March 6, 2009

The Tenure System

The tenure system does not make practical sense for K-12 educators. It is nerve-wracking for non-tenured teachers, takes legitimate and necessary power away from administrators, rewards underperforming veteran teachers, and harms students. In my state, a new teacher who teaches for three consecutive years in the same district automatically receives tenure.

Non Tenured Teachers

The first three years of a teacher's career are pretty much an all-or-nothing proposition. If a teacher makes it past the three year mark, he knows that he's set for life. If he doesn't, he knows that he has to start completely over from ground zero. These are big stakes. A teacher's first year is filled with enough stressors the way it is. He should not have to worry about a looming Judgment Day on top of it all.


Before they let a new teacher get to three years, administrators must be pretty darn sure they want to keep a new teacher around, because after three years, they're stuck with him. In some districts, teachers are watched like a hawk during their third year, with administrators constantly popping into the classroom. Other districts have reputations for dragging new teachers along, only to drop them right before tenure kicks in. I really can't blame administrators for this. If they're being forced to keep someone on their teaching staff, they have a responsibility to make sure that person can perform. Non-tenured teachers know that administrators do this, which sort of freaks us out.

Underperforming Teachers

Every school has some faculty members who simply shouldn't be teaching. Some teachers get burnt out, some don't care about their jobs, and some don't even like kids. Tenured teachers really have no incentive to improve their craft or even maintain an adequate level of performance, because they know that their jobs are basically safe no matter what. This keeps ineffective teachers on the teaching staff when they should be let go.

Administrators need the power to motivate these people and remove them if necessary. The tenure system takes that power away.


This, of course, has the effect of harming students. Students are stuck with poor teachers who should have quit years ago.

Where The Tenure System Does Make Sense

The tenure system does make sense at research universities. It's important that professors and researchers be given academic freedom to explore fringe, controversial, and unconventional ideas, both in the classroom and the laboratory. This is often how social and scientific progress is made. If these positions were subject to chest-beating politicians and administrators, this academic freedom would be lost.

However, the type of learning that takes place in a K-12 system is different than what happens at a university. In the K-12 system, the protection of academic freedom (which tenure creates) is less important than keeping a motivated and effective teaching force (which tenure destroys). For better or worse, there is virtually no need to protect academic freedom in K-12 systems, because K-12 educators are mandated to teach a state-approved, standards-based curriculum. Tenure, a devise whose purpose is to protect academic freedom, is being applied to an institution in which that protection is unnecessary. We're getting all of the drawbacks of the tenure system without any of the benefits.


Anonymous said...

I understand your points, but also feel the need for academic freedom in teaching. I teach social studies. I may have state mandated standards, but there is always more to teaching than simply that. Also in teaching language arts and choosing novels. job security doesn't make me want to slack off, it makes me want to be a better teacher and allows me the ability to push the envelope, even in teaching 7th and 8th grades.

Clix said...

Is that really how tenure works in your system? Because... can I move there? honestly? Having that kind of security would be awesome!

I've never seen a tenure system that meant you couldn't fire tenured teachers unless they were put in jail. What I HAVE seen is administrators reassigning teachers out of their subject area "provisionally" because either they don't feel like documenting instances of poor teaching or there isn't enough poor teaching to document.

And I find it difficult to believe that the only reason teachers would choose to improve their skills (or even perform competently) is so that they don't get fired. Do you honestly have that poor of an opinion of us?

Tenure provides some protection for the best teachers - the ones who try new ideas rather than sticking with "we've always done it that way before." The ones whose experience and success with students result in higher pay for the teacher (and more expense for the district).

When principals have THEIR pay tied to student performance, then they'll have much more incentive to keep teachers who are effective, including those who are unorthodox or expensive, without being pushed to do so by the tenure system.