Is Tenure Finally Up for Debate?

“If I could change one thing, I would get rid of tenure.” – Larry Rosenstock, founder of High Tech High and winner of the 2010 McGraw Prize in Education, at a public forum, September 2010

“So would I.” – Stephen McMahon, President of San Jose (CA) Teachers Union, in response.

“I could care less about tenure.” – Dal Lawrence, former president of the Toledo Federation of Teachers, in an interview, November 2010

“I have started using the words ‘due process’ myself.   I think ‘tenure’ is a loaded word.” – Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, in an email, November 2010

What on earth is going on here? Is the question of tenure actually up for debate and discussion?  If so, it’s long overdue.  And is it possible that teacher unions will take the initiative?

Teacher tenure is closely connected to the flawed evaluation process.  After all, an evaluation system–like the current one–that finds 97 percent of teachers to be ‘satisfactory’ or better will have no trouble handing out lifetime jobs.

“Tenure should be a significant and consequential milestone in a teacher’s career,” notes the National Council on Teacher Quality.  “Unfortunately, the awarding of tenure occurs virtually automatically in just about all states, with little deliberation or consideration of evidence of teacher performance. Teacher effectiveness in the classroom, rather than years of experience, should be the preponderant criterion in tenure decisions.”

In the current system, most public school teachers gain tenure, generally speaking a lifetime job, after just three years of teaching. In eight states, including California and Maryland, tenure is granted after two years. Hawaii and Mississippi offer tenure after just one year, and our nation’s capital requires no set amount of teaching performance before granting tenure.  In other words, many school administrators are forced to make this critical and lasting decision halfway through a teacher’s first or second year in the classroom.

That’s changing.  Several state legislatures may pass laws that eliminate teacher tenure.  The New York City school administration has just acted to make attaining tenure more difficult, by requiring principals to do more than check off a box or two (the old way).  New York has a problem: In the last school year, only 234 teachers out of the nearly 6,400 who were eligible for tenure were denied it; that’s 3.7 percent.  It was even easier four years earlier, when only 0.4 percent of those eligible were denied tenure.  Under the new rules, principals must now consider a teacher’s contributions in and out of the classroom and his students’ performance on standardized tests.

What’s the right course of action?  Get rid of tenure while maintaining due process protections?  Make it more difficult to achieve?  Or perhaps have term contracts for five or ten years at a clip?
I have an opinion on this but would like to hear yours first.

21 thoughts on “Is Tenure Finally Up for Debate?

  1. There are even more conflicting issues involved in teacher tenure, since it’s history reflects the “academic freedom” issues of AAUP at least as much as union-based job security: teachers used to get fired for many things OTHER THAN teaching quality – using the wrong book, disciplining the wrong student, rewarding the wrong kinds of creativity, etc., etc. Abandoning tenure as a workforce process still leaves many of these thoroughly justifiable appeals floating around.

    At the same time, the consequences of “wrong” teaching – in the opinion of an elected school board – is, perhaps, quite different in Grade 3 than in Constitutional Law or experimental biology. Ignoring these patterns of responsibility, consequence, protected speech and reasonable authority is a much higher risk than the comments you cite seem to acknowledge. They may not all require the same process, but they all do require some kind of due process to protect the knowledge the schools represent, no less than to protect teachers, students, and the future.


  2. To sharpen the question: should teachers have greater job protections than other professionals? Are NLRB protections enough, or is there a need for a more exhaustive and expensive process for teacher retention decisions?
    I would argue that current “due processes” requirements are far more than due, and that they are as big a barrier to performance-oriented management of the teacher force as is tenure. No point abandoning tenure and leaving in something that has the same effect.


  3. >>“I could care less about tenure.” – Dal Lawrence, former president of the Toledo Federation of Teachers, in an interview, November 2010<<

    There was a New Yorker cartoon, many many years ago, with a woman standing at the door, coat on, bags packed, as her husband sat in the foreground, indifferently watching TV. The caption, approximately, was "You 'could care less'? You mean you 'couldn't care less.' Poor grammar like that is the reason I'm leaving you!"

    I was shocked, shocked to see a prominent educator making the same gaffe.



  4. Tenure is not the culprit. It is true that failed policies and procedures for the evaluation of educators need to be corrected. Those who participate in the evaluation process do need to be better trained.

    But, yes, Paul Hill, teachers do need a different kind of protection. Your school resides in a building named for Vernon Parrington. A review of his scholarship and reflection on the dangers to critical thought that occur when people lose their way and lash out at those who have different political views (as happened to other professors whose offices were near where yours now are) would be useful to all who now toil with relatively little such threats.

    In the past I have watched teachers be fired or driven from systems for daring to run for the legislature in the “wrong party.” I have seen them villified in their communities for asking students to read challenging books or to critically examine our government’s practices. Today I am aware of elementary and seconday teachers and other educators under attack because they dare to say a part of their responsibility is to develop citizens for a democratic society. Learning has to take place in an atmosphere of free and open inquiry.

    Unfortunately it is easy for people who have not fought to gain rights to see them as unimportant. Academic freedom and tenure (or due process) are important protection for educators not impediments to student learning.


    • Dick, no one would know it but I am a full professor without tenure. The University respects my academic freedom without respect to my tenure status. (It’s true, I’ve tested it). There are specific procedures to review possible denials of academic freedom, and external audiences that care about it. In light of those other protections, tenure is a costly and unnecessary burden on the university’s productivity — Just as it is with K-12 schools.


      • Paul,

        Since you mentioned universities, you are correct that academic freedom is broader than the concept of tenure, but you are also working at a flagship campus with a core mass of tenured faculty, in a state where threats to academic freedom are far less visible than those of us who live in Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, etc.

        Let me put this into an empirical framework: I know of places with a core mass of tenured faculty that have turned back threats to academic freedom. Are you aware of any college or university where there has been an active threat to academic freedom turned back WITHOUT a core mass of tenured faculty?


  5. I’m a science teacher in a state that grants tenure after three years. My first two years of teaching, I had great evaluations. My students dominated the regional ISEF science fair; for example, in my third year teaching, 15 of my students placed in their categories. I received 3 grants to buy great lab equipment, and I completed continuing education programs through NOAA, NASA and others. And during the summers, I was working as part of a team that received a state grant for environmental research. So, I was very surprised when I went for my third evaluation and was told that I was being fired.

    A few weeks before, my students had completed 2,000 word literature reviews. And I had caught several plagiarizing their papers. I gave those students Fs on their papers, but told them they could replace the Fs if they completed new papers. Still, parents complained. So, the principal told me I was just more trouble than I was worth.

    I filed a formal appeal to the district, but it didn’t do any good. Even though I had it in writing that I was fired because parents complained when I gave students Fs for plagiarism, the county told me I had no rights without tenure.

    I later found another teaching job. But, I learned an important lesson. During my next probationary period, I did nothing exceptional or challenging. I did my best to simply not draw any attention to myself. And it worked; I received tenure.

    In my years of teaching, I have seen three teachers denied tenure because they gave too many Ds and Fs on report cards. And I’ve seen American History teachers who were told by their principal that they couldn’t teach about the Civil War because it was “too boring.” The teachers who didn’t have tenure had no choice but to go along. I’ve also seen an experienced reading teacher, who moved to my district and found a job at a school where more than half the students failed the State reading exam, fired because she dared challenge the principal’s ideas on how reading should be taught.

    Due process doesn’t really grant a job for life. It merely means principals need to document good reasons for firing teachers.

    As a side note, why is it assumed that evaluating 97% of teachers as “satisfactory” or above is such a problem? What percentage of doctors, accountants or plumbers would you guess are “satisfactory” in their abilities? If more than 3% of the people licensed to work in a profession are so bad they shouldn’t be allowed to do the work, then there’s probably something wrong with the licensing system.

    And to address Paul Hill’s question about whether it’s right that “teachers have greater job protections than other professionals,” I’d point out that almost all state and federal employees have some sort of tenure to prevent the performance of their duties from being politically influenced. Imagine how the FDA might be different if all the employees knew an influential legislator could get them fired. Now imagine how teachers might teach differently if they knew an influential parent could get them fired. Or better yet, don’t imagine–just read my 4th paragraph.


  6. Mitch’s concerns need to be addressed. Even though tenure is prevalent, there remain places where teaching evolution, or the Bible as literature, the thought of the Enlightenment, or parity for sexual orientation get a teacher in trouble. Imagine if there were no tenure. Can due process be framed so that it secures academic freedom to the same (or a greater) degree as current tenure standards? If we treat the public schools, and their teachers, as producers of vocationally adept, technologically productive, politically neutral, and philosophically indifferent graduates, where will we find the kinds of people who are civically engaged, intellectually curious, critically thoughtful, principled, and empathic? Tenure certainly doesn’t produce such people. But is it a necessary condition of being able to do so? Can due process build into its frameworks the kinds of protections that top graduates of top colleges will need if they are to become teachers and bring to their classrooms the cognitive and emotional intelligence graduates must have to handle a world that needs people worthy of our solemn problems and our soaring possibilities?


  7. This should not become a personal review of Paul Hill’s status ( I know he is not a tenure track faculty appointee) and I am glad his University has in place procedures that protect his academic freedom. They didn’t have in the post WWII red scare days.

    The testimony from Mitch above demonstrates the point I was trying to make better than I was able to. Teachers are vulnerable to actions by local school boards that without tenure protection can be harmful to student’s opportunity to learn.

    I don’t believe that principals, central office administrators, or superintendents should have tenure — nor should University officials (or for that matter football coaches). However, teachers are directly responsible for establishing free inquiry. On my own blog I have posted some remarks by fromer Univ. of Washington President, Mark Emmert that I believe are relevant to this discussion.


  8. Mitch, In the private sector, people can get fired for any reason. When you’re an at will employee, you work so long as the boss wants you to work for the company. I’ve seen people be fired for any and all unscrupulous reasons. But even with that, no one says “that job is MY JOB” and you can’t fire me, because they can. When that happens, the person getting fired realizes that its not a place they should work for anyway. It’s not a good fit.

    If the school board fires you for some dumb reason, you should be happy to leave and go work for a district that shares your same philosophy just like everyone else does when they get fired unfairly in the private sector. And before taking that job with the district, you should do your research first.


    • Nolan, as a free market capitalist, I want to sympathize with your argument. But, here’s the problem. Tenure wasn’t created to protect jobs; it was created to protect society. The first two institutions to grant tenure were federal courts and universities. And in both cases, the rationale was the judges and professors need the freedom to seek and teach the truth without undue influences.

      What if we just said that the President should be able to fire federal judges without cause? Who would lose in that situation? The judges would go back into private practice and make more money. But, society would lose because the judiciary would be beholden to the Administration.

      The purpose of tenure isn’t really to protect the jobs of teachers. The purpose is to protect the quality of education students receive from the teachers. If science teachers in the Gatlinburg, TN are afraid to teach about evolution, who loses? If economics teachers in San Francisco, CA are afraid to criticize communism, who loses?


  9. I am surprised that no one is commenting on how easy it is to get tenure or how difficult it is to remove tenured teachers who, for whatever reason, lie down on the job.
    It may be that the tenure trap (sorry–bad pun on an old song) should be considered in a larger context: what kind of a job is teaching anyway? what can we do to make it a better job?


    • Perhaps, John, because the reality isn’t in accord with present rhetoric. Currently, teachers are being blamed for what is wrong in education. While some lip service is paid to parents, students, and principals, the chorus of blame is aimed at some supposed core of lazy or incompetent teachers. I’ve taught for twenty-three years in an urban school. I’ve seen some teachers who have burned out and are more willing to triage students who don’t want to work. I’ve seen evidence in my students of teachers with poor class management skills. I have yet to see evidence that the majority of underperformance in students is the result of poor teaching. Rather, I see a great deal of evidence that lackadaisical teaching is the result of disengaged students, absent parents, lack of administrative support, poor state policies (such as the one in California that judges school safety on the number of suspensions and expelled students, resulting, naturally, in less safe schools), and the like.

      I think we need to be very careful about solutions to our educational failures when we haven’t framed the problem accurately, nor asked very many questions. First, educational research is generally horrible – inaccurate, with vague terms, and no control groups. Secondly, the history of education is littered with supposed solutions which have led to further failure. Thirdly, I think we need to look at the source of this chorus of attack. There are many in the conservative movement who sincerely believe that the best solution to public education is to eliminate it. This belief overlaps with the belief that unions, especially public unions, are at best blocks to progress, at worst socialist plots.

      As for unintended cosequences, if we eliminate tenure, then experienced teachers, who are much more costly, can be fired. Believe me, this WILL happen. School boards, under constant pressure to lower costs, will behave as any corporation does, and cut costs by cutting personnel. How will you attract high quality teachers in this case? Do you really believe the taxpayers will vote more taxes to institute the kind of pay that will attract these people? Teaching will become, as one charter school executive recently said in a radio interview, an interim job between school and a “real” career. In addition, those pressures enumerated above, to pad grades, water down the curriculum so more kids get their credits and graduate, to avoid controversy (and further disengage students, further reduce critical thinking, etc) will accelerate. They’re already there in force, and if teacher pay is based on tests scores and teacher jobs are dependent on making the principal, school board, and district look good, our education system will become finally what it is already becoming – a last resort for those who cannot afford to send their children to private school.

      I also


  10. First, a factual correction. I am a teacher in Mississippi and have served on our state Licensure Commission for about six years. Mississippi (like most other Deep South states) does not award tenure to teachers. We have no such thing as lifetime job security for educators. Every teacher, not matter how long s/he has been in the system, must be re-evaluated, get a new contract every year. Collective bargaining is illegal in our state; membership in a teacher union is totally voluntary. Tenure is a nonissue here. The process of removing teachers from a school, and even stripping them of their teacher certification is a fairly straightforward and relatively simple due process procedure. The larger issue here has been the inability of administrators to collect and present evidence that a teacher needs to be removed. This is back to the problems of the evaluation process, both the time and the ability of those who do those evaluations.

    Also, in the areas with the most challenging needs, we have had chronic teacher shortages for over 20 years. When administrators can’t find enough people to staff their schools, they are much more likely to try to hold on to whatever staff they can find. Ironically, according to our surveys and studies, it’s the same weak leadership at the school/district level that results in the poor evaluation process that contributes most to the problem of attracting and keeping teachers, especially the best ones.


    • Brava, Renee.
      Everybody goes on and on about ‘the achievement gap,’ but we actually have FOUR gaps that I can think of now: opportunity, expectations, outcomes and LEADERSHIP. We ought to spend more time focusing on the last of these, because strong leadership (which often means getting out of the way of good teachers and enabling them to do their jobs) is crucial. Why the gap? Can it be that our system doesn’t give school leaders enough authority but ups the ante on accountability? What a nasty position–held accountable but without sufficient authority to move the ship.


      • This is exactly the position teachers are in. If this is the case, then why is the conversation always about teachers’ failings? I agree that leadership is a huge issue. A poor principal can ruin a good staff, which will gradually turn sullen and resentful, lose initiative, acquire negative attitudes toward any new program, and either refuse to participate in efforts at change or undermine efforts that are undertaken, having lost all trust in the sincerity of those in charge.

        You have left out a major gap, however. This is the gap in consumer expectations. Parents and students seem to have false expectations of intellectual achievement, one that does not include sustained effort, personal responsibility, or common courtesy to teachers and peers. I see this as perhaps the biggest problem facing public education today. Those parents who expect their children to do well and make sure they put the necessary effort in, have children who do well. They are also the parents who are most likely to put their children in charter or private schools, further lowering the climate of achievement in the public schools.

        The gap in behavior is another huge issue. I have pretty good class management skills, but the amount of time that I and my peers spend in trying to get students to focus and listen is increasing yearly, resulting in an inverse loss of instructional time and the energy or capacity for creative, active learning.


  11. What and who is going to protect teachers from arbitrary dismissals and from those dismissals that are motivated because the teacher took a stand against the “political” stance of the board or some administrator?

    I don’t and never have thought that tenure was the problem. We need better evaluation systems and administrators will to create the “space” to do them and do them well. Professionals, like teachers, should be evaluated on performance AND practice based a model of collegiality and collaboration not arbitrary and narrow test score performance of students.

    Those who want to do away with tenure should be required to design a system of appraisal that includes protection against arbitrary dismissals and systems that lack research/evidence basis for appropriate practice.

    Boards of education need to ensure the appropriate policy environment. Administrators need to ensure the appropriate practice environment.


  12. In every instance of teacher tenure that I know, administrators can fire teachers if they can document that those teachers are not meeting a clearly defined standard. The fact that administrators see documenting poor teacher performance as too much to ask shows that teachers are not being properly evaluated. With a broken evaluation/coaching system, I’m not sure what eliminating teacher tenure actually achieves.


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