The question of whether public school teachers in the K-12 system should be protected by the system of tenure is a highly controversial one. It is also an extremely important question at the present moment. A changing world economy and increased focus on our nation’s education system are bringing teacher tenure into the spotlight, and some say it is a tradition that may be outdated.
The Good: Why Some Argue that Tenure is Important
Protects teachers from being fired for personal or political reasons
As a 2008 TIME magazine article on teacher tenure notes, one of the most significant results of teacher tenure is that it makes firing teachers “a difficult and costly process.” A tenured teacher cannot be fired on the whim of a school administrator; charges will need to be filed, evaluations submitted, and hearings held. Many teachers believe that the job security tenure provides is important because it prevents teachers from being fired for reasons of favoritism or local or district politics.
Gives teachers the freedom to experiment or support controversial causes
Many say that tenure is important for teachers to delve into potentially untraditional topics. A high school social studies teacher, Alan Singer wrote recently for the Huffington Post about how he helped students form clubs which “testified in public hearings against budget cuts in education and in favor of condom availability in schools.” Without the protection that tenure offered, Singer argues, he would not have felt safe supporting his students on such politically controversial issues.
The Bad: Why Some Want to Eliminate Tenure
Makes it unduly difficult to get bad teachers out of the classroom
Many dislike tenure for the same reason that others support it: once a teacher has tenure, it can be a very long and costly process to get that teacher removed from the classroom. In a 2003 report on teacher tenure by the nonprofit opinion research group Public Agenda, a New Jersey union representative said, "I've gone in and defended teachers who shouldn't even be pumping gas.”
Not in the best interest of children
One of the major criticisms that the tenure system receives is that it is designed to protect teachers rather than students. The tenure system can result in serious damage to the education of students who have to suffer through a year of instruction from a teacher who is incompetent, but who cannot be fired due to tenure. In an era of very real anxiety about the educational preparedness of American children, this is criticism that cannot be taken lightly.
Gives the profession a bad name
Not all teachers who currently enjoy the protections of tenure support it. In fact, many hard-working teachers resent tenure because they believe the system gives their profession a bad name. These teachers fear, perhaps rightly, that the tenure system makes the public view teachers as lazy and entitled, and that this results in decreased respect for the teaching profession.
Possible Middle Ground: Tenure Reform
A number of educational experts and policy-makers say that they support tenure reform, but do not necessarily advocate doing away with tenure altogether.
For example, some state legislatures are trying to change their state’s laws to lengthen the time that a teacher must serve in the classroom before being considered for tenure.
In a recently issued report called “Ringing the Bell for K-12 Teacher Tenure Reform,” The Center for American Progress, an educational research group, recommended that states change their tenure statutes to “explicitly mandate” that tenure decisions be based on teacher effectiveness data. The report also called for reform of state licensing programs so that the renewal of teaching credentials is tied to the evaluation of teacher performance, regardless of whether that teacher has tenure.
The Center for American Progress report also called for the federal government to fund research that would investigate how effective different teacher tenure policies are at raising teacher quality and student achievement. The findings of such research would be invaluable. Numerical evidence about how tenure helps or hurts teacher quality and student achievement would allow policymakers, teachers, parents, and the wider public to form their opinions about tenure based on an understanding of what will ultimately be best for the students, and ultimately, best for the country.
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