Word Attack: “Tenure”
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.