Does teacher tenure have a future?

As a school law instructor and tenured associate professor of educational leadership, I perhaps have a different view of tenure than most P-12 teachers. As we look to what the future of tenure may be, I believe that it’s important to recognize a few key issues that will shape the discussion and form of tenure in the years to come.


Before we begin, it may be helpful to have a quick overview of the history of tenure. Tenure was created to protect teachers against the personal and/or political whims of school administrators (and, sometimes, parents). Initiated by New Jersey in 1910, educator tenure laws gradually spread across the country. Today most states extend some kind of tenure protection to teachers. Protections typically vest for P-12 educators after two or three years in the profession, unlike their postsecondary counterparts, whose own vesting usually only accrues after six to ten years of probationary status. More recently, a few states have actually eliminated teacher tenure or discussed doing so.

So, with that background quickly covered, let’s get into the big issues. Note that the points outlined below don’t address whether or not teacher tenure is ideologically or educationally desirable. Instead, they highlight popular belief systems about the practice.

  1. Many Americans believe that tenure prevents incompetent teachers from being terminated. They see news stories that highlight how long and how much it costs to get rid of bad teachers. They see tales of the New York City Schools’ “rubber rooms.” And they’re not exactly thrilled.
  2. Many Americans have conceptual difficulty with the concept of guaranteed employment. They believe that if they don’t perform on their jobs, they suffer consequences. They see that during times of economic hardship, their jobs are in danger. They feel that workers must be subject to some level of accountability - perhaps including pay - for the quality of their performance. They don’t see these happening in the same way with teachers.
  3. Many Americans feel that tenure and union seniority provisions in collective bargaining agreements unfairly impact talented, but newer, educators. When push comes to shove in most schools - for example, when teachers have to be laid off - seniority and tenure status typically trump considerations of teacher quality and effectiveness. Similarly, citizens don’t understand why in many districts objections of senior faculty often impair schools’ ability to offer hiring incentives that would attract new teachers in hard-to-fill, high-need subject areas such as math, science, special education, and English-as-a-second-language.
  4. Many citizens don’t buy the ‘inability to fairly assess’ proposition. There is a deep skepticism by many that teachers’ jobs are somehow so special that it’s impossible to devise fair teacher evaluation systems, ones based on professional standards and student learning outcomes. Many Americans are in people-oriented (rather than product-oriented) professions, yet they still are somehow evaluated by supervisors.
  5. Many Americans deeply intertwine the issues of ‘tenure’ and ‘unions.’ As union membership continues to decline in America, this commingling is increasingly an unpopular affiliation. Unpopular teacher union political lobbying often doesn’t help any. Neither does the fact that in many communities unions are successfully bargaining for pay raises while non-educators are taking pay cuts or are being laid off. Neither does the common practice of sacrificing some teacher jobs in order to maintain current salaries and benefits rather than sharing the pain across the membership by taking across-the-board cuts.
  6. Most Americans don’t enjoy tenure rights themselves. They don’t understand why educators need tenure protections when other jobs and professions don’t receive them. This is particularly true since the inception of civil rights and other employment rights legislation, which many feel has eliminated the need for separate contractual provisions guaranteeing tenure in addition to what laws already protect.
  7. As a result of these and other issues, many Americans don’t really understand or support tenure. Instead, they see tenure as a refuge for incompetence and a platform for political lobbying that’s perceived as often being only marginally related to education. They wonder why the talented untenured teacher gets fired while the marginally-skilled veteran gets to take over her classroom just because she’s been around longer. They take the incredibly low teacher termination rates in most school districts and compare those to the number of poor teachers their children experience over the years. And they shake their head in dismay.

    If you pulled aside your average non-educator American citizen and inquired about his support for tenure, I would venture that such support would be fairly low. In other words, I think it is safe to say that regardless of whatever benefits there still may be for teacher tenure, those arguments are losing in the court of public relations.

    I don’t think the education profession is going to be able to withstand the lack of public support for tenure for too much longer. Teacher tenure is too easy a political talking point and too easy to mock with soundbites and statistics. Without compelling rationales for continuing the practice – ones that resonate both intellectually and emotionally with the American public and politicians – it’s only a matter of time before tenure inexorably disappears from the educational landscape.

    So if tenure is worth preserving - and many think it is – the challenge for American teachers is to somehow address the issues delineated above and sway the American public back in favor. Right now, I don’t see that happening in any substantive way. Even if teachers made this a major PR push over the next few years, I think it’s an uphill battle.

    [cross-posted at TeachHub]

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