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Word Attack: “Tenure”

September 28, 2010

Tweeting about tenure during Education Nation.

Yes, the “T” word. The topic needs no introduction; it is one of the most contentious issues in the debate over public schooling. There is a widespread perception that one of the biggest barriers to improving schools is that teachers have ironclad job protections that keep ineffective practitioners in classrooms, to the detriment of their students. But is that really so?


Strictly speaking, K-12 teachers do not really have “tenure”. Tenure, in the “lifetime job” sense, is a university-level practice whereby professors are given a lifetime appointment after a six- or seven-year probationary period. It exists to protect academic freedom, so that professors can freely pursue knowledge– however controversial or unpopular– without fear for their livelihoods.

By whatever name you choose, what K-12 teachers have is simply a system of due process. Such due process rights are traditionally granted after a probationary period of around three years, and they do NOT ensure lifetime employment. Rather, they attempt to ensure that teachers are not dismissed for unfair reasons, such as supporting a political cause their leadership opposes, or because a principal’s family member needs a job, (or because they know too much…) etc. They also give teachers the opportunity to defend themselves against what could be baseless accusations. The specifics vary from place to place, but as long as principals document their reasons for wanting to dismiss the teacher (and in the case of incompetence, provide ample opportunity for the teacher to improve), removal is entirely possible.

Indeed, in some places, it may be easier than it should be. Here in Denver, I’ve spoken with a handful of the 58 teachers placed on remediation plans– the improvement period before teachers are set to be dismissed– last year. They presented me with compelling evidence that they were being targeted because of their age, rather than bona fide poor performance. However, because district oversight is so flimsy, their principals were able to initiate the termination process without gathering credible evidence (or, in some cases, any evidence) of their incompetence. The remediation period was then intensely stressful, as the principals heaped unreasonable demands on the teachers (tracking each and every book each of their students read, turning in voluminous amounts of daily lesson plans, requiring semi-daily rearrangements of classroom furniture, etc.), and then failed them afterward, regardless of whether or not they met those increased demands.

Obviously, teacher quality is an important concern in education. However, teachers’ rights to due process really aren’t an impediment to improving schools. Indeed, we see in the examples of places like Finland, where virtually all teachers are unionized and enjoy these protections, that they can be quite supportive of excellence in education. Where properly used, they preserve school stability and prevent the removal of good teachers who happen to run afoul of an unscrupulous principal, district, or school board. As long as employees at every level are doing their jobs– observing and evaluating teachers fairly, keeping proper documentation, creating healthy working conditions, and offering necessary resources and support–then our school systems can (and most do) work very well.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. September 28, 2010 5:34 pm

    The history of tenure is that it helped defend women from the unwanted advances of male administrators, and prevented districts from saving large amounts money during tight budget times by letting go their teachers on the higher pay scales. How quickly we forget these things in America.
    I suppose will be attacking holidays and sick days next as well. After all Superman never took a holiday or sick day. Be careful friends or the rights you lose may be the ones you need one day.

  2. Alicia permalink
    September 28, 2010 7:44 pm

    What most people don’t realize is that teaching can be a very political profession. Those who have no real experience teaching in a public school believe that teachers need tenure, excuse me, due process, so that they can be free of fear of malicious administrators who either don’t like them or need to give Uncle Jim a job. As a college student, I remember a veteran teacher telling me that the only thing I need to learn in college is to “keep my head down, my door closed and teach!” I have found that to be the best advice I have even given! We need to stand up to the negative attacks out there and ask that people forget about pointing fingers and find a way to educate equally all of our students.

  3. Kerrie permalink
    September 28, 2010 9:06 pm

    Most ALL industries have politics and some bad managers buy very few have such extended job security. The problem with ample time for teachers to improve is that it is the kids that suffer during that time. If the teacher is taken out of the classroom so no child suffers from an inferior teacher, that is the only logical choice. Financially, it doesn’t but logically it is a vital.

    • September 28, 2010 9:39 pm

      1. I think all employees in this country deserve a fairer shake than they’re getting. Instead of saying “Others don’t have it, so teachers shouldn’t either,” I say, “All people are entitled to be able to defend themselves before being summarily dismissed from any position.”

      2. This issue would not be so problematic if teachers were given the kind of support they need to succeed in the first place. The only reason due process could ever present a serious issue is when the rest of the system breaks down. If teachers are well-trained (For example, Finland requires three years of master’s level education for teachers as well as a two-year intern/residency period), supported (with resources, mentoring, smaller class sizes, etc.), and evaluated (with ongoing feedback for development, not punishment), then there isn’t a problem. It’s a mark of a broken system that we talk endlessly about firing bad teachers– why don’t we talk about hiring great ones? [Answer: Because ours is a country obsessed with cost-cutting and shortcuts. Pay now or pay later, folks…]

      Moreover, it is only in a broken system that the kind of smart, dedicated, caring people who enter the teaching profession could become “bad” teachers. Remember, there’s no glamour or money in working in these schools; people go into it because we want to make a difference. I’ve yet to meet any “bad” teachers, despite working in low-income communities and “failing” schools for years. I *have* met a lot of people who’ve been worn out by unreasonable demands, horrific working conditions, and incessant outside blame for problems that are way outside of our control.


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