Teacher Tenure is Just a Bad Idea; or the Top 10 Reasons Teachers Shouldn’t Get Tenure
Teacher tenure is a controversial practice that provides job protection to teachers – some states give tenure after as little as one year – some require a minimum of seven years’ service and a total of about 2.3 million teachers were tenured in 2008. Teacher tenure was brought in so that teachers’ jobs would be protected in the event of a change in political leadership or to protect jobs from nepotism. The idea of tenure has a long history in the US – the late 1880s was a time of struggle for fairer working terms and practices. In 1986 Massachusetts brought in the first tenured positions for teachers and in 1887 the first ever teachers’ union meeting took place in Chicago and teacher tenure was one of the key discussion points.
These days tenure is one of the most debated topics in education – those in favor say that the practice protects experienced teachers from loosing out on opportunities to cheaper, younger, less experienced teachers. Those who are against tenure say that the practice protects incompetent teachers and makes it too difficult and expensive to fire those who do not do their jobs well. So who is right? Here are our top 10 reasons why tenure is bad for the US, for teachers, tax payers and, most importantly for pupils.
10. Tenure is an outdated form of job protection
Dating from a time when teachers could be fired for being out too late at night, getting pregnant or just to make way for a friend of their boss tenure was originally brought in to protect teachers from unfair dismissal. Most professions do not provide for tenured positions but employees are protected from unfair dismissal by a raft of comprehensive employment rights legislation.
In many districts teachers who loose their jobs through budget cuts or school closures are put on a ‘Reserve’ List. While many work as substitutes or go on to find a position relatively quickly it is not unknown for some teachers to refuse to apply to other jobs, or, if required to, ensure that they interview badly. Some areas (Chicago is a case in point) limit the amount of time a teacher can spend on the reserve list, others (eg New York) are much more generous. Teachers on reserve are effectively paid for doing nothing, this goes beyond any reasonable form of job protection.
9. Tenure Is Unpopular With the American Public
Parents who send their children to school know that if they fail to live up to expectations in their own jobs they will be in trouble. When the economy falters they worry about the security of their employment, many are remunerated in line with their aptitude and results. These ordinary members of the public who do not enjoy tenure rights in their own work simply cannot understand why it is a necessary protection for teachers.
A representative survey in 2011 showed almost that almost 50% of people surveyed were opposed to teacher tenure. The same survey showed that the 55% of respondents felt that if tenure had to be given to teachers it should be awarded to teachers who demonstrably improved student performance instead of being based on years served.
8. The Concept Of Tenure Is Intrinsically Linked To The Union Movement
Teaching is a heavily unionized industry and, because of the historical links between tenure and the early teachers’ unions the two issues are deeply intertwined in the mind of the ordinary American. Teachers’ unions are vocal lobbyists who are often seen to be protecting their positions, pay packets and benefits at the expense of school budgets and the quality of education. As the membership of and support for unions declines in the US this affiliation is proving increasingly unpopular.
Unions are extremely unpopular with School Boards with over 60% of School Board Presidents said that unions were a bar to the effective supervision of teachers and that they ‘tie administrators hands’. Nearly 30% of respondents felt that unions were an obstacle to the reform of education.
7. Tenure is granted too soon to allow teachers to prove their worth
Tenure is granted in as little as one year and on average, across the United States, in about three years. Three years is not long enough for anyone to prove themselves in any career. Within this initial period of time new teachers are learning their individual teaching style -what works and what does not. New teachers may spend longer on lesson planning and resource management either because they need to take longer to get these things right or because they are enthusiastic about their new career. Teachers’ early performance may be impacted by getting a very good or a very bad class early on.
6. Tenure Requirements Are Not Rigorous
Giving tenure to teachers who have not been required nor had the opportunity to prove their aptitude is a fundamentally flawed idea. School boards may be locking in unbelievably talented individuals but they are just as likely to saddle themselves with an incompetent teacher. School teaching is not the only profession to give tenured positions but it is the easiest route to tenure. To earn the security of a tenured positon professors in universities have to prove that they deserve it. School teachers effectively get tenure as a matter of course. There are no proper evaluations made before teachers are granted tenure, effectively all they have to do is show up to work for their initial period. Even union officials and teachers themselves have said that some tenured teachers are should not be teaching.
Where teachers are evaluated less than 1% are said to be ‘unsatisfactory’. Many states have a ‘binary’ review system where teachers can only be rated as satisfactory or unsatisfactory. Even where the range of options are broader the overwhelming majority of teachers (94%) are rated within the two highest categories.
This lack of rigor in the evaluation system fails the pupils. Teachers perform at a range of standards – it is impossible for them all to be ‘satisfactory’ to the same level and certainly the uniformity of the evaluation results is not reflected in a uniformity of academic achievement across classes – some do better some worse. It is telling that a review of schools that are failing showed only 10% issued an unsatisfactory review rating to a teacher.
The system also fails the genuinely gifted teachers and the schools and school boards who do not have the tools to identify, develop and promote them. New teachers are given very little support and are almost always graded satisfactory as a matter of course.
5. Tenure Does not Guarantee Academic Freedom
At university level academic work and research can take place on possibly controversial topics that may see them taking a substantially different stance to their peers, society or government. Those who publish controversial papers should be protected controversy, contention and debate are how we progress. Tenure is a necessary security in this environment it protects, not only those in the tenured positions, but the academic freedoms that are necessary to allow our society to benefit from research and evolving schools of thought.
No Child Left Behind has implemented a stringent regime of standardized testing across schools; teachers are required by the Department of Education to use ‘educational programs and practices that have been proved effective through rigorous scientific research. This has effectively hampered academic freedom in the classroom. Academic standards are, therefore, set by the Department of Education and the School Boards not by the teachers themselves. This means that there is no need to grant school teachers tenured positions to protect their academic freedoms. For this reason a 2006 survey of School Board Presidents in Illinois resulted in at least 56% see the question of tenure as irrelevant to the question of academic freedom.
4. Tenure Fails The Poorest In Society By Allowing Senior Teachers To Cherry Pick Easy Schools
Senior teachers are rewarded with levels of pay and seniority linked to the number of years they have been working. The more senior a teacher is the more they will be able to influence where they work.
It is not unusual for senior teachers to opt to work in the easier schools n wealthier areas – it is seen as a reward for many years of hard work. However, this gives rise to a situation where the most adept and experienced teachers are teaching the easiest children. Challenging schools are staffed by younger less experienced teachers who have not yet learned all the skills and techniques to reach out to and address the problems such students have.
When hard budgetary decisions have to be made and teachers fired tenure protections mean that layoff decisions are not based on competency but on a last in-first out policy. This means that in periods of economic hardship children in the most challenging schools are the ones whose education is impacted the hardest.
3, Tenure Causes Budget Chaos By Preventing Flexibility
The link between tenure, seniority and salary can cause School Districts problems in times of economic hardship.
Funding is often linked to the number of pupils in each school district so when enrollment declines (for whatever reason) district funding will also decline leading to budgetary problems. Teaching is a people heavy industry and therefore most of the district’s operating expenditure relates to staff costs. When enrollment declines the school board cannot cut staff because tenure protects their positions. The standard response is to impose a hiring freeze. This is not a viable solution as salary costs will rise because, as teachers gain seniority they will also be entitled to a salary increase which exacerbates the budget problems. Abolishing tenure would allow school boards to manage timed of economic hardship in a fiscally responsible manner.
2, Tenure Makes It Expensive And Difficult To Remove Teachers Who Are Failing
In a survey of school board president in Illinois 90% said that teacher tenure made it difficult to get rid of teachers who were performing at a below average level. 60% of respondents felt that teacher tenure fails to give rise to fair performance evaluations and 37% thought such evaluations were completely meaningless.
Teachers themselves agree that it can be too hard to get rid of underperforming teachers. The costs to fire a teacher are huge – an average of $219,000 in Illinois and $250,000 in New York. In fact the costs are so high and the procedural requirements so burdensome that New Jersey fired less than 1% of all teachers in the 10 years running to 2005. The law of probability (combined with parental observation) would suggest that there are more incompetent teachers in the New Jersey education system.
In 2009 a scandal broke about the so called ‘Rubber Rooms’ In New York. The Rubber Rooms (Temporary Reassignment Centers) were where teachers who could not be allowed to teach but whose positions were protected by teacher tenure were sent, day in day out at taxpayers’ expense. Some teachers were in the rubber rooms for incompetence which is bad enough but some were put there for molesting students, they continued to accrue pensions and benefits during their time there.
Teachers cannot be fired without ‘due process’ with a hearing before an arbitrator a lengthy and expensive process. The evaluation system prevents school boards from accurately identifying incompetent teachers. The net result being that less half of all districts surveyed in 2009 had been able to get rid of poorly performing tenured teachers in the preceding five years.
1. Tenure Makes Teachers Complacent
The quality of a child’s teacher has more impact on their academic performance than the resources provided or the buildings they study in. A student who is in a class with a good teacher can have up to a year’s extra academic development compared to a student who studies with a poor teacher. Learning from a good teacher for three years in a row can give an improvement of 50 percent over and above students who learn from a bad teacher.
The skewed evaluation system mentioned above allows teachers to believe that they are performing to an excellent standard even if they are not. When teachers from districts with multiple level evaluation systems were asked 50% said they should be evaluated as performing at the highest level. Teachers who are still within their probationary period (and arguably still developing their skills said that they would be dissatisfied not to receive the highest rating. This level of complacency combined with the knowledge that it is almost impossible for them to loose their jobs does not create an environment in which teachers acknowledge the need to engage in continuous professional development or work to improve their skills and innovate in their classrooms.
100 years ago before modern day legislation gave rise to equal rights and employment protection tenure had its place in the teaching system. It protected vulnerable teachers from the political whims of their supervisors and form the exercise of nepotism. These days legislation provides reasonable protections and tenure is no longer required – indeed teaching is one of the only professions to provide this security and the only one to provide it at such a low threshold, as such it is increasingly unpopular with the American public.
Tenure is possibly discriminatory towards the poorest pupils in our society as tenured teachers with long service seniority (and therefore the most experience) are likely to choose to work in the easiest schools, leaving schools in poor and deprived areas to younger, less experienced teachers.
When teachers are evaluated they are overwhelmingly likely to be rated satisfactory even when they are not –This makes it almost impossible for school administrators to identify underperformers and provide them with support and an opportunity to improve where relevant or weed them out of the system where not. Where teachers are identified as incompetent it is a lengthy and expensive process to get rid of them. The same system also fails to identify the highest performers and provide them with relevant and appropriate professional development opportunities.
Tenure is an outdated, inflexible system that causes management and budgeting problems for school boards. Many states (for example New York, Oregon, DC and New Jersey) have started initiatives to try to bring this outmoded system to an end and the Los Angeles Superior Court has ruled tenure unconstitutional.
We live in an increasingly global society and our children will face stiff competition in the job market from people in emerging markets. A good teacher can make or break the quality of education a child receives – three good teachers in a row can improve academic performance by as much as 50%. We should be building an education system that rewards and promotes teachers that produce these results. While teacher tenure is not the only problem that needs reform in the education system it is a good place to start – our children deserve the very best and we should accept nothing less.