What’s tenure got to do with it?

11.11.14 | Learning on the EDge | 6 Comments

(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.


About Mark Paige

MARK PAIGE is an assistant professor of education at University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. His last Kappan article was “Using VAM in high-stakes employment decisions,” Phi Delta Kappan, 94 (3), (November 2012), 29-32.

Comments on What’s tenure got to do with it?

  1. Karen Dietze Nelson says:

    Thank you for pointing out the irrelevancy of the comparison with the private sector. Education is a public enterprise and the levers that operate on the private sector are, for the most part, absent in public education. Tenure serves our students by protecting all teachers from the whims of politics – good teachers as well as bad receive its protections. To be sure there are instances in which case it is not administered properly, but this does not make tenure bad. To point the finger at tenure as the root of all evil is a lazy man’s fix for a complicated problem.

  2. Devin says:

    I believe that the battle surrounding teacher tenure is one that has been created by the media and politicians. Yes, I will admit there are people work in K-12 and higher education that have no right educating people, but the problem is not tenure, it is evaluation. If K-12 school districts and teachers unions were willing to implement a fair and balanced educator evaluation system then this contentious battle around tenure would not exist. Tenure is a protection, but educating students can be a difficult path at some points and classes can be very different form day to day and year to year so an educator needs to have some comfort in knowing that they cannot be terminated at any moment.

    I think that Myth 1 makes some great points about a larger systemic issue with the training of teachers. We are willing to say that bad teachers get hired but we are never willing to investigate the teacher training programs. Let’s use Massachusetts for an example; I would like to see some data on levels of teacher performance, the state tracks what a teacher gets for a rating on an evaluation. I think that the stay should look at the levels of teachers earning below proficient (which is the benchmark) and track them to the colleges and universities they attended to obtain educator licenses. If too many educators are getting below proficient for a particular college or university then maybe an investigation should be done on that training program. I think that the higher ed lobbyists would be objecting to this level of measure.

  3. Claire says:

    This is the best article I’ve read about teacher tenure. Paige makes some important point about the bigger policy issues that are being dodged when we focus solely on teacher tenure rather than larger systemic problems.

  4. Will says:

    Nice article. I’ve heard all of these myths bandied about recklessly by people not too informed on the issue, and it’s nice to have some solid arguments in my toolkit for when I’ll encounter these claims in the future.

    I’m curious, though. How would you respond to folks who dislike but do not hate tenure and would rather scale it back a bit than eliminate it, advancing arguments like “too many teachers are granted tenure merely for failing to be fired for a few years” or “our current assessment processes in awarding tenure are far too cursory–we need more comprehensive systems of evaluation”?

    • Mark Paige says:

      Will, thanks for that response. It’s great. Those are legitimate arguments and we should be very careful to make sure that the teachers that do get tenure have the talent and demonstrated history/potential to succeed. Thanks!

  5. Kris says:

    I appreciate the writing style here as much as the content. Its a comprehensive “snap-shot” of the key issues that surface when we villianize tenure. Tenure, if used correctly, keeps strong veteran teachers in the classroom in the face of administrative changeover and shifts within the district. I would argue that larger systemic issues are still only one factor in a series of complex parts that surround teacher turnover and ineffectiveness–including modern trends to explore multiple professions within one’s lifespan in the US. We talk about tenure the way we talk about parking tickets–it tends to be a one sided argument. For some, tenure today may be a sweet, old fashion notion. Well, its a policy that, if used to support keeping quality teachers in the classroom, need not be broken.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>