Teacher tenure: Has it outlived its usefulness? Yes

Make it harder to get, easier to revoke

Derrell Bradford | The Asbury Park Press

There are a few third rails in education reform. School choice and merit pay are among them. And just as discussion about them has increased in both frequency and seriousness recently, so has the focus on what is arguably the holy grail of teacher collective bargaining: tenure.

Enshrined into state law — superseding even the power of reform-minded local school boards to change — tenure is awarded to public school teachers, all of them, regardless of ability, after they have taught in New Jersey classrooms for three years and one day. The New Jersey Education Association asserts that tenure ensures a right to due process, and is a necessary protection, which seems laudable. However, like many contract provisions of its kind, it has grown to become a problem of its own.

Tenure has evolved into a job for life. The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s largest teacher unions, dispute this. But as a 2004 study by education scholar Frederick Hess showed, even teachers themselves recognize how hard it is to purge ineffective tenured teachers, with 36 percent reporting that “between tenure and the documentation requirements, it’s too hard for administrators to remove any but the very worst teachers.” Just 14 percent of teachers in the same survey reported that inability to remove bad teachers is not a problem.

This says nothing of the prohibitive cost of removing a tenured teacher, or the time and effort involved. Dismissing a tenured teacher can take as many as three years and cost well over $100,000 in legal fees. Given the exorbitant cost and the effort involved, most principals simply work to move poor-performing tenured teachers from their schools to others — an annual dance of the lemons as it is called in education reform circles. For this dance contest, however, clearly our kids are the losers.

So how can we support due process for teachers while allowing the managers of our schools — the principals — to make teacher effectiveness and student performance the prime factors by which the teaching force is judged? It’s simple: We make tenure harder to get and easier to revoke.

First, we raise the barrier to conferring tenure by requiring teachers to demonstrate subject mastery before we give it. Learning is a process to which both students and teachers must be continually committed. Surely a battery of assessments that gauge teacher ability and content knowledge before they are granted tenure is not an unreasonable request.

Second, we must streamline the reporting required by school leaders who wish to dismiss low-performing teachers. This requires, ironically, that we admit teachers are of varying quality, something the NEA and AFT oppose adamantly. Teaching is like any human endeavor. As such, some will excel at it and some will fail. That some teachers will fail is not the problem. That we let them continue to fail is.

Last, we should change the duration of tenure by making it renewable, like a license in any profession. Granting tenure in five-year increments, for instance, would keep our teachers focused on renewing their credentials and staying abreast of the latest developments in technology and pedagogy, while not eliminating the ostensible protections teachers need.

Is there still a place for tenure at all? Perhaps, but not as it exists currently — a prehensile vestige from a time when we did not need the greatest among us in our classrooms. That time is long gone. The most significant change we can affect in a child’s education is to give him or her a high quality teacher. If student achievement is the goal, we have two options: we can reform tenure (which could include eliminating it), or we can let our children and taxpayers suffer the consequences.

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