This last June, the Supreme Court of California ruled teacher tenure unconstitutional, adding fuel to an already heated debate in the education world. Though it awaits appeal, this ruling has opened a door for tenure opponents and has inspired many to form lawsuits in their own states. As tenure opponents find a political foothold, the question of whether or not teacher tenure laws should exist remains.
In this post, I will be discussing the arguments for and against teacher tenure as well as other factors we may need to consider when discussing these merits and faults. If you are unfamiliar with the tenure laws, please see my previous post where I break down theTeacher Tenure Act of 1937 as it was adopted by the state of Michigan.
I will be presenting arguments for both sides and have provided the main resources I used at the end of this post. Constructive discussion is crucial to improving education, so please feel free to share your own thoughts on teacher tenure.
On June 10, 2014, the California Supreme Court ruled to strike down five provisions of the California Education Code (those ruling tenure, dismissal, and layoffs), as they were unconstitutional (Students Matter). The Vergara vs. California case argued that teacher tenure protects under-performing teachers who contribute to the widening achievement gap between higher and lower-income schools, violating the right of minority/low-income students to receive an equal education. Opponents to tenure argue that low-income schools have a large number of teachers rated ‘ineffective’ whose jobs are protected by tenure. Since tenure makes it so difficult to fire these teachers, newer and better teachers are pushed out when layoffs have to be made. Supporters of tenure argue that tenure provides essential protections to teachers that ultimately allow them to better serve students and enhance learning.
Following the ruling in California, similar lawsuits have begun to appear in other States such as New York. As opponents of tenure begin to find a political foothold, many are concerned that such an attack has created the rhetoric that “in order for students to win, teachers must lose”. The ruling in California is pending appeal and has yet to take effect, but the future of tenure remains uncertain.
Arguments For Teacher Tenure
Tenure does not mean a job for life.
Tenure (as described in my previous post) means that a contract has been rewarded that provides continuous employment. This means that the contract does not expire at any point. However, this does not make the contract signer immune to a termination of the contract. There are provisions (see here) that will allow the contractor to terminate the contract. These provisions are numerous and cover the reasonable causes for termination. If a tenured teacher is in violation of one or multiple provisions, administrators can pursue firing the that teacher.
Tenure does not necessarily cause teachers to become ineffective, there are many other factors that can contribute to poor teacher performance.
Many schools do not provide the proper environment for teachers to thrive, particularly those servicing low-income/minority communities. Faced with an extremely limited budget, teachers are not provided with sufficient resources to conduct proper lessons and classrooms are overcrowded as administrators try to reduce spending by having fewer teachers and/or by closing more schools. Such schools also have a disproportionately large number of students in need of additional services (for many different reasons) which are also insufficient due to budgetary restrictions. These factors create a chaotic environment in which neither students nor teachers can thrive.
Where the tenure system can use some reform, it does not violate constitutional rights.
Many people, even within the opposition groups, agree with tenure conceptually. However, the opposition takes issue is with some of the provisions within the law itself and how tenure is being implemented. Where supporters of tenure agree that these should be improved, these faults do not make tenure unconstitutional. Teachers must prove themselves effective before receiving tenure and there are provisions for getting rid of teachers who are not effective. If there is a teacher who is tenured and remains in their position despite being ineffective, it is not the fault of the law and therefore, it is not the law that violating the constitutional rights of minority/low-income students.
Tenure provides necessary protection for teachers.
Though many do not realize it, teaching is a political profession. Many who do realize this may not realize what this truly implies. The political nature of teaching puts teachers at significant risk of being fired for personal or political reasons unrelated to their professional qualities. Historically, teachers would be fired whenever political parties changed or in order to make room for a friend of the principal or if they disagreed with administration. In the case women, getting married, becoming pregnant, wearing pants, or staying out too late in the evenings were all grounds for losing their jobs. Tenure provides additional security that takes teachers’ focus off of trying to avoid unemployment and on to providing a quality education for students. Teachers can now teach their students concepts and ideas that may be unpopular to administrators or in the community, which is necessary for students to develop into responsible future citizens. In addition, teachers can feel free to continue to innovate and find new, effective ways of teaching rather than staying with the same lesson plans that teach to the standardized tests. Teachers can also advocate for students against the administration without the fear of being fired.
Tenure makes it difficult for administrators to fire experienced teachers for purely financial purposes.
The more experienced teachers get, the more expensive they become. Because teachers are required to continue studying in order to keep their license, most acquire higher degrees and additional endorsements over time, making them more expensive to employ. In times and places where finances have been stretched thin, administrators constantly looking for ways to cut cost. Since newer teachers are cheaper to employ than experienced teachers, administrators could easily decide to cut costs by firing the more experienced teacher in favor of gaining one or two new teachers. As schools are frequently looking to cut costs, this would create a situation where the better you become as a teacher, the greater your risk of unemployment. A situation like this would be a detriment to our education system.
Tenure is not unique to education, other professions have similar structures.
Many professional institutions use probationary periods for new employees. Since this is a ‘trial period’, it goes to follow that more thought is given when firing an employee after they have passed this period. Incentives are provided in order to promote and reward hard work and as time passes, an employee’s labor becomes more expensive. Whether written or not, seniority is often a large factor in an institution’s decision of whether to fire an employee or not. Since the employee has proven their quality year after year and are more established in the institution, the institutions are more certain of their value. Of course, seniority is not the only consideration and institutions are able to fire senior employees if they do not perform according to standards. Also similar to tenure, the more established an employee is, the more it will cost the institution to fire them. Things do not always work out like this, but they don’t really with teacher tenure either.
Tenure provides a necessary incentive to attract quality candidates to the teaching profession.
On average, a teacher makes 15% less than workers in other industries with similar levels of education and experience. As a result, quality teaching candidates may avoid the profession all together in favor of a higher-paying profession. Teacher tenure provides a level of job security that evens out the financial drawbacks of the profession. Without this security, the teaching profession will fail to draw in the best candidates.
It is the fault of administrators, not tenure laws, if poor performing teachers are provided tenure and continue to be employed.
Tenure is meant to be given as a reward for years of good performance and encourages administrators to hire quality candidates. Since it becomes more difficult to fire a teacher after they have received tenure, it motivates administrators to more carefully consider whom they hire and/or reward tenure. The probationary period allows administrators to monitor a teacher’s performance and improvement over time; data that administrators should use when rewarding tenure. If an under-performing teacher is rewarded tenure, then there is either a flaw in the way the teacher was assessed or the administrator chose to ignore data indicating a problem. After rewarding tenure, if a teacher is under-performing, it is the responsibility of administrators to inform the teacher that they are under-performing and work with them on a development plan. If the teacher is neither informed of their under-performance or receives a development plan, it is unreasonable to expect their performance to improve. If a teacher’s performance declines significantly after they have received tenure and they fail to meet development goals, there are provisions in the law that allow administrators to fire these teachers, making it the responsibility of the administrators to engage in the firing process.
Protects teachers against false claims made by students and/or parents.
Because teachers work with minors, there is an increased risk for accusations of mistreatment to occur. These can occur either because the student files a complaint or because the parents of the child feel the teacher is mistreating their student in some way and threatens to sue the school. Though all claims are taken seriously, some arise from miscommunication or a misunderstanding between students, parents, and teachers. Without the protection of tenure, administrators may hastily fire a teacher with such accusations made against them in order to avoid costly legal proceedings. It is unreasonable to fire teachers who face such accusations and stigmatize them from other job opportunities if they have not had the benefit of due process.
Arguments Against Tenure
Teacher protects ineffective teachers who contribute to the achievement gap.
Schools servicing minority and/or low income communities have more teachers rated ‘ineffective’ than schools in more affluent areas. New teachers that are coming into these schools are quickly fired in favor of tenured teachers with more years in the school. This value of seniority over quality protects many ineffective teachers while pushing out new, high quality teachers. Many people, even those in education, would agree that this is true and dislike tenure for this reason. Recent budget cuts have made this situation worse. As the proportion of ineffective teachers in schools servicing minority and/or low income schools increases, the overall instruction the students receive worsens, causing students in these schools to perform below the level of their more affluent counterparts.
Tenure prevents teachers from being held accountable for their students’ learning.
In every class, students learn skills and information that are vital to their academic development and future success. If a teacher fails to teach students the necessary skills and information, they can affect those students’ ability to succeed in the future. Tenure protects teachers from facing consequences when they fail to provide the necessary instruction for student success. Freed from this responsibility, teachers have little incentive to ensure students are receiving quality instruction.
Teachers with tenure become complacent.
The quality of instruction a teacher provides their students declines after they receive tenure. Because their jobs are secured and since salary is not determined by performance, tenured teachers have little incentive to improve or innovate. This causes the teachers’ instruction to stagnate and eventually decline.
Though there are ways to fire teachers with tenure, the process is too costly and deters administrators from firing under-performing teachers.
When administrator wants to fire a teacher with tenure, there are a number of procedures they have to follow. This process usually includes a large amount of paperwork and waiting as information is passed between administrators, teachers, the tenure board, and/or any other overseeing entities. Even when the correct procedures are followed, a teacher can still challenge the administration’s decision and drag all parties into a lengthy, expensive legal battle. With little extra time and no extra money, administrators would rather ‘overlook’ a tenured teacher’s under-performance or wrongdoing than try to remove them.
Tenure is not necessary to attract talented people to the field of education.
Just as in other fields, the individuals who pursue and excel in education are people who are passionate about being educators; and there are plenty of them to go around. This passion drives them not only to pursue this field; it also guarantees that they will continue to push themselves to be better throughout their careers. Since it is these teachers’ passion, not tenure, that drives them to pursue a career in education, these are the top quality candidates schools are looking for.
Other laws exist that offer job protection.
Teacher tenure was created at a time when few other legal protections for workers existed, making this law necessary to protect quality teachers. However, since tenure’s indoctrination, a number of laws have been passed at the federal and state levels that offer the necessary protection for ‘fair’ employment. These protections make it unnecessary and unreasonable to keep teacher tenure.
The probationary period teachers serve is not long enough for administrators to judge their worth and does not predict post-tenure performance.
The first 2-3 years of a teacher’s experience in a district is a time of immense growth as teachers adjust to the district’s standards, rules, and expectations. While this growth is generally positive, the constant change makes the teacher’s performance inconsistent and difficult to properly assess. Therefore, it is difficult to truly assess a teacher’s worth during their probationary period and these shaky preliminary assessments cannot predict how teachers will perform after they have had adequate time to adjust and no longer have the pressure of being fired looming over them.
While tenure may provide some academic leeway for teachers, it does not provide academic freedom.
The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 tied standardized test performance to school funding, making test performance the driving force of current curriculum. As a result, a large number of school/district-wide initiatives that prescribe certain curriculum and methods have taken root. Since test scores are vital to the future stability of the schools, administrators are more willing to intervene with or remove tenured teachers who do not adhere to these initiatives. These pressures make it difficult if not impossible for teachers to avoid ‘teaching to the test’ and the existence of tenure cannot change this.
Tenure is easy to acquire, all a teacher has to do is stick around long enough.
Though there is a probationary period before teachers receive tenure, they are not assessed strictly during this period. As long as teachers accomplish their classroom duties, all they have to do is stay long enough to be rewarded tenure.
Tenure does nothing to benefit students.
Tenure focuses on protecting teachers but neglects students’ rights. It does not guarantee that students will receive a quality education and does not protect them against poor teaching practices. Since the purpose of schools is to prepare students for a successful future, more focus should be placed on their needs and welfare.
Tenure makes it hard for schools to properly adjust to economic changes.
Tenure is a continuous contract held by the teacher, making it a long-term financial commitment for schools. Since in order to keep a teacher past their probationary period administrators must reward tenure, schools are frequently forced to make these long-term commitments. When schools are faced with decreasing enrolment and/or tough economic times, these long-term commitments make it difficult if not impossible for schools to adjust. Because it is so difficult and costly to lay-off a tenured teacher, administrators are stuck paying teachers that don’t necessarily need or can’t afford. Since budgets are already tight, this ultimately puts strain on other areas of spending that are more beneficial to students.
Tenure allows more experienced teachers to access more desirable positions, leaving more challenging positions in need of their expertise to be filled by inexperienced teachers.
When hiring new teachers, more desirable schools look for teachers with tenure. Tenure is received as a mark of experience and makes the teacher more desirable. Additionally, tenured teachers have a tendency to be better connected and are therefore better able to acquire more desirable positions. Once these teachers establish themselves at these schools, few choose to leave and tenure ensures they will not be removed. Since there is no room for new teachers, they are forced to take more challenging jobs made more challenging by their lack of experience. Tenure’s tendency to lock teachers into their jobs deters more experienced teachers from taking more challenging positions where their expertise is desperately needed. It also blocks new teachers out of more desirable and supportive environments where they can continue to develop and perfect their craft.
Are We Asking the Right Questions?
As evident from the arguments above, there is much to be debated when it comes to tenure. However, does tenure really have the sway we give it credit for? Are there other factors we should consider? Should we really be focusing elsewhere in our quest to improve education? Here are some other things we might want to consider:
The Challenges in Lower Income Schools
I put this consideration first because improving schools, particularly lower income schools, is the reason we participate in debates about tenure and other educational policies. However, are the full implications of the various problems that exist in schools being considered when we discuss tenure? Many point to poor teacher evaluations and the growing achievement gap as consequences of tenure, but are there other factors causing these as well?
If we were to break apart a teacher evaluation, we would find that a large part of a teacher’s overall performance rating is dependent on student growth and scores on standardized tests. At face value, this seems a fair way to make sure that all teachers, no matter what school they work in, are evaluated equally. However, this thinking also assumes that all student bodies are equal in what they are bringing to the classroom and to the test. In my experience working in a school servicing a majority lower-income community I have found this assumption to be extremely flawed, but teachers in my school and others are judged with it nonetheless.
There are many challenges students from lower-income communities face before they even enter the classroom. Despite having free and reduced lunch (and breakfast) programs, many students come to school hungry. Though the programs providing students with breakfast and/or lunch ensure students get at least 2 solid meals a day, the lack of proper nutrition at home affects the students’ energy level and ability to focus. Financial difficulties also threaten the physical and/or emotional stability at home that are essential to providing proper support for a student’s success. Though all students face difficulties, these particular burdens are overwhelmingly heavy for young students to carry. As a result, teachers must spend as much if not more time helping students learn to carry their burdens as they do teaching class content. This is not to say that the necessary content does not get covered, it does, but the wall students and teachers must climb is harder with a backpack on and for many, immense growth may occur in ways that cannot be shown on a test.
Every school has students facing extreme difficulties in their lives. It is not just the presence of these students, but the ability of the school/district to provide the necessary resources and support for these students and their teachers that effects their overall success. I can write a whole new blog post on resource inequalities in public schools but the point is this: student and teacher access to proper resources contributes to academic success. Teachers working in low income schools already have to jump many hurdles just to create lesson plans that are manageable with limited resources and, more importantly, that are accessible by all of their students. Add on mounting pressure to improve test scores and a number of other extra duties due to under-staffing and it is no wonder these teachers struggle to stay afloat. The pressure is even higher for the many new teachers who try to start their career in these schools and lack the support to develop into highly effective educators.
So can we really say tenure is to blame for teacher ineffectiveness in low-income schools? Maybe, but the more important question is: if we want to improve teacher performance in low-income schools, where should we focus our limited resources?
Where Should We Focus Our Resources?
No matter what their opinion is, all parties involved want one thing; to improve education for all students. The tenure debate has absorbed a lot of resources on both sides of the political aisle, resources that could be used to tackle other challenges. So are we really getting the biggest ‘bang for our buck’? To answer this, we must first think about why tenure has taken center stage.
From a purely political standpoint, tenure has three elements that make it an ideal political hotbed; it’s relatively universal, it’s clear cut, and it’s polarizing. Tenure exists in most states and even though the details of tenure law tend to vary from state to state, the general tenets are the same. This means that tenure presents itself the same way across the country and is therefore relatable by all educators.
Though there are many strong and complex arguments both for and against tenure, the issue itself is very clear and, by extension, polarizing. Do you want to keep tenure or not? The law is already written and it is easy to find information about its positives and negatives. Most importantly, no completely new theories or policies need to be created, making it easy for the issue to be discussed even by non-educators.
Wide accessibility in addition to tenure’s polarizing nature has inspired the formation of political coalitions (i.e. Interest groups) to argue about tenure. This is where the resource question gets tricky. Without going into too much detail; these coalitions are the real driving force of the tenure issue and are responsible for a large percentage of the resources that have gone into the tenure debate. One could argue that if we were to try and focus our attentions on other issues, we would lose the interest of these coalitions and without them, most of the resources that could have been used would be gone.
All in all, the answer to this question is complicated. There are many elements of our education system in need of improvement and some of those may arguably be more important than tenure. However, tenure has the power to attract resources and political interests in ways that most of these other elements cannot, making change more likely to occur. So which is more important; the degree of effect the change will potentially have or the probability for change will occur at all? What happens after tenure?
Inconsistencies in Tenure Law and How it is Implemented
Though the general structure of tenure law is similar throughout the nation, the details within can vary widely from state to state. For example, tenure law in every state includes information about a probationary period for new teachers however; the amount of time a teacher spends in this period can vary. In the state of California, a new teacher is on probation for 18 months as opposed to a Michigan teacher who must complete 4 school years before being eligible to receive tenure. Such differences make it difficult to make consistent arguments regarding tenure and can cause variations in its implementation and effects from state to state. Studies relating tenure would also be affected by these differences as results would be dependent on the state(s) in which the study was done.
Inconsistencies not only exist in tenure law itself but how individual districts and administrators implement it in their schools. The evaluation of teachers, the decision to reward tenure, and the decision to fire a tenured teacher are the responsibilities of overseeing administrators. Though these individuals have guidelines to follow, variations can occur due to personal preferences or priorities for the school as well as the tenure ‘culture’ prevalent in the district, county, and/or state. Tenure culture refers to the unofficial rules, restrictions, and/or privileges applied towards teachers with tenure. Once a tenure culture is established, it tends to remain in place even as administrators change. Since this culture becomes an expectation, it is very difficult to change.
To sum up this slightly scattered argument, we must start asking ourselves what kind of tenure we are talking about. Is that thing we love or hate an effect of tenure law or tenure culture? Is it an effect of tenure in general or is it how the individual state/district handles tenure? These questions can help us better focus on what needs to be changed and what our ultimate goals for tenure should be.
US News article about the California ruling and how the case is spreading to other states:
Bidwell, Allie. “Activists Take Teacher Tenure Battle to More States.” US News. U.S.News & World Report, 9 July 2014. Web. 24 Sept. 2014. <http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2014/07/09/activists-take-teacher-tenure-battle-to-more-states>.
Fox News article on the Vergara vs. California case:
“California Ruling Striking down Teacher Job Protections Inspires Lawsuits Fighting Tenure.” Fox News. FOX News Network, 11 July 2014. Web. 24 Sept. 2014. <http://www.foxnews.com/us/2014/07/11/california-ruling-striking-down-teacher-job-protections-inspires-lawsuits/>.
Pros and cons of the teacher tenure:
“Teacher Tenure – ProCon.org.” ProConorg Headlines. 23 Sept. 2014. Web. 24 Sept. 2014. <http://teachertenure.procon.org/#multimedia>.
Disclaimer: I do not own the rights to the images used in this post. All rights to the artwork belongs to their respective creators