The Tenuous Tenure of Teacher Tenure

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Finding this blog post by Nicholas Meier about teacher tenure got me thinking, and got me Googling. What is it about teacher tenure that makes people spit nails? The more I read, the more it seems like most people don’t actually know what teacher tenure is. In fact it seems to be a concept whose semantics work against it. Say the word “tenure” and hackles rise. It’s true for me, I know. As a grad student who has been wandering in and out of institutions of higher ed for the last 16 years, the mental image “tenure” evokes for me is usually of the postsecondary kind: the stodgy old professor in tweed who teaches from lecture notes scrawled on a legal pad circa 1984 and who conducts research on any topic that strikes his fancy (if he conducts research at all), irrespective of whether it contributes to any meaningful body of research, because nobody can tell him otherwise.

I’m not sure if this professor actually exists– probably he does, somewhere– but I’ve never actually met him (yes, it’s definitely a “him” in my mind’s eye). But my complete lack of corroborating experience doesn’t prevent my admittedly prejudicial image from popping up whenever I envision the tenured professoriate. I’d guess that most people have their own mental connotations when they think of a “tenured professor” or a “tenured teacher.” Based on what I’m reading, I’m starting to wonder if these knee-jerk mental associations, are making a scapegoat of tenure in the K-12 system. (Tenure in higher ed is a whole other kettle of fish with its own set of issues. Maybe I’ll tackle it another day.)

As Meier’s post points out, teacher tenure is not actually a lifetime guarantee of employment. In fact, in California (where teacher tenure laws were recently struck down as unconstitutional), all teachers must undergo a probationary status during which they can be fired for any reason before they reach permanent status. Throughout their permanent status, or “tenure,” teachers must legally be routinely evaluated, and their status does not preclude them from being fired. If they are evaluated and judged incompetent they are, yes, entitled to due process. That is, they get to know why they’re being fired and they get a hearing from an impartial body. But that doesn’t mean they get to keep their jobs.

So are not enough incompetent teachers actually fired? Do administrators and districts find it too cumbersome and expensive to fire a teacher? Yes, maybe. It looks like in 2010 the L.A. Unified School District spent $3.5 million trying to fire 7 incompetent teachers. But if academic freedom and professional autonomy are important (as one example, it looks like policy makers and other non-educators are trying to get into science classrooms), it seems important to have protections in place for teachers who might be politically, religiously, or personally targeted.

And teachers have long been vulnerable targets. I can’t think of another profession about which lay people have such strong opinions. Someone who is close to me (a liberal to the core!) is incredulous at how much a public school teacher can make: a teacher in New York city with a Master’s degree and 22 years of experience makes $100,000 a year, for example. Nevermind the fact that this person is an engineer, a profession that earns an average of $100,000 a year, to say nothing of those with 20 years of experience. Also nevermind the fact that you don’t hear of anyone going around complaining about how much engineers make. These opinions about teacher income are not unusual, and are pretty representative of the national sentiment that teachers are less than competent and need plenty of external management.

Back to teacher tenure, it seems that as employees at public institutions teachers are entitled to due process, especially if everyone and their mother has an opinion about what a teacher should be doing and how she should be doing it. And if incompetent teachers aren’t actually getting dismissed, it seems we need a better understanding of why that is. I suspect these sensationalist stories in the media about un-fireable teachers showing up drunk to class aren’t quite representative.

Is the difficulty associated with teacher dismissal the fault of a policy that assures due process? What if we start asking questions of other stakeholders? How are quality teachers being trained in the first place? Who is leading them? As Meier claims, “The fact that poor teachers are not let go is completely a lack of principals and supervisors doing their job. Often the reason they don’t is their own lack of training and support and that they are often feeling overwhelmed themselves by an impossible job. In this area some principals work in elementary schools of up to 900 students with no assistant principal due to cutbacks.”

Whatever the problem, and as with all educational issues in this huge and diverse country, it is complicated and diffuse. But that doesn’t stop “reformers” (who, as usual, are not themselves educators) from initiating a legal blitzkrieg against tenure. This will definitely be something to watch out for. Something I’ll be wondering: when due process, one of the few attractive qualities of the teaching profession, gets taken away, who will be willing to go into this career?