Editor’s Note: For an alternative viewpoint, please see Point: Tenure Safeguards the Rights of Educators to Speak Up for Students and Public Schools.
In 1886, Massachusetts became the first state to implement teacher tenure. At the time, teachers (primarily women) could be fired for several arbitrary “offenses,” such as getting married, becoming pregnant, dressing inappropriately, or even being out too late in the evening (even on non-school nights).
Over time, more and more states enacted teacher tenure, citing academic freedom as a central reason.
However, in 2018, tenure is no longer necessary. Over the past century, tenure has transformed into an obsolete, protectionist racket that does more harm than good.
First and foremost, teacher tenure creates complacency because it guarantees job safety. Unlike almost every other profession, teachers are commonly awarded tenure very early in their careers, which virtually removes accountability and the incentive for excellent job performance. As a result, public schools are inundated with ineffective tenured teachers who put in minimal effort and fail to adequately educate students.
In 2016, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute released a report titled “Undue Process: Why Bad Teachers in Twenty-Five Diverse Districts Rarely Get Fired.” The authors found “in seventeen of our twenty-five districts, state law still allows teachers to earn tenure and keep it regardless of performance.” In its current iteration, tenure attracts and rewards mediocrity and reduces exceptional performance.
Besides creating a culture of classroom complacency, tenure also makes it nearly impossible to fire underperforming teachers. In fact, “In most districts and schools, dismissing an ineffective veteran teacher remains far harder than is healthy for children, schools, taxpayers — and the teaching profession itself,” according to the report. Unfortunately, tenure has created a rigid system rife with countless legal barriers that prevent principals from removing inadequate (and even dangerous) teachers in a timely manner.
As if incompetent teachers in far too many classrooms don’t pose enough of a threat to quality education, the time it takes to actually dismiss an inept teacher is appalling. Furthermore, the sheer cost of the process is a severe and totally unnecessary strain on state and local education budgets.
“In many districts, simply recommending a tenured teacher for dismissal takes at least two years because the district must document both the teacher’s weak performance and its attempts at remediation, which may be indefinite in practice,” according to the Fordham report.
Even worse, in New York, firing a teacher takes “an average of 520 days from the date charges were brought to the date a decision was issued, at an average cost of $128,000. Proceedings addressing charges of pedagogical incompetence are even longer, spanning on average 830 days and costing on average $313,000,” according to a report by the New York State School Boards Association.
Additionally, tenure places seniority in front of all other factors (including performance) when staffing reductions must be made. This antiquated policy of “last-hired, first-fired” indiscriminately protects veteran teachers and punishes young teachers. Even worse, this backward procedure cripples cutting-edge teaching methods and innovations — which are far more likely to be introduced and honed by young teachers.
Increasingly, misguided tenure supporters have stressed it as a safeguard for academic freedom and integrity. According to their reasoning, teachers are constantly at the mercy of local political officials and thus need protection from fleeting political pressures that could unduly influence their teaching methods (and content).
However, this argument is not credible in today’s standardized testing environment. In 2001, the No Child Left Behind Act federalized the American education system. In essence, this law incentivized local schools to adopt a plethora of national standardized tests by dangling billions to school districts. Hence, teachers have little to fear in terms of local political pressures to their teaching practices, because local officials no longer determine major curricular decisions.
In the years since No Child Left Behind, other so-called education reform measures such as Common Core and the Obama administration’s Race to the Top Fund have basically maintained the tenure status quo. In a campaign meant to increase teacher accountability, the Obama administration “incentivized states to embrace teacher-evaluation reform via Race to the Top. … What happened next? Not much … we learned that 97 percent of America’s teachers are now deemed effective instead of 99,” according to the Fordham report.
In other words, Obama’s Race to the Top failed to improve teacher accountability measures, and had almost no impact on diminishing tenure’s tentacles.
Tenure is an archaic and sclerotic system that blunts education innovation, teacher accountability and student learning.