of attacking and defending is difficult. Let's approach this peacefully and see what we can accomplish.

How is tenure handled in your school or district? Please tell us about it in the comments below.

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Keith Heggart's picture
Keith Heggart
High School Teacher from Sydney, Australia

Hey Mark,
Finally, a sensible and thoughtful discussion about tenure. I'm writing from Australia, where tenure doesn't exist in the US sense, but we are facing many of the same problems - confusion of teaching standards, merit pay and so on. One of the things that I'm taking from your article is the need to be proactive in working towards solutions - just because things have always been this way, it doesn't mean that they always have to. We, as a profession, can be forward thinking about improving teacher quality and standards as part of the tenure-granting process. Thanks for sharing.

Gloria Mitchell's picture
Gloria Mitchell
Middle school teacher

Very good points. I agree that due-process job protections for teachers vs. no protection in private industry is a bogus comparison, but I would offer a different reason. Working in the public sector, teachers serve a variety of interests, and some of those interests will be in conflict with one another. Teachers have an obligation to educate students and to treat them fairly, but what if an administrator or a board member wants special treatment for his/her child? What if a small but vocal group of community members does not like an assigned reading or project topic? What if two or more policy directives are in conflict and the teacher can't follow both? Good teachers need due process protections in order to do their jobs well. If they were at-will employees and could be fired for any reason, they would not be free to make the most ethical and responsible decisions for their students.

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