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Tenure Is Neither the Problem nor the Solution

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A Los Angeles judge wrote a decision last week to strike down the state's teacher tenure laws. Will it be the snowball at the top of a fortified mountain that rolls off and grows in size and power as it tumbles down the mountain? This, and the lawsuits that will surely follow, cannot become distractions from our most important work of shifting to become schools for the 21st century and attending to the learning needs of our students.

Nevertheless, whether tenure survives or not, two statements captured our attention.  A Washington Post article covering the decision quoted Superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, as calling the decision a...

...historic day...We can rectify a catastrophe...We can and will and must assure that children have the most effective teachers in their classrooms every day. Not some children, not most children, not even nearly all children. But all children.

In the same article Secretary Duncan was quoted as saying,

The students who brought this lawsuit are, unfortunately, just nine out of millions of young people in America who are disadvantaged by laws, practices and systems that fail to identify and support our best teachers and match them with our neediest students.

The vehemence and outrage expressed in the decision is a condemnation of all of us in the educational system. Tenure laws are on the books in many states. Tenure is offered to teachers employed in our public schools, and in our colleges and universities.  In a 2008 Time.com article, the issue of tenure and its role in keeping poor teachers in the classroom was exposed and there have been many more since.  Tenure has been up for discussion for some time.  Now, it is being shaped as a civil rights issue, contributing to the gap between the educational opportunities and results of poor children and their more advantaged peers. 

It is unfair to generalize that those who work in high poverty areas are the problem.  Those schools have extraordinary people dedicated to the education of the students learning in them.  And, for the general public to be convinced otherwise is unfair. But, the facts of the case as presented by students and leaders seem to be that, disproportionately, less highly qualified teachers are in the schools with lower socio economic levels.  If true, educators and politicians have let this happen.  

But while the debate continues in the courts and in public opinion, some things need to be clear. There are schools in high poverty areas that do not have the advantage of hiring the best and the brightest. They have to hire from among the applicants who apply or accept who is transferred in from elsewhere in the system.  No matter how dedicated, there are those who want to spend their career teaching at Beverly Hills High and not in South Central LA.  And, as in any profession, they have the right to choose where they want to teach.... don't they? 

These schools, challenged by the poverty in which their students live, do not have the resources to make the difference, to offer the opportunities to their teachers for advancement in their fields or to offer the cutting edge instructional resources that would incentivize a well prepared new teacher to be attracted there.

Certainly, there are those who have been granted tenure and who are the bad seeds that give the rest in education a bad name. Perhaps, we need to get better at deciding who should receive tenure and who should not.  And, definitely, there should be easier and less expensive processes for dealing with those who are no longer making the positive difference we need in schools. Union leaders might consider or reconsider their role in protection. Is it for teachers or for children or are they inseparable? We need leaders who will make the case and take a stand and we need support in legislative halls.

And certainly we need to do a much better job sharing the stories of those over 3 million teachers who are tenured and are remain in their jobs because of it.  We need to do a much better job of telling why tenure came to be. Teachers cannot work at the "whim" of a board or leader. School faculties cannot be turned over every time a leader changes. Employment cannot be threatened every time a teacher speaks out in support of an unpopular idea or against a policy or disciplines a child or doesn't pick the "right" child for the play or team. And, if the most experienced are our best teachers, they should not be in jeopardy when fiscal crisis makes hiring newer, less expensive teachers more attractive.

But, is there a correct relationship between experienced, the tenured and the best? Are children in those classrooms most successful? The other side is this. Tenure should be an acknowledgement of accomplishment in the field, not just serving a number of years. Tenure does offer protection, but not for complacency.  One who enjoys the benefits of tenure, in a system where that gives great protection, possess an associated responsibility. That teacher is obligated by the public trust to remain the most current, the most well informed, the most invested, hard-working and compassionate teacher. Tenured teachers should be enthusiastically involved in professional development, every year with the rate of technological and curricular change impacting the field. Those who are tenured should be the leaders and the professional models for the field.

If that happens, the system is working. Children will be achieving desired results. Teachers will be respected professionals with greater self-efficacy. The school community has stability and a growth mindset, with courageous leaders and teachers responsible maintaining a positive culture for our schools. Safety is improved because teachers know their students, care about them, and are in ongoing contact with parents and guardians.  Children are learning and growing and happy.

But, if tenure has created an educational environment in which our neediest children get the weakest teachers and if tenure protects the worst and not just the best, then it is a system problem and the judge is right. But, let's remember that funding and resources are part of the story as well. Those children who filed the complaint in Los Angeles have been underserved by the lack of resources. Poor teachers with the protection of tenure have been identified as part of the problem. So, as this tenure snowball gains force, let's make sure the politicization of tenure doesn't become the issue. We cannot lose sight of the value of children in poverty and of our responsibly for them and for their future. That is the real issue. And that issue should tweak the consciences of all of us. How do we make these children equal beneficiaries of a well-functioning education system? We can wait for judges and legislatures and unions to figure it out or we begin, in whatever ways we can, today. 

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