Thursday, April 10, 2008

Why K12 teachers need tenure

Brian Lehrer keeps asking why we need tenure, given the teacher shortage we face. Unfortunately, he keeps doing it in the context of other education discussions, and he never gets an answer.

So here I go.


First, a little history. Tenure is not a product of collective bargaining. It is not in teacher union contracts. It is a matter of state law, and goes much further back than when teachers unions gained collective bargaining rights. Though in higher ed it has been about academic freedom, in K12 education it has equally been about patronage (i.e. new administrators replacing existing teachers with their cronies).

Second, a point of clarification. Tenure for K12 teachers is not guaranteed lifetime employment. Rather, after three years of teaching with good evaluations, tenured teachers cannot be fired at the drop of a hat or at the whim of an administrator. Rather, the principal must document the teacher's problems, let him/her know about them, given him/her a opportunity to correct them, and then check to see whether they were corrected. If all of these steps are documented, the teacher can be dismissed. For an employee who has already proven him/herself over years of employment, it's just good management practice. 


So, why do we still need tenure? Patronage is not the problem it once was, certainly not with a teacher shortage and licensure requirements. And what kind of academic freedom do K12 teachers need?

A) The teacher shortage is not evenly distributed. High performing schools don't have the same problems attracting teacher. High paying district don't have the same problems attracting teachers. English, social studies and art teachers are in good supply for most schools. Low performing schools, lower paying districts, math and science positions, these are the areas of teacher shortages. So, the shortage issue is not a factor for most teachers.

B) This really comes down to the question of why principals might want to be rid of a teacher. I would suggest that any manager would want to be rid of any employee who makes his/her job or life harder. Ideally, this would only be low performing teachers, but that is a fantasy view.

Any kind of rabble rouser can make a principal's job harder. Encouraging parents to express their concerns to a principal ends up costing principals a lot of time. Encouraging parents to go high up in the organization of the principal does not give them fair hearing can cost a principal far more. Encouraging students to organize and express their concerns to administrators is not always taken well, either. And yet, teachers who feel a strong drive to teach for social justice commonly do both of these things.

Obviously, union activists are already protected by other labor laws.

C) Academic freedom in K12 is not like in higher education, that's true. But it is still an issue.

A teacher who tries to raise the bar in his/her classes can create no end of problems for a principal. If standards in school have been too low, and a teacher demands more than students are accustomed to, students and their parents can demand enormous amounts of principal's time. This is a different form of rocking the boat, but can still be enough for a principal to wish to be rid of the teacher.

Principals cannot be experts on everything. Once, when teaching high school English, my principal as a former middle school math teacher. He insisted that I as an English teacher, "not worry about critical and analytical thinking" and "just teach English." Though he had no training or experience with high school English, he had ideas about what it meant. He did not approve of the fact that I was spending as much time on teaching my student how to reason as on the mechanics of writing. His assistant principal insisted that we not teach students to write essays at all  any more, and instead focus on other forms of non-narrative writing.

Another principal might be an old school traditionalist and insist that English classes only be about books. He might not approve of using film or video to teach about theme, plot, symbolism, character development, story arcs, allegory and any of the rest. But a teacher might feel that this would be the best way for students to learn these lessons. I never had this experience, but I have spoken to those who have. Quite simply, teachers who insist on doing something different than what has been done before can face blowback from administrators and from parents (i.e. "if it was good enough for me..."). 


No, we don't need tenure if principals can be counted on to make good decisions in the best interests of children. But they are human, and therefore often make decisions in their own interests. Moreover, we have a real shortage of high quality principals, even as we are breaking up large schools into multiple small schools and opening up charter schools. 

Which brings me to something that Richard Rothstein talks about. We have regulations not to ensure the highest quality of anything, rather to prevent the lowest quality. Once a teacher proves him/herself over three years, tenure ensures that s/he will only be dismissed for a valid reason after s/he -- who has already demonstrated that s/he can do the job well -- has been given a chance to correct the situation. 

I do not suggest that there are not problems with our tenure system. A lot falls to principals, perhaps too much. Teacher observation and evaluation is not easy, and the tenure process in dependent on principals making good decisions about teachers during those first three years. Principals, coming from the teacher ranks, know far more about how to teach or have difficult conversations with children than with adults, and yet they are expected to do these thing in the process of trying to remove a tenured teacher. Principals need support and training that they rarely receive.

And that is why we still need tenure. It takes a series of bad decisions over a number of years for a poor teacher to get tenure. But without tenure, it only takes one bad decision for a good to be dismissed. 


reppep said...

Best one yet, but I'm not caught up to present.

Sean Wei said...

you're entire argument is based on the presumption that a "good teacher" would be wrongfully dismissed...there are wrongful termination laws that prevent employers canning people at whim. why can't those play a role rather than tenure? basically, if a teacher is really "good" and wrongfully terminated s/he can bring suit against the school district.

Chris said...

I have to agree with the above comment. I think you make some good points but I really think your fears about principals getting rid of effective teachers are overstated. Sure, if tenure was eliminated, there may be SOME principals that play politics, but I think that would be such a small minority. And as the previous commenter stated, no one is asking to eliminate due process. I think you have to look at the unintended consequence of tenure. I think that there are FAR more ineffective teachers that are kept in the classroom because it is EXTREMELY difficult to get rid them. Even worse, I know of at least one occasion in my school where they have moved a teacher out of the classroom and have them file papers (and guess what...that teacher is still being paid their teacher rate). This happens much more than you think. Teachers are never going to get the respect, compensation, etc if we continue this antiquated practice.

Mitch said...

I doubt anyone will come back to read this but - I was fired for political reasons from a high school in Maine in 1998.

I didn't have tenure.

Consider my ability to file and pursue a wrongful termination lawsuit without a paycheck.

Never mind paying lawyers, I was concerned with paying rent and groceries.

And if you think firing a tenured teacher takes a long time - think about how long a wrongful termination lawsuit would take to resolve - with no paycheck!

Wake up! Don't talk about things you have no understanding of...