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Goodbye to Tenure

There are very few issues in public education as controversial as teacher tenure. Convinced that it is a shield used by underperforming teachers to keep their jobs, Florida and Kansas have eliminated it altogether ("Tenure Rules Linked to Teacher Evaluations in More States," NBC News, May 22). Other states are considering doing the same or making significant modifications in the way it is granted. (Bucking the trend, a Superior Court judge in North Carolina on May 16 ruled that a new state law reducing tenure protection for veteran teachers was unconstitutional because it violates contract rights.)

At first glance, I admit that eliminating tenure seems reasonable enough.  After all the argument goes, everybody knows who the good teachers are in a school.  But how do they know who these teachers are? Is it based on what students tell their counselors?  Is it based on standardized test scores?  Or is it based on personality?

I saw all three during the 28 years I taught in the Los Angeles Unified School District.  Let me take each in order.

Students are routinely asked by their counselors about the progress or lack of progress in classes. Invariably, students will complain about a particular teacher who, they say, is terrible.  I wonder how much  credibility is given to such charges.  The usual answer is that counselors look for a persistent pattern.  If year after year, students claim a teacher is bad, then they must be right.  But what if that same teacher is always given the worst students?  Unless students are randomly assigned to teachers, then that charge is called into question.

Students with behavior problems who refuse to do their assignments will almost always post low standardized test scores. If a particular teacher happens to inherit classes full of future felons, it's not surprising that their scores are abysmal. By the same token, teachers who by chance get a class full of Talmudic scholars will shine on test scores in spite of - not because of - their expertise.

Students also are especially sensitive to a teacher's personality.  A teacher can be quite knowledgeable about subject matter and skilled in pedagogy but lacking in social skills. That same teacher can also seem arrogant or withdrawn to colleagues, leaving the impression that students are right in their assessment.

But perhaps the best reason to retain tenure is to protect teachers from vindictive principals.  I've written before about how abusive principals can poison the atmosphere at schools by bullying even teachers with exemplary records, to the extent that these star teachers request a transfer ("Principals as Tyrants," Reality Check, Jul. 3, 13).  If tenure were abolished, these same teachers would receive an unsatisfactory review, followed by dismissal.

Rather than do away with tenure, which began in 1866 when Massachusetts communities enacted teacher-protection laws, I think we should make the process of firing teachers less protracted. Teachers deemed ineffective should be given support to improve within a reasonable period of time.  If there is still no improvement, then they should be removed.  But remember that so much of teacher performance is based on the students inherited.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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