(With apologies to Tina Turner)
By Mark Paige
Tenure is bad. Real bad. That’s the message from tenure opponents. Generally speaking, opponents highlight the problem with anecdotal evidence that follows a “the tale of two teachers” theme. The riff goes something like this: one after another, students tell their experience of suffering through a class with a particularly lousy tenured teacher. Yet, juxtaposed to this, they recall an enthusiastic, life-changing untenured teacher. Spoiler alert: The untenured teacher gets laid off, and the tenured teacher lives another day to be uninspiring. After such personal recounting, it is hard not to think that tenure is a four-letter word and, simultaneously, seek its end.
Yet is tenure this terminal illness plaguing public schools as opponents suggest? No, it is not. In answering this question, consider some of the myths surrounding the tenure discussion. Before we take a meat cleaver to tenure statutes, and in doing so revise major educational policy with serious implications to hundreds of thousands of teachers, let’s separate fact and fiction.
Myth #1: Bad teachers are a function of tenure. That’s the overarching message in the “tale of two teachers” theme. But poor teacher quality is a function of many variables. For instance, how did this “lousy” teacher ever get hired? Didn’t the administrators do their due diligence and recognize a problem while the teacher was on probationary status that, in most states, is three years? Did the teacher get the professional development that’s required to succeed as a teacher? You get the drift: Larger systemic issues lead to poor-performing teachers. But the overemphasis on tenure overshadows significant and difficult policy questions.
Myth #2: Tenure is “lifetime” employment, and tenured teachers are impossible to fire because of the cost/aggravation. It’s more nuanced than this. Tenure is a right to continued employment so long as a teacher is not incompetent, immoral, inefficient, to name a few of the “catch-all” phrases that vary by state. And, it certainly does cost money to fire a tenured teacher, especially if a case is litigated. But, as trial lawyers know, most cases settle. To be sure, settlements do cost money. But the cost of that settlement is in direct proportion to the strength of the case; if a case is weak for the teacher, the district has greater leverage to settle the case on terms favorable to it. Thus, if administrators have done their jobs — which means they’ve developed a fair record that demonstrates poor performance — then the district’s exposure is limited if a case proceeds to litigation.
Myth #3: The private sector would never tolerate a tenure-like system. This one appeals to our entrepreneurial spirit. Indeed, playing the private-sector card may let reformers channel their inner-Donald Trump instinct to fire people, but the comparison is not relevant. The private sector is the last place we should look to as a model for how to cultivate talent. Indeed, we need not look any further than examples of the financial industry in the last few years where ethically questionable (in some cases, illegal) employment behavior by CEOs was rewarded with bonuses. The point is this: When reformers utter “private sector” as the panacea for anything in education (including our teacher quality issue), it is the equivalent of using magic words to solve a complicated policy issue.
A few final thoughts are worth considering. If the link between educational quality and tenure is so tenuous, why is there such a disproportionate emphasis on this relationship? Could this be explained by the fact that there is a larger assault on teachers and unions? If that’s true, then the protection that tenure affords against arbitrary and unreasonable action is more essential than ever.