After over a century as a standard practice in American public education, is teacher tenure coming to an end? This question seems to be on the tip of many education reformers’ tongues in the wake of recent policy pushes across the country.
In Philadelphia, the city’s public school system seeks to pull itself out of a financial rut by laying off 100 teachers, some of whom are tenured. In California, the Golden State’s tenure system was recently ruled unconstitutional after a group of students argued in court that it interfered with the government’s obligation to provide a quality education. The case has given rise to a similar challenge in New York, laying the pathway for further legal battles across the country.
A quick look through the history books is enough to see how outdated tenure is as a model of employment in education. Massachusetts was the first state to adopt tenure in 1886 as a method to combat rampant discrimination against teachers. At the time, primary and secondary educators were almost exclusively women who were subject to strict contractual terms and social norms for their profession. Teachers were expected to be exemplars of citizenship in their community. Consequently, teachers were routinely fired for getting pregnant, staying out too late, or even wearing pants, as labor expert Carl Van Horn recalls.
Two centuries later, these employment concerns hardly cross teachers minds. After the Civil Rights Act of 1964, teachers can no longer be discriminated against for their race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Furthermore, decades worth of contract negotiations with public sector unions make it virtually impossible for schools to arbitrarily fire teachers in the reckless fashion that ran rampant in the 19th century.
So, what is teacher tenure good for anymore?
Tenure defenders often argue that it is needed as a means of protecting the free speech and political views of teachers from discrimination by politically driven administrators. “School boards shouldn’t impose political tests in hiring teachers,” Cal Poly Ponona Professor Ralph E. Shaffer recently argued in the Los Angeles Daily-News. “With tenure gone, they will.”
The professor is certainly right in the context of higher education. University scholars, after all, contribute new and often controversial ideas to academic literature and therefore should not fear losing their job for rocking the boat. K-12 public school teachers, on the other hand, make no such academic contributions and are obligated to impartially teach their pupils the facts without an obscuring political bias.
Instead of protecting good teachers from bad administrators, teacher tenure has made it nearly impossible for good administrators to deal with bad teachers. Some school districts have resorted to desperate measures, going so far as to pay poor teachers to stay away from the classroom. In New York City, for example, teachers accused of misconduct are assigned to “rubber rooms” while they await disciplinary hearings for months or even years. These facilities cost the city $22 million in 2012 alone, highlighting the need for more flexible policies related to hiring and firing.
Instead of fearing the downfall of teacher tenure for employment instability, teachers should embrace it as an opportunity to be rewarded for their hard work. While a loss of tenure will undoubtedly mean more rigorous evaluations, many schools and districts will tie these assessments to rewards. Former DC Public School Chancellor Michelle Rhee, for example, once proposed a plan that would pay top-performing teachers up to $130,000 in exchange for eliminating tenure. Sadly, DC’s teacher’s union rejected the offer to instead cling to its seniority-based tenure model.
Public sector unions should stop tailoring their demands to the least common denominator among their ranks and instead agree for what’s best for teachers and students alike — namely, ending tenure. While tenure played an important role protecting quality teachers from unjustified layoffs throughout American history, it has been warped throughout the decades to protect poor teachers from very justified firings. America’s schoolchildren deserve better.
Given is an editor for Young Voices, a project aiming to promote millennials’ policy perspective in the media.