Is teacher tenure really a problem?
Teacher tenure is often cited as a contributing factor in under-performing public schools. Education reformers claim that tenure provides career-long job security for many ineffective teachers. The same people accuse teacher unions of misusing tenure to protect the jobs of ineffective staff. You may have gotten the impression that tenure rules are a huge obstacle to improving teacher quality in classrooms here in Delaware.
What is tenure? It’s really quite simple; tenure is a term used to identify the end of a probationary employment period for new teachers. If a teacher is successful for 2-3 years, depending upon their level of teaching experience, the local school district may choose to grant tenure to this teacher. During this probationary period, the new teacher’s status must be annually assessed by school administrators—the very people who observe and evaluate all teachers in each building. Tenure is granted by the local district, based on the recommendations of the principal. Additionally, non-tenured (probationary) staff members do not have the benefit of a thorough due process hearing—a non-tenured teacher may be let go with limited documentation of his/her capabilities as a teacher. There is little guarantee that a probationary teacher would ever know why his/her services were no longer desired.
So, what security does tenure actually provide for teachers? Only one thing—it provides guarantees of due process—the investigation of or documentation of valid reasons for dismissal. That’s it. This hardly qualifies as lifetime job security. Shouldn’t all workers who are qualified to hold a job and whose work has been judged to be adequate have the same kinds of protections from unfair dismissal? All workers should be able to defend themselves or be defended against summary dismissal from their jobs.
So, why was tenure created for public school teachers? Why does it continue today? The reasons are rather historic:
• Tenure helped prevent discrimination against women and minority teachers.
• Tenure helped defend women from the unwanted advances of male administrators.
• Tenure protected teachers against unfair dismissal because their political views or life-style choices differed from the principal’s or the superintendent’s.
• Tenure prevented districts from trying to save money during tight budget times by laying off teachers on higher pay levels in order to hire less costly, less experienced staff.
• Tenure prevented districts from firing a working teacher to make room for a relative or friend of a top-level administrator.
• Tenure helped ameliorate the effects of education politics.
These were and continue to be sound and worthwhile justifications for tenure to remain operational in today’s unstable, politically- charged, and controversy-filled world of public schools.
So, it appears that teacher tenure was a good idea when it was invented, that it may not be the boogieman it is supposed to be, and may still be much needed by teaching professionals. Ask any teacher—there are plenty of legitimate reasons why tenure should be maintained.
Upon closer examination, tenure may not be the problem that it is purported to be.