A couple of years ago when tenure for professors began to look like a thing of the past, I remember thinking that tenure for K-12 teachers would probably be next on the chopping block. And so the rumblings which I thought I heard off in the distance were indeed the precursor of a serious storm. With that in mind let's explore the issue and try to understand what is happening with the concept of teacher tenure in the United States.
The California decision
The judge in the case certainly came down hard against teacher tenure. I am not a lawyer but it seemed to me that the root of his judicial displeasure was the way the California statutes had been written. To understand where those laws originated, you have to go back in time to the early part of the twentieth century and indeed even earlier. Back then teachers could be fired when ever a school board or administrator decided. Essentially teachers had no due process. Teacher protection in the form of tenure was a German idea which began to take hold across the United States back in the 1920s and 1930s. Tenure also curbed another abuse of the teaching profession which was interference from politicians. Teaching positions were considered patronage plums that politicians handed out.
In my opinion tenure for public K-12 teachers was a necessary protection a hundred years ago. But as with all things the times have changed. Since pbulic education is governed and paid for at the local level, the interpretation of teacher tenure developed along those local lines. A school board in Wyoming is going to have a different set of criteria and concerns for teacher tenure than a school board in Connecticut, for example. As a result with 19,000 school districts each offering its own local approach to teacher tenure, there is bound to be some degree of diversity of practice and opinion.
Read Will California's Ruling Against Teacher Tenure Change Schools? for an overview of the teacher tenure issue.
The Pros and Cons
The basic pros and cons of the teacher tenure issue as presented on ProCon.org.
"Proponents of tenure argue that it protects teachers from being fired for personal or political reasons, and prevents the firing of experienced teachers to hire less expensive new teachers. They contend that since school administrators grant tenure, neither teachers nor teacher unions should be unfairly blamed for problems with the tenure system.
Opponents of tenure argue that this job protection makes the removal of poorly performing teachers so difficult and costly that most schools end up retaining their bad teachers. They contend that tenure encourages complacency among teachers who do not fear losing their jobs, and that tenure is no longer needed given current laws against job discrimination."
Beth Lewis offers a useful definition of tenure:
"Definition: Tenure refers to an employment status that teachers earn after successful fulfilling the requirements of a probationary period. Once an educator has earned tenure status, he or she has increased job security in the district that granted the tenure.
Originally intended to protect teachers from arbitrary firings due to personal beliefs or other reasons not directly related to the job they do in the classroom, tenure has become an increasingly controversial topic in the field of Education as the role of teaching unions is scrutinized and reevaluated."
Teacher contracts versus tenure
North Carolina, Kansas and Florida are three states which have legislated teacher tenure changes. As a resident of North Carolina, I can assure you that the teachers are most unhappy with what they perceive as the high-handed manner in which tenure is being abolished. There has been little if any discussion between the parties involved, i.e., the politicians and the teachers. Personally I find it very difficult to understand how you can change teachers' terms of employment in such an arbitrary manner. Wouldn't it make more sense to negotiate a resolution which is a true compromise in which both parties give a little ground?
Once again each state writes its own laws according to the political climate prevailing in that state. A few decades ago the teachers unions would never have permitted teacher tenure policies to be changed. That is how they functioned during the annual contract negotiations which each school district has to go through. What is different this time is that the issue has been taken away from the local school districts. Teacher tenure is being abolished by state law which trumps local law, as I understand it.
The Unions' position
The American Federation of Teachers states the following in its position on Academic Freedom:
"The U.S. system of higher education is based on a rich tradition of academic freedom, peer evaluation, tenure and shared academic governance, as well as on the promotion of a range of ideas and a diversity of voices. It is widely seen as the most successful higher education system in the world. The AFT is working to protect this foundation from those who would chip away at academic freedom for the sake of politics, as well as from its steady erosion at the hands of a changing academic staffing structure."
The National Educators Association reports the following about the replacement of tenure in North Carolina:
"A recent law passed in North Carolina sought to replace teacher “tenure” protections — more accurately “career status” — with contracts running as long as four years. To get there, school administrators were to identify the top 25 percent of teachers based on their job performance. Those teachers were to be offered bonuses totaling $5,000 over time in exchange for giving up tenure for new four-year contracts. Instead, school boards have balked, school administrators have complained, and teachers have protested. All have sued."
What bloggers have to say
Russonreading presents a very clear and cogent case for tenure in our public schools:
"While Walmart, Ford and Microsoft may desire dutifully compliant workers who do what they are told and perform their functions as prescribed by their supervisors, that is the last thing we want in education. Tenure is a necessary component for achieving the kind of schools we all want. The kind of schools that take to heart the interests of every child, that have a rich and varied curriculum and that provide engaging instruction for all children."
Frankly having been involved with education as long as I have been, I tend to fault the teachers unions for not being more proactive. We have all seen how rapidly business which became complacent and unable or unwilling to move with the times went out of business. Polaroid, Kodak, General Motors and many others are examples of that line of intransigent thinking. Teachers unions need to be more than just advocates for their members. They need to articulate the way forward and convince their constituents to buy into the changes needed to restore the high standards we expect of our public education system.