UFD (Up for Debate): Teacher Tenure in K-12 Public Education

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.

***
Stance: Teacher tenure should be abolished in K-12 education.
By Tom Silver
As a recent veteran of public K-12 education, I can tell you that even at its best, the American schooling system is broken. The issue has proven to be so complex and difficult to diagnose that politicians have started to avoid it. They now realize that effecting measurable and meaningful change in under four years is nearly impossible. Frustrated and searching for a culprit, many have turned to teachers. Their pay is too high! They get too many benefits! Their unions have too much power! They get summer vacations and they don’t even work that hard! I have heard all of these accusations — on TV, and in casual conversation — and frankly, they disgust me. Many of the most hardworking, passionate, and inspiring individuals I know are teachers, and their salaries don’t nearly compensate them enough for all of their efforts. Some have to get a second job during the summer just to pay the bills, especially if they teach in areas where the costs of living are high. For people that have such a profound effect on the future, they are often blamed, neglected, and under-appreciated.

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.”
This prominent liberal magazine’s support for the end of tenure is representative of the idea’s rising bipartisan appeal. While Republican Governor Chris Christie has successfully fought to end LIFO in New Jersey, Independent Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has vowed to “end tenure as we know it” in New York City. The NYT reported on August 17, 2012 that as a result of Bloomberg’s efforts, “only 55 percent of eligible teachers, having worked for at least three years, earned tenure in 2012, compared with 97 percent in 2007”. Additionally, Idaho passed drastic reformsin 2011 that effectively ended indefinite tenure and replaced it with short-term renewable contract deals. While many saw this move as radical at the time, perhaps Idaho was just ahead of the bell curve.

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.

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18 Responses to UFD (Up for Debate): Teacher Tenure in K-12 Public Education

  1. I would have to agree with Joshua that tenure is the least of our public education system’s troubles. Before we eliminate job security for the most important profession, we should be tackling the problems which prevent students from learning regardless of the abilities of the teacher (income inequality, not having food on your plate, violence).

    I think that the point needs to be taken further. Not only do we have to address the societal problems which affects million of students every day, but we need to look at the structure of the public education system itself. As a soon-to-be fellow veteran of the K-12 system, I would argue that it’s not terrible teachers, but curriculum, the hierarchical structure which leads to abuse of authority by the administration, and the never-ending focus on letter grades and SATs which have broken me down in recent years. The pedagogy requires a radical change (read Paulo Freire for more on that), but that change should not begin with lessening job protections for the most valuable profession in the country.

    • Tom Silver says:

      I agree that there are much larger and more complex issues that need to be addressed before education reform can be realized. However, your argument does not address why eliminating tenure would be detrimental to the education system. Perhaps terrible teachers are not the largest obstacle to a better system, but they are certainly an obstacle. Radical reformations, if they were successful, would obviously be ideal. However, I tend to subscribe to the proverb: “It is better to take many small steps in the right direction than to make a great leap forward only to stumble backward.”

      • How is removing job protections a step closer to the ideal? It’s absolutely unnecessary and would only lead to, as Sawwon pointed out below, the further politicization of schools by administrators.

    • Tom Silver says:

      The ideal is a better education system for students. Removing absolute job security for teachers would lead to that, as I argued in this post. Can you respond to those arguments? And see my response to Sawwon below.

      • Anton says:

        A solution will never be properly implemented until the issue of big labor, and the ultimate structure of education, is addressed. The administrators of these bureaucratic machines have usurped the power of real teachers, and have instead replaced unionization with these top-down approaches that cripple and steal the real benefits these teachers deserve. The problem far transcends the issue of tenure, it requires a complete restructuring of the institutions that control the educational apparatuses that has brought the United States to its decline.

      • Tom Silver says:

        @Anton: Well, I disagree in part, but I’d like to hear your ideas about how the education system should be restructured.

  2. Sawwon Lee says:

    Tom: Without systematic, depersonalized rules like tenure, how do we protect effective teachers from the whims of lazy, apathetic, and flat-out mean administrators? They lack the will to educate, they have no real threat of termination, and their track record for teacher management has been abominable.

    • Tom Silver says:

      This is an excellent argument and a very real concern. I think it’s important to differentiate between absolute tenure and the legal rights that are afforded to any long-term employees. If any employee is fired without a legitimate reason, they can sue and often those cases are won. (Of course, a truly malicious employer could fabricate a paper trail of repeated poor performance if he or she wished to fire an employee. However, I don’t think the correct response to this possibility is simply giving all employees guaranteed life-time job security.) Teachers should never be fired for purely political or personal reasons, and if “tenure” meant legal protection from just that, then I would be in total favor of it. However, tenure as we know it prevents teachers from being fired for reasons that would surely get them fired in other professions. That form of tenure should come to an end.

  3. Sawwon Lee says:

    Why are other professions a fitting model to follow? Is the balance of power between employer and employee really so out of balance in the case of US primary school teachers? Tenure isn’t completely impenetrable, after all. This is in part an economic/philosophical argument: the closer the system of teacher hiring gets to a free market, the more efficient it will be, and one of the requirements of a free market is interaction free from coercion. Removing tenure would reduce teachers’ coercive power and increase administrators’ coercive power, which is rather arguably not the right way to push.

    A point – and I’m not sure how much this is that of Mintz or that of me – is that tenure is a sideshow. It may or may not lead to concrete improvements, but any publicly aired discussion of it is a distraction from more necessary changes. If I were to be cynical, I’d look at the motives and privilege of the people pushing the tenure argument into the public sphere, but I’m not majoring in media studies.

    • Tom Silver says:

      The teaching profession is different from other professions in that, like Josh argued, they aren’t “producing” anything. But that doesn’t mean teachers should not be evaluated — it means that they should be evaluated even more. Their duties are too important to be left unchecked. Tenure is virtually impenetrable; when’s the last time a teacher was laid off because they were just plain bad? Consider just NYC — between 2007 and 2010, only 88 out of 80,000 teachers were laid off for reasons related to job performance (http://articles.nydailynews.com/2010-09-28/news/29440370_1_probationary-teachers-grant-tenure-holding-teachers). This is just one example of many.

      I understand your argument about the balance of power between teachers and administrators, but the increased efficiency will lead to higher quality teaching. Though their coercive power would be reduced, society would have to compensate by increasing teacher salary. Right now, we’re getting away with paying teachers so little because we offer them tenure instead of more money, and especially in this economy, the value of job security is increasing. From the administrator’s perspective, tenure seems like a way to offer more of an incentive for prospective teachers without actually using up more of the budget. But, though difficult to quantify, tenure is not actually free for the administrator, as he or she sacrifices the right to fire teachers for poor performance. Tenure is certainly not without cost for society, as it sacrifices the quality of public education.

      Again, I agree that there are larger issues than tenure that must be addressed for education reform. I can’t comment on the motives of public figures that are now pushing for tenure reform, but your final argument is reminiscent of the argument made by Republican congressmen when taxes on the super-wealthy are suggested for deficit-reduction. They argue that such proposals are distractions from the larger economic issues like unemployment. This argument is vacuous — clearly, taxes on the super-wealthy would not get us out of national debt, end unemployment, etc., but it would certainly be a step towards alleviating the country’s economic pains. Analogously, ending tenure would not fix education, but that doesn’t mean we should throw the idea away. Reforms in both areas will not come with one simple, ambitious piece of legislation; they will come with consistent efforts from multiple angles. Complex problems demand comprehensive solutions.

      • Sawwon Lee says:

        I’d argue that the hypothetical Republican argument is true: those proposals are distractions. The government isn’t going to be to seize enough wealth to pay down the deficit, and from an income equality perspective the focus on the super-rich is arguably misplaced. http://lanekenworthy.net/2008/02/10/taxes-and-inequality-lessons-from-abroad/ suggests that “for inequality reduction, it is the quantity of taxes rather than the progressivity of the tax system that matters most.” And certainly unemployment is a far more important issue than quasi-austere deficit hawking; I’d be very glad if the public discourse moved to focus on that.

        No comment on the new points raised about tenure, since they’re solid points and it would take a bit of time to think about how to add to them.

        However, as a mostly rhetorical matter, it seems to me that comprehensive reforms are like radical reforms: “would obviously be ideal” – “if they were successful”. In terms of ability to enact legislation, it may very well be that one solidly placed policy would close the gaps in education well enough to soothe the worst aches for now. Discussions about alternatives to focus more strongly on are perfectly germane, hypothetically speaking.

      • Tom Silver says:

        Well that is another conversation entirely, one that maybe we can have more thoroughly on a future blog post. Just to quickly clarify — the difference between the radical reforms suggested by Josh and Mintz and the comprehensive reforms I alluded to is that while the former refers to a sudden dramatic overhaul of the system, the latter denotes a number of small policies and minor corrections in the system over a longer period of time, with the elimination of tenure being one relatively limited policy.

  4. Ararat Gocmen says:

    Josh, though I agree with you that the free-market arguments against tenure are extremely weak in reasoning, don’t you think there are potentially more effective ways to guarantee educators’ labor rights?

    The biggest problem I see with the current tenure system is the issue of the LIFO policy that Tom mentions. Because of this problem, tenure is effectively a system which benefits experienced educators but not those who have newly entered the workforce. Teachers unions’ preference for a tenure system thus benefits their longtime members at the expense of their new ones.

    Though I can’t think of a more effective system to replace tenure off the top of my head, I’m sure the labor rights leaders of the teachers’ union can devise a better system that benefits its members equally to replace the current system which works disproportionally in favor of their more experienced members.

    • Ararat Gocmen says:

      Also, I’m aware that the tenure system can also be beneficial to new educators, as once they achieve tenure in the first few years of employment, they are effectively guaranteed a job for years to come.

      However, examples abound where the LIFO policy leads to a great young teacher losing his or her job during a round of layoffs while much less qualified educators maintain their positions. I’m sure a more effective system could be devised where at least this particular issue could be eliminated while still maintaining the labor rights of educators.

  5. In response to Tom and Ararat, I’ll say this: if you effectively remove tenure right now, job security for teachers is completely eliminated. Until “a more effective system” is devised, as Ararat suggested, tenure cannot be eliminated. It is not the major issue, in fact, it is nowhere near close to being the major issue surrounding the failure of our public education system. Having the debate on tenure only places more unnecessary fault and scrutiny on the teachers, as opposed to the very real systemic and societal problems which have already been brought up.

    Oh, and Tom, I agree that we should be raising salaries for teachers.

    • Ararat Gocmen says:

      Of course, the elimination of the tenure system is not an option until a new system is devised. If you eliminate tenure now and say “we’ll think of a new system later”, a new system will obviously never emege.

      And though I agree with you Mike that the public debate around tenure in general focuses on the elimination of educators’ working rights and not on a restructuring of the system, that doesn’t mean informed individuals like us can’t have a discussion of replacing tenure with a more effective system. Just because it isn’t the major problem with the education system doesn’t mean it isn’t a problem worth discussing and solving.

      The fact that older teachers are protected by tenure at the expense of newer ones is an inherent injustice emerging from the current labor rights agreement between administrators and the teachers’ union, and it is something that I believe should be immediately resolved. Just because most education reformers are calling for the elimination of tenure in the name of reducing educators’ working rights doesn’t mean it’s inappropriate to have discussions about replacing it with a more effective and more just system.

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