Wednesday, June 29, 2011


I read an article called “Who Deserves Tenure” by Chester E. Finn, Jr. in the June 2011 Education Matters disparaging tenure. There were several problems I had with the article. The question is not about who “deserves” anything. Tenure is not, as the author states and popularly believed, a right to lifetime employment. “Tenure,” or the right to not be fired without a cause and due process, is a tool designed to give the same stability to teaching, when the winds of philosophy blow back and forth, that judges need. It also is a cost containment tool.

The author of this article is a strong conservative, as am I. I have seen situations where teachers with a conservative philosophy were protected ONLY because of tenure. The teaching profession, K-12 and higher ed., is very much driven by philosophies, which regularly change. Tenure protects teachers, just like judges, from pressure to fire them because their philosophy becomes unpopular in the moment. True, that can protect someone who has a faulty philosophy. More often than not however, it protects good teachers from administrators with faulty philosophies or momentary pressures from a mob-mentality group who have been whipped into frenzy.

I have seen administrators who, for instance, were pushing “new math” or “whole language” that would have fired good, experienced teachers who resisted the drive to impose that style of teaching. Many times newer principals or superintendents really believe in a purist view of a particular program or style, or they want to show how capable they are as an administrator by implementing a particular program quickly. Sometimes teachers just don’t want to change, but I believe most of the time, teachers that are resisting have seen similar programs come and go or have valid reasons why it is not in the students’ best interest.

I have observed curriculum leaders and college of education professors, who typically have a rather liberal philosophy, telling conservative legislators, board members, and others how terrible tenure is – that it makes it hard to implement reforms. Little do these policy makers realize that without tenure, these teacher trainers would more easily implement the very philosophies the policy makers oppose! Teachers are actually more conservative in general than those who train them. These trainers would dearly love to get rid of tenure, so they could strong-arm teachers into installing their ideas more fully.

It is ironic to me that conservatives are the loudest in calling for the elimination of tenure, but if tenure were eliminated, there would be many more liberal ideas than conservative ideas instituted, because curriculum leaders and professors are the ones in the key positions to do it.

It is naïve to think that administrators would get rid of all the bad teachers and keep all the good ones. We sometimes assume that because administrators are paid more or in authority that they are better or more knowledgeable than the teachers they supervise. Often they are less experienced or more focused on climbing the administrative/political ladder than on building children. To give them unrestrained power over a teacher’s future would not be dissimilar to giving the President authority to remove justices with whose decisions he disapproved of.

Tenure is also a financial consideration. The author correctly states that it “…is a valuable employment benefit that substitutes in part for salary….” Without tenure there are two scenarios that would play out in education. 1. It would become much more expensive in an attempt to convince people it was worth investing at least four years of college to become a teacher despite the likelihood of being fired when your salary increased. 2. More likely, the instability created would cause constant turnover, which has been proven to drive scores down in schools.

There will probably always be those who would be willing to step up to the plate, thinking they can teach well with no experience or training. But without some job security, who would invest years of college and honing of style to become master teachers, knowing that at any moment they could be fired, whether for budgetary reasons, a group of frenzied citizens, or most likely a philosophical difference with a new administrator?

I’ve said for years, if they will triple my salary, I’ll give up tenure and take my chances. Then I’d be an independent contractor, but I’d have to charge enough to make up for lapses in employment, moving costs for changing jobs, and managing my own retirement, etc. Come to think of it, I’d need more. Also when hired, I’d be team building only so long as I felt it was in my own career interests. The problem is teaching is not like professional sports or entertainment where one can hire an agent to represent you and where the money is because you play before thousands or millions of people who invest nothing except money to see you. Educating requires getting students to work to improve their minds, even when sometimes there is little support at home.

There are horror stories like “rubber rooms,” etc. I submit that there are other causes for these problems, particularly the size of districts. In large districts unions get too much power trying to compensate for too much power in the bureaucracy. It is in large districts that poor teachers and administrators can hide. Smaller schools and districts have much less problem with this issue, because people can’t hide. They usually remove or improve on their own; indeed they feel the possibility of improvement, which is usually lacking in large bureaucracies.

If we really want to improve governance in education, we would study the absolute need to divide in order to grow, indeed in our country, because it is not an education issue. I have research on this issue at The source of the problem is not tenure. It is the size of the organization, and it has implications far beyond education alone.

Tenure may not have “come down from Sinai,” but it has evolved over a couple of centuries of trial and error. Just like some who would throw out our form of government for supposed flaws they see, those who would throw out public education, yes, and tenure, despite their flaws would get something much worse.

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