The Myth of Teacher Tenure

Originally published on Open Salon on January 27, 2011:

            Teacher tenure comes up often lately in the discussion about how to improve our schools. The prevailing view of tenure holds that once a teacher has it, he or she has a secure job for life. Most people believe that tenured teachers can only lose their positions due to extraordinary circumstances such as misconduct or budget cuts.

            Before receiving tenure, teachers work for a probationary period that varies by state, but is usually two or three years.  During this time, administrators have wide latitude in determining whether to rehire a teacher.  This is entirely as it should be.  Principals need the probationary period to assess the competence and professionalism of teachers and to envision how well new hires fit into the school community and contribute to its culture.  This process involves instincts and judgments that do not fit easily into an evaluation rubric, and to hamper school leaders in this effort would be harmful.

            Administrators, therefore, have ample time and opportunity to make informed tenure decisions.  From there, tenure does not and should not preclude removal of teachers who do not live up to the standards of their profession.  It does, however, ensure that teachers receive due process before they are terminated.  Administration must demonstrate that a teacher is unworthy of his or her position, and the standard of evidence ought to be high.

            For some reason, many critics of tenure seem surprised that a teacher in danger of dismissal would fight like hell to keep his or her job. Thence arises the perception that removing tenured teachers is a costly and protracted process.  If this notion is correct, then three things would explain it: one, lament over the complexity of the process an administration faces; two, the resources that teachers’ unions provide to their members in order to protect their interests; and three, a handful of conspicuous cases that, properly managed from the start, would not have required the money and time that make sensational headlines. Indeed, when we consider everything, the need to remove a tenured teacher from a position stems just as much from the poor work of administrators as it does from the shortcomings of the teacher.

            Also, by ensuring that teachers are removed only for valid reasons, tenure does not protect bad teachers; it safeguards good teachers.  Schools and school districts can be highly politicized entities.  The best teachers invest themselves personally in their schools. They engage in discussion and debate that ultimately shape the learning environments of their students.  This can put them at odds with administrators, and without tenure, personnel decisions can become political and even retaliatory.  This would damage public education far worse than tenure—as the critics would have it—ever did.

            Recently the discussion in New Jersey has turned in the direction of tenure reform. A leading proposal would have teachers work on renewable, five-year contracts. This might be a viable compromise, but it could also leave teachers vulnerable to the personal and political whims of school leaders. Worse, it could deprive teachers of a tenure process that would work properly under effective management and replace it with a policy that, under the same ineffective leadership, will only bring about more problems.

            In short, tenure is not what most of the public believes it to be.  And it provides benefits that few people would ever suspect.

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