Why shouldn’t tenure be abolished?

I was checking on my blog, and one of the things I often see is a list of the search terms people typed into google that landed them at my blog.  Today’s title showed up, and I thought I would take a crack at it.

1.  As an incentive to enter/stay in the profession.

There are a lot of tough jobs out there.  Typically, with jobs that are tough, there are a number of incentives provided to attract and keep employees, or they tend to leave after a short time.

Let’s face it:  there aren’t many professional jobs where someone goes through college, earns a bachelor’s degree, and statistically will be starting in the $30k range, and are considered attractive.  When people talk about how teachers (public sector employees) out earn private sector employees, what is often not factored in is the direct comparison of education.  If you eliminate the private sector employees who are required to have a bachelor’s to open and a masters within “X” years, teachers fall way behind their private sector counterparts.

Several decades ago, studies showed that teachers tended not to last long in their profession.  Even today, depending on the survey you read, 40%-60% of people who are ever hired to teach voluntarily leave the profession within the first 5 years.  Because public school teachers have their salaries paid from tax payer contributions, there is a limit as to how high the salary and other financial benefits can go (this also depends on your state and locality — in some areas where the money is available, and education is important to the locals, they will pay higher to attract better teachers).  So, what can you offer an employee coming in to a tough work environment that doesn’t cost money?  A certain level of job protection was a natural thing to offer.

In states without tenure … if there are different pay scales depending on locality, you can be assured that finding a good teacher, or one that has lasted is very rare in a lower paying (read:  poorer) area.

Some say that teachers make far too much now to need tenure.  These people generally look at outliers (only the highest earning teachers), and ignore those who don’t make enough to support a family.  These same people, in some cases want to lower those salaries.  I would say:  choose one to fight for, but don’t go after both.

In review:  tenure was, and remains a way to attract people into the profession, especially intelligent people who might otherwise choose to go into another profession with more money.  Once they are in the profession, it is an incentive to stay instead of leaving to have a family or get a better paying job, as has traditionally been the case.

2.  Tenure helps provide stability to the educational setting.

In many jobs, hiring is a big pain in the buttocks;  ask any HR person.  The simple act of hiring costs money to the employer:  paperwork, drug and medical testing, background checks, etc.  You also have to fund some level of employee training.  Every time an employee quits and has to be replaced, this starts all over again.  In the case of teachers, any (tax payer) money that has been spent on training is now money flushed down the toilet, or money that is essentially transferred to another (tax payers’) district.  Any successful school district will tell you that one key to success is a certain measure of stability (vs. stagnation which is not good).

In education, especially elementary education, there is the added need for stability.  As parents will attest, younger kids and economically disadvantaged kids tend to havea craving for stability in their lives, and tend to malfunction in its absence.  The role of teachers in areas of socioeconomic depression become even more important, because in some cases, these adults are the only stable adults for kids.  Keeping in mind that education traditionally and currently has a high turnover (for what most people think is a critical job), tenure has helped give some level of stability to schools and communities (moreso in smaller poorer communities where education is crucial for upward mobility, and oftentimes suffers from a lack of support in the greater community).  The idea being that once a teacher achieves tenure, they are less likely to leave the profession, or go somewhere else.  In the absence of tenure, poorer/rougher communities have lost a critical hook on holding on to teachers.  In this case:  schools becomes more like Major League Baseball — the poorer communities are like the perennial also rans who are only occasionally successful (the Royals, the A’s), and become better known as the teams where later superstars “started”.  The richer states and districts are more like the Yankees.  Those poorer districts end up spending a lot of money and time recruiting, hiring, and training young teachers, knowing that all of that money is a waste because in the absence of tenure, a larger percentage of them will go on to greener pastures, in or out of education.  Even with tenure, this trend exists, but without it, it will become a bigger problem.

In review:  Especially to poorer or rougher communities, tenure is a way to hold on to experience … which in some cases they have a moderate investment in.  In the absence of tenure, the statistical chances that a teacher will leave the school, taking that money invested in them, is far greater.  Even in richer areas, they want to make sure that they hold on to teachers who might leave for slightly better situations.

3.  Tenure helps to insulate educational quality from economics.

I know a lot of people are out of work these days.  It affects everyone.  When economic times get tough, people start looking for scapegoats, and more than ever get angry when their neighbor has more than they do.  When teachers still have a job in an economy, a lot of people get angry that the “hired help” (public sector) still has a job when they don’t … and they start thinking that this is somehow unfair (I lost my job, why can’t they lose theirs?).  There is no logic to this, but it happens.

Tenure is also there to prevent the beancounters and witch hunters from doing what is common in these situations:  save money at all costs.  In business, this may be a good thing to do in these times.  In education, it can lead to some really bad consequences.

I mentioned that as a teacher stays with a district, the school and community have more and more invested in them;  the teacher becomes a community asset.  In times of economic woes, the beancounters start looking for ways to save money at virtually any cost, and in any school district, the largest (by a large margin) expenditure is salary.  It is in heated moments like these that big mistakes can be made.

If I were the budget person bent on saving money, irrelevant of anything else, I would start with the largest salaries.  This typically means the more experienced teachers.  As noted:  in bad economic climates, people tend to let logic go a bit, and quite suddenly, the older teachers with more experience are gone, to be replaced with younger teachers who are cheaper.  Remember:  the budget people in a school district are in no way thinking about education and the consequences on students … that is not their job.  School boards, too, start getting the messages from concerned tax payers to slash budgets.  These people aren’t often very educated on everything going on here, but they are tax payers.  In the heat of the moment, even school boards make bad calls.

If you read the rhetoric floating around, all of the young cheap teachers are the best ones, and all of the older more experienced teachers are wrinkled curmudgeons counting their gold in their mansions.  This is obviously not valid.  There are some good young teachers, but there are far more good veteran teachers.

As a matter of fact, when it comes to teacher retention, and success of a teacher staff, one of the single biggest factors is mentoring:  linking experienced teachers with younger ones.  If older teachers feel threatened, then mentoring tends to go away, and the younger teachers fail.  If there are too few older teachers, mentoring never takes place.  There needs to be a balance.  Sadly, in these economic conditions, schools are hiring fewer and fewer teachers, meaning the average age of the staff is getting older (and despite expenditures going down, the average salary is going up) without the energy that a younger teacher brings.  That’s not good for anyone …. but simply dumping out the older teachers is not the solution either.

Besides, would you enter any profession that required so much education (and expenditure thereof), paid comparatively little based on that level of education compared to other jobs, AND there was a statistically good chance that you would be fired before retirement?  It tends to act as a turnoff.  Every profession has its plusses and minuses … tenure is one of the key plusses for educators.

In review:  Tenure acts as a buffer against school boards, accountants, and administrators from making poor decisions  that can affect the stability of the education that students are getting, especially in times when budgets need to be slashed.

4.  Tenure helps insulate education from politics.

There is a long, long history that when politicians need to make change, wipe the intellectuals out!  Getting control of schools is critical in revolutions because revolutionaries are only good at motivating one generation.  One generation’s revolutionary is the next genertion’s ogre.  In order to perpetuate the revolution, the schools need to start teaching the “right” things.

In the absence of men with guns and bayonettes storming schools and forcing insubordinate teachers out at gunpoint, simply firing them will do.  Tenure acts as a buffer between the independent teacher and the teacher who has a politicians hand up their buttocks … that’s the difference between your kid going to school to get an education or an indoctrination.

One might say … that’s nice, but the United States is not in a revolution right now … teachers shouldn’t need tenure to protect their jobs.

My argument is that tenure now is even more critical than at any time since the 1960s.

Think about teaching natural selection in places like Kansas or about the civil rights movement in parts of the South.  Think about English teachers who have to traverse mine fields every single year over the novels they try and teach.

From conversations, a certain (who knows how big) percentage of people oppose to tenure are opposed to it for this reason.  They don’t like it that teachers teach sex ed.  They don’t like it that they teach that Richard Nixon was a lying cheat.  They don’t like it that they question that FDR may have been the closest we have ever come to a government coup in the twentieth century.  They don’t like it that we teach about Washington and Jefferson being slave owners.  They don’t like it that we teach about apes and dinosaurs and Charles Darwin.  They don’t like that school drama departments put on Lysistrata. The laws are clear:  teachers can and should teach that stuff.  The option is also clear:  Since the lawas cannot be circumvented, you need to intimidate teachers until they leave or conform.  Tenure acts as a shield against that.  When parents and the community start making unreasonable demands onthe curriculum, teachers have to stand strong, and tenure is what permits a teacher to stand in defense of their curriculum.  In the absence of tenure, a teacher will have no legal recourse to protect themselves if the school board or enough parents rise up and demand that something in particular be taught or not taught, no matter how wrong that is.  The teacher has three choices:  quit, comply, or lose.  In the first and third instances, they will simply be replaced by someone who will comply.  In all instances (and this is the most important), the students lose.  While tenure is not a failsafe, it provides teachers with some legal weaponry to fight back in the event politics tries to invade.

A common argument against tenure is that tenure actually shields teachers who want to indoctrinate against being fired when they should.

In some communities, sports is very important.  Schools need to bow to that by making sure that they have a strong stable of coaches to run those programs.  I am not opposed to that, however, if a school suddenly finds the need to hire a great basketball coach, and to do so suddenly finds the need to let go of a good teacher or two in order to make room and free  up salary, another need for tenure is illuminated.  Extra-curricular programs are an important part of the American school experience, but that should never be a license to remove a good classroom teacher to make space for a new coach.  Tenure acts as a protection to the good classroom teacher in these cases.

The number one case against tenure, and it is a great point, is that tenure protects incompetency.  The only problem with this point is that it has been and always will be 100% invalid.

Tenure ABSOLUTELY will NOT protect a teacher from being fired if they do a poor job, or if they do something in violation of the school code.  If a teacher decides to start teaching creationism, they could very well (and should very well) be fired.  If a teacher does a poor job, and they have repeated poor evaluations, they can be placed on probation, and they can absolutely let go after that.

Then why does this not happen more often?

There are three primary reasons:

A.  How many bad teachers are there?  This answer will vary.  Some people think that most teachers are bad, and if the retention rate is anything over 20%, the system is failing.  At the other extreme, some think that in any given year, no more than 5-10% of teachers are bad.  This last figure jives with the current rate at which bad teachers are let go (proving it can be done).  I, however, think it is likely somewhere in the 10-20% range.  That is significant, but the other thing to keep in mind is that this 10-20% that I am hypothesizing is systemic, and not indicative of any one school or district.  A school or district that is better at hiring teachers (because they have some good administrators who can find the good ones from the beginning), might see fewer problems.  Districts that support their staff with good training and good support will see this number lower.  This obviously means that in some schools, the number may be significantly higher.  Sometimes people don’t think the job is being done … but that is because they think it is worse than it is.  This, of course, does depend on where you live.  People will always remember those few bad teachers and wonder “how were they ever permitted to keep teaching …”  Read on for one, but keep in mind:  they were the minority.

B.  Administrators bail out.  In virtually any school, the administrators have to evaluate the teachers.  If a teacher gets a good evaluation, they are happy, but tend to get upset over bad evaluations (this is the same in any profession).  Administrators sometimes don’t like to put up with a whiny employee, so they give them acceptable ratings.  Sadly, some administrators use a sliding scale of evaluation.  If teacher “X” is the best in the school, they get a good evaluation, and we go from there (even if teacher “X” isn’t all that good).  Futher, some administrators in this world of “cooperation, negotiation, and team work” see it more important to not rock the boat (this may be internalized, or it may come down from a higher up).  Giving bad evaluations can lead to boat rocking.  This is a problem.  It is sometimes amazing when a teacher who is obviously doing a bad job has numerous questionably high evaluations.  In the absence of poor evaluations, it is impossible to start the due process that any employee deserves.

What’s the solution?  Administrators need to be held responsible.  If there is a teacher who is being observed by colleagues, and has been observed by other administrators, and is clearly not cutting it … and the administrator in charge of evaluating that person has been writing higher than deserved evaluations, then the teacher and administrator BOTH need to be held accountable. (BTW … the only two teachers in my department who were let go for performance issues, were both times handed over to administration by their colleagues … some people don’t believe this, but good teachers are just as interested in weeding out bad teachers as parents are … we don’t like seeing the students hurt or the profession dragged down!).

C.  Union protections.  I am not a union member, and in Illinois I detest that the citizens of this state permit the unions to cull my bank account for services not requested.  Normally, thievery like that is reserved strictly for the government 🙂

I have worked in two vastly different situations:  one with a very strong union, the other with a relatively mild union (there are outspoken individuals, but they generally cannot rally enough support to do anything tragic).  I have seen the pros and cons.  Strong unions can protect a good teacher when the administration and school board are making dreadful mistakes.  On the other hand, they also tend to defend teachers on technicalities, when the teacher might be wrong.

The best way to disarm the union …. make it unable to defend a bad teacher, is to see part B above.  When unions go to defend a bad teacher in courts and before arbitrators (much like the ACLU occasionally does with obviously guilty parties), they reach at technicalities …. were evaluations filed on time?  Were remediation meetings held promptly enough?  Was due process followed?  If the school administration is careful to do its job properly (dotting i’s, crossing t’s), then the union will have next to nothing to go on, and tenure will not save anyone.

Even though I generally oppose teachers unions, this is why I am most against the moves being made in Wisconsin recently.  These moves will do very little to stay the power of unions, but in fact will make them righteously angry …. make them far more willing to fight when they can, will make the lives of non-union teachers more miserable, and has done nothing to change the most common mechanism for bad teachers to escape back to their jobs through the loopholes that unions will now be exploiting with glee, instead of while holding their noses.  Despite all the grandstanding by Wisconsin’s governor, he has done nothing to actually help the educational process (though I do applaud that he eliminated required fair share dues, though I would have much more greatly appreciated finding a new way to help good teachers and get rid of the bad ones).

We have all seen bad teachers.  We have all seen good ones.  The problem:  What is the definition of a good teacher?  The answer:  there is none …. interview 20 people, you are likely to get 10 different answers.  Another interesting thing … when you ask people what is most important about a good teacher, and they will usually answer “caring”, “understanding”, compassionate”, “fair”, “good communicator” … that last point is the most objective, but I can tell you this:  those top three NEVER appear in a teacher’s evaluation.  Think about it:  three of the most important things about a teacher never decide whether they should be kept around.  To take a tangent:  when politicians and the public talk about merit pay, all four of those points are excluded from determining good teachers from bad teachers.  The point:  There are some teachers who students and parents come to despise because they are tough, a bit rigid, maybe don’t communicate well with parents, but are in fact phenomenal teachers.  Parents and kids might scream from the rafters to get rid of such people, and then blame the system for not following through, or blame the union for saving their butt.  In the absence of a written description of what constitutes a good teacher (my district has one of these), most communities would have the teacher stand before the board and be subjected to a thumb’s up/thumb’s down vote.  That just isn’t going to make things better.

You might think this is a rare case, but I think it is more common than you think.  I constantly hear stories from physics teachers (a relatively small part of the population) who tell horror stories about trying to integrate higher level thinking activities into their programs …. more data analysis … and when the kids and parents balk, their job can suddenly be on the line (unless they are tenured).  The parents scream to get rid of the teacher, and pretty soon you have a good teacher who is being unfairly prosecuted …. with tenure his/her only shield.  In just this past year, I have read not less than 5 cases that came across my desk similar to this … and this is just a relatively small group of physics teachers across the country I interact with through a listserv.  In most cases, after some effort, the teachers are forced to back down if they are not covered by tenure, because they cannot afford to lose their job.  The parents win, but the students don’t.

Our nation … the Uniform Code of Military Justice not withstanding … has always stood for making sure the innocent were protected, even if that means that guilty occasionally get away with it.  Historically, we have frowned on the innocent getting caught up in a hunt get the innocent (these things happen … internment of the Japanese, the McCarthy trials, etc …. but these things are never looked back at with a sense that this was America at its best).  Yet, the public opinion, as it stands, would rather strip good teachers of their protection to do their jobs the best way they can, vs. allowing a minority of bad teachers to get away with things … despite the fact that blaming tenure for the bad teachers is an excuse at best.  I have never understood this.  Just because juries occasionally let the guilty go, should we abolish the jury system?  Even if this were a constitutional option, I doubt many sane individuals would vote for that.  Similarly, the labor and union system may need very serious reform.  Please, reform it, even if that is not what unions want.  But abolishing the needed protections for teachers to do their job shouldn’t be one of them!

Perhaps a final way to look at this:  in states were there is no tenure, are there still bad teachers?  Based on public sentiment, bad teachers should make up the bare minimum of teachers in states without tenure.  I think we all know that this is not the case.

cutting to the chase:  Tenure helps defend students and teachers against political and parent pressure to water down and alter the curriculum to meet political ends.  Tenure is never a way to protect bad teachers, provided that the local school administrators are duly diligent in assessing their staff properly, and dealing with poor teachers within the bounds of the law and local contracts.  It is only when local administrators drop the ball that bad teachers are allowed to flourish.


One Response to Why shouldn’t tenure be abolished?

  1. All of your points are excellent, and I wish more people would pay attention to them. In 23 years of teaching, I have never seen tenure CAUSE anyone to be a bad teacher, which is the argument I hear so often. Where I live tenure is one of the ways that we keep the bubba school boards from hiring and firing their buddies and firing good, but perhaps controversial, teachers.

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