Though Josh and I share this site, we often disagree. In our segment UFD, or Up for Debate, we address a topic from two opposing sides. In the post we address the question: Should teacher tenure be abolished in K-12 Public Education?
Stance: Teacher tenure should not be abolished in K-12 education.
By Josh Leifer
The problem with the American public school system isn’t tenure. But market-minded reformers, anti-union ideologues, and enterprising businessmen would like you to believe otherwise. For them, the school is another place of employment, analogous to a factory.
In a factory, people work to produce a product. If a foreman or a boss deems the product of their work unsatisfactory, they are fired. This prevents waste and eliminates ineffective workers. The problem with tenure, many argue, is that it prevents the firing of people who do bad work. This hurts the company’s bottom line – or test scores in education, because workers are producing goods of poor quality. Even well meaning liberals, and not just the usual coterie of entrepreneurs and free-market enthusiasts, have embraced the idea of the school as a factory. “In all other professions, efforts are still made, however imperfect, to evaluate whether an employee is succeeding and to remove those who are not,” wrote the editors of The New Republic earlier this year. “Why should teaching be different? In fact, given that teaching is arguably the most important job in our society, it would be difficult to name a profession…for which these sorts of heightened job protections would be less logical. If a job is truly important to the nation’s future,” the editors conclude, “then you want to make sure the most able, talented people are doing it – and doing it their best work at all times.”
However, the public school is unlike any other kind of workplace. Teachers do not produce anything. Students are human beings, not commodities. They start and end school as people. Students aren’t made into new things, or melted down to make new products. When children enter the public school system in kindergarten, they are not stepping onto an assembly line that, upon concluding in twelfth, deposits them into the real world to be bought and sold. Instead, students enter school, at least ideally, to become active members of a community and informed members of a polity. Education is not a method of production but a means of creating society. Students learn not only the skills they need to function in everyday life, but also the methods of critical thought and analysis that people need to know to maintain an innovative and productive society. Teachers do not put together raw resources in order to create a product; they are entrusted with a human being and charged with preparing that human being for adult and productive life (the question of whether nurturing and caring constitute labor is a completely different, though very worthwhile debate).
Teaching differs immensely from making a product out of various raw materials, or even putting data into a spreadsheet. While workers in a factory perform the same operation over and over again with identical resources, teachers are faced with an astonishing variety of circumstances. Some students are docile and quick learners. Other students are rowdy and require extra individual attention. Teachers don’t get to work with the same resources; there is no single type of student. Teachers therefore must constantly tinker with and modify their pedagogical methods to meet the diverse needs of their students. In education, there are no factors of production or inputs. There is no product that is produced. When advocates for tenure reform compare the public school to a factory or another privatized workplace, they reduce students – their own children – to goods that can be appraised and purchased.
Abolishing tenure would not make it so that only the best teachers would keep their jobs. It would mean that teachers would be fired for things beyond their control. Not only do students have different temperaments and natural abilities, but they also have different backgrounds and living conditions. Everyday, teachers face the casualties of capitalism. Particularly in underserved and inner-city areas, they instruct students who live with poverty, hunger, and violence on a daily basis. These problems, not tenure, are the greatest problems facing the American public school system. Even if the country had the best teachers in the world, by any available metric, there would still be failing schools. Students cannot learn when they don’t know from where their next meals will come; when crime, drugs, and abusive police flood the streets of their neighborhoods; and when the only available options to them in today’s economic climate are precarity (if they are lucky), unemployment, and incarceration. To penalize teachers for attempting to deal with the vicissitudes of capitalism is barbarism. Tenure provides teachers with the security to freely confront difficult situations. It is insignificant compensation considering the difficulty and thanklessness of teaching. Rather than spending political energies vilifying teachers and their unions, we should start addressing the real reasons for America’s steady educational decline.
Education reformers like to point out the position of the United States relative to other developed nations in rankings of national education systems. But what many fail to remember is the United States’ position relative to other nations on rankings of income inequality. The United States is a country of yawning gaps in wealth and access to opportunities. Finland, which is often ranked first or second in education standings, has one of the lowest gini coefficients (the gini coefficient is measure of economic inequality) in the world. The United States, in contrast, falls between such models of successful development and modernity as Uruguay and Cameroon. According to the National Center for Child Poverty, 44% of U.S. children live in low-income families. What remains frustratingly unsaid in the debate about tenure is that there are far more reasons for underperforming schools than bad teachers. Troubled school systems could import the best teachers from around the country, but unless problems of deprivation and violence are addressed, it won’t make any difference at all.
Tenure is an obstacle to the marketization and privatization of education. And that’s a good thing. Since education and teaching are not analogous to production and manufacturing, we should resist attempts to force the public education system to conform to the private sector model. By recognizing that the logic of the free market is not applicable in every situation, the decision to maintain the tenure system challenges neoliberalism, which assumes that for every policy problem the market has an answer. In the wake of the economic crisis, as austerity measures are adopted and policymakers go to great lengths to preserve the economic order, tenure for public school teachers becomes a radical idea. Though this may sound paradoxical, to demand the preservation of tenure is to reject the status quo. The status quo is ever-expanding capitalism, and tenure is like chainmail fending off capitalism’s colonizing swords. Gilbert Leung discusses mounting a concrete challenge to neoliberalism in his article, “Rights, Politics and Paradise: Notes on Zizek’s Silent Voice of a New Beginning.” “At least one way this can be done, he implies, is through the formulation of demands,” writes Leung. “And in the contest of current protests, what is needed is the art of formulating the right demand and insisting on it. Practically speaking, this means we should not simply demand the impossible. Nor should we simply demand the possible. According to Zizek, the art is to formulate a realistic demand that so profoundly challenges the established order that its realization only seems impossible.” Maintaining, and perhaps even strengthening tenure is the kind of radical demand needed to successfully fight austerity and the liberal-capitalist status quo.
However, it often seems that for every dedicated and influential teacher, there exists a lazy, apathetic, and flat-out mean counterpart. These individuals lost the will to educate long ago. They have now shackled themselves to their desks as they wait to collect a pension. With no real threat of termination after three years of good behavior, these terrible teachers give the whole profession a bad rap. Relative to the other intricacies of public education, this problem is rather simple and can summarized in a single word: tenure. In this post, I argue that tenure in K-12 public education should be abolished. While this policy is only a small step in the long journey that is education reform, it is certainly a step in the right direction.
This January, USA TODAY reported that tenure rights for teachers are weakening. They cited that “eleven states now require districts to consider teacher performance when deciding who to let go”, while in the remaining 39 states, tenure is “automatic”. In other words, only around 1 in 5 states ensure that teachers are minimally effective, and this represents an increase. Instead of looking at the quality of lessons, student likeability, test scores, or anything related to the actual art of teaching, many states have adopted a “Last In, First Out” (LIFO) policy where layoffs are done solely on the basis of seniority. LIFO assumes that teachers improve with experience. However, according to a 2012 Stanford statistical analysis, “there is little relationship between experience and effectiveness in the classroom, except perhaps for teachers in their first few years”. Tenure apologists can no longer hide behind the rationale that veteran teachers are inherently better than enthusiastic neophytes. Judging a teacher’s effectiveness may be difficult, but that is no reason to give up on evaluations altogether. While automatic tenures may now be weakening, they are still nowhere near weak enough.
Given the job security that tenure offers, some argue that its abolition would deter promising potential teachers from the trade. This detached, capitalistic point of view discounts the pure motivations of the best teachers: to educate and to change lives. However, even if we consider the issue from such a perspective, there are much more effective alternatives for attracting quality teachers than offering them the opportunity to stop trying after three years. The most direct option would be to raise the salaries of teachers across the board, making their positions more competitive and desirable for college graduates. While this would obviously be costly, “if you think education is expensive, try ignorance”, as Derek Bok, the former president of Harvard once said. Regardless, the people that are interested in the teaching profession for the reason of job security are not the ones that schools should be trying to recruit. Great teachers will continue to be great teachers whether or not they have tenure.
Another common argument made in favor of tenure is that teachers would not be free to teach lessons that might be seen as controversial, such as evolution or global warming. Indeed, the original motivation for establishing tenure in universities was so that professors could not be fired for exploring politically contentious ideas. However, there is a clear distinction between research institutions, where scientists test novel hypotheses and experts develop new theories, and K-12 public schools, where teachers give students basic knowledge that is almost unanimously agreed upon by academia. In science classes, curricula guidelines set by the district or state should include rigorously tested theories such as natural selection and climate change. Creating guidelines for history can be trickier, as they are sometimes accused of having political undertones. History is of course open to different interpretations, but the elementary facts, which teachers should focus on communicating, are not. Guidelines for every class should give teachers enough wiggle room to be creative, but ensure that their lessons are apolitical and that teachers are never exposed to risks of termination if they stick to the facts. The answer to concerns of lesson content is not giving teachers complete job security and freedom to teach or not teach whatever they choose; it is setting specific curriculum standards that ensure all children are exposed to the the same cutting-edge concepts, leveling the playing field for college admissions and beyond.
Fortunately, many districts and states are beginning to recognize the detriments of tenure. In March, 2012, amidst controversy over mandatory trans-vaginal ultrasound legislation, the Virginia state congress quietly pushed a bill that would effectively end tenure in the state. The New Republic commented on the movement:
“Like the abortion measures, this bill was also pushed by Republicans—but here’s the strange part: It was actually a halfway decent idea. The subject of the bill was an important one: tenure for public school teachers. And, while the proposal wasn’t perfect, it was at least an attempt to rectify what is perhaps the least sane element of our country’s approach to education.”
As the tides turn and tenure continues to fade, it is crucial to keep in mind the reasons why the change is necessary. This must not be seen as a punishment for teachers, who need our support more than ever. I strongly advocate for substantial salary raises for educators; without them, the quality of our public education will continue to plummet. The end of tenure instead should be viewed as an attempt to bring standards for the classroom above and beyond those of the average workplace. No other occupation offers guaranteed employment irrespective of job performance, and no other occupation could be more important for future generations. Every teacher knows the value of report cards and constructive feedback. It’s time we start grading them.