Monitor Board of Contributors: Has tenure for teachers outlived its time?
The recent decision by Judge Rolf Treu in California declaring the tenure law to be unconstitutional on the grounds that it deprives poor and minority students of equal justice under the law (i.e. equal access to high-quality teaching) brings to the fore the pros and cons of tenure for our nation’s schoolteachers, including those in New Hampshire.
If you are looking for a blanket condemnation of tenure as obsolete and inimical to the best interests of children and our schools – or for a blanket affirmation of tenure as a vital bulwark against arbitrary and capricious acts by school officials to hire and fire at will – look elsewhere. This is a complex issue, with a complex history and an ambiguous future.
To understand the roots of tenure, we need remember that traditionally most teachers were women, especially in grades one through eight, where the school careers of most Americans used to end. Most of their bosses, principals and school board members, were men. It was not uncommon for local boards to opt to replace older, more experienced teachers (those with higher salaries) with newcomers, fresh from their normal school training, easily led and cheaply paid. For all the power they wielded in the classroom (including the rod and the paddle), teaching was a very vulnerable profession for many. With any change in school leadership, everyone’s career was on the line.
Thus, in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, policies that held that a teacher could not be fired without cause, without due process, and without a chance to defend herself with the aid of a representative from the union or teacher organization became instituted in practice and in law across the nation. A teacher earned these protections during a two- to three-year “probation” period. But once acquired, tenure meant a guaranteed lifetime career, similar to what most police and firefighters and other public servants came to expect. These were hard-won struggles by teachers and by the parents and other citizens who supported fairness and high-quality education.
Times have changed
Six key factors have altered the scene in recent decades: 1) the Civil Rights Movement; 2) the changing economy and particularly the job market; 3) an aging population; 4) the political polarization that has led “free-marketers” and advocates for enhanced government services to take strong opposing positions; 5) new demands placed on educators for accountability in student learning and teacher performance; and 6) the evolving (or un-evolving) nature of many teacher unions.
In brief, 1) the Civil Rights Movement often pitted newly empowered urban minority citizens, living in largely segregated neighborhoods, to want to have more of what we here in New Hampshire call “local control” over their schools – against teacher unions that fought to maintain the privileges and seniority guarantees that they had won from largely compliant urban voters. This played out in New York City and elsewhere in the late 1960s and 1970s and continues today, as reflected in the California decision.
2) A changing world economy has resulted in loss of “job security” in many trades and professions that used to enjoy it (whether codified in law or not). People now expect to change careers multiple times, and teaching can appear to be an exception to this trend, whether desirable or not.
3) An aging population means fewer children in school, a factor which, combined with an aging cohort of teachers earning at the top of the salary scale, leads to higher school costs and higher taxes paid increasingly by adults without children in school. Thus, many communities that used to go begging for qualified teachers are having to make staff cuts, with tenure and seniority provisions forcing them to let go younger, well-trained teachers who have demonstrated high levels of effectiveness in the learning of their students.
4) Our polarized politics have increasingly placed the so-called “monopoly” of public education in the cross-hairs of social policy. Few of the alternative, charter or independent (i.e. private) schools have adopted tenure for their staff. Thus, “tenure” becomes associated with “public education,” again for better or for worse, according to one’s politics.
5) New educational goals in the “global marketplace,” higher and more uniform standards, increased use of test data and other current school reforms place great pressure on school systems to “perform” – and to evaluate how educators perform, regardless of their tenure status. This introduces new factors that may weigh against tenure in the minds of those who may have supported it in the past.
6) Finally, given the choice of working to advance the profession, or to fight to retain perks and privileges for current members, almost all teacher unions have opted for the latter. This is both unfortunate, in my opinion, and understandable, as aging cadres of teachers look more to their own group needs (as do virtually all associations) than to “what’s best for the kids.”
So, what’s the desirable future for teacher tenure, given such dynamic transformations in and around those we trust to prepare our children and youth for the well-being of our society?
Here are the ideas that shape my conclusions:
1) Tenure cannot be viewed either as sacrosanct or as separate from the broader picture of educational reform. It must be considered as part of how we re-create “school” in our highly technological and rapidly evolving economic and social world. If tenure helps build a dynamic, productive and self-improving teaching force, by all means retain it in one form or another. If tenure acts to retard professional growth, reasonable accountability and service to all our children, rich and poor, we should let it go and find a valid substitute.
2) The benefits of tenure – namely, the protection of skilled and independent-thinking teachers from being harassed, demoted or fired by those school officials motivated by narrow personal, political or fiscal motives – will have to be incorporated in some meaningful way in whatever it is that replaces “tenure.” A cowed and complacent teaching profession is nobody’s idea of what “school reform” should be about.
3) The concept of “high performance” by students, teachers and school staff in areas of clearly articulated “competency” is absolutely vital to the future of education. And, again, “tenure” will have to relate very closely to these notions of “high performance” and “competency” if it is to play a valid role in organizing the future or our teaching profession.
Of course, defining “high performance” and specifying areas of “competency” are no small task. But the Common Core State Standards are taking a big step in that direction, with more refinement to follow as we learn from its early implementation.
4) Lastly, if teacher unions and their proud history of championing the rights of educators are to have a place at the table in the formulation of educational policy, they must come to terms with their failure, in many cases, to evolve as a force for educational success by all students. That will have to include a reversal of their tendency at the local level to protect mediocrity, to resist meaningful accountability, and to place seniority above all other considerations in the assignment of effective teachers to our most under-resourced schools.
Tenure cannot be allowed to become “the” issue in helping our students, our schools, and our communities strive for educational success. The polarization that will inevitably build around the “tenure issue” will forestall or cripple the changes that need to come. If teacher unions rally around the tenure flag and deny the need to seriously deal with teacher incompetence, I fear they will lose the support of progressives and conservatives alike. If politicians use the tenure controversy as a stick to beat up on public education, I hope the voters everywhere will send them packing.
Tenure is a dying concept as the environment in which it once flourished continues to evolve. To abandon tenure without replacing it with a viable process for protecting the creativity, independence and initiative of courageous educators would be a tragedy.
(Robert L. Fried of Concord is a consultant for the Upper Valley Educators Institute in Lebanon. He is the author of “The Passionate Teacher” and “The Game of School.”)