Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Should tenure function like a drivers license?

By on February 27, 2011

Surely we all understand the controversy with the existence of tenure. Currently, it is seen as a near-impenetrable armor which protects the supposed hoards of ineffective teachers which abound in our system. But to really talk about tenure, one needs to also understand where is comes from and why it exists. For only then can we offer options that meet the needs of the educational system. I’ve written about it before in my Teacher Magazine article, “Does Last Hired, First Fired Really Make Sense.”

Basically, in a nutshell, the reasons FOR tenure are as follows:

1. It would be too tempting to segregate teachers based on price, not quality. In the past, the most expensive teachers were the most tempting to cut, especially during eras of tight budgets. In other words, the most experienced teachers were the most vulnerable.

2. In education, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Youngest does not equate to best. Knowledge of both content and the ability to communicate that content comes with longevity.

3. Schools need a generational balance for the greatest efficiency. The veterans are needed to train our new troops. Cutting our most experienced also means cutting our most wise. Reinventing the wheel with new recruits time and again wastes instructional time and professional energy. We don’t have time to waste not learning from those who have been there before.

4. Without tenure, teachers are vulnerable to the ebb and flow of administrative tides. Administrators can be very nomadic by trade; yet it is the teaching force that truly sets the tone of a campus, and each teacher is meant to contribute to a necessary element on a site. The teaching staff is the most consistent element on any campus and should not be weakened by those not committed to longevity on a site.

5. Many times people blame tenure for the existence of poor teachers rather than place the blame where it really belongs. Many teacher prep programs are not doing their job of being the initial gatekeepers of the profession. Anyone with a check and a passing grade can earn a credential. Furthermore, there are many administrators who do not go through the trouble of identifying or challenging teachers who are not performing as needed. When investigating many teachers of questionable quality, it’s not infrequent to find that their prior evaluations claimed that they performed in a satisfactory manner. We can’t blame the system or elliminate due process because the prep programs and admin teams don’t do their jobs as they should.

However, the reasons AGAINST tenure are just as powerful:

1. Retention based merely on a seniority list casts aside some of our most promising young teachers. Why would a person who wants to invest in themselves, earn a credential, and dedicate their professional lives to our students enter a profession where they are so vulnerable for so long? Where nothing they can do can ensure their position?

2. The security of tenure can encourage mediocrity. When a person is secure in their job, why work as hard as you can? We are, as of now, relying on a teacher’s internal motivation to propel their efforts. And while there are many excellent teachers out there, there are clearly those whose practice has become too relaxed.

3. A system set up to reward people based on hire date, does not encourage professional growth or ongoing effort. Tenure should be about reward. It shouldn’t be doled out to those who just remain under the radar long enough to be given the golden chalice. A teacher has no incentive, other than their own internal professional curiosity, to continue their own growth and learning. And great teaching is about just that…remaining current in our content and forward-thinking in our strategies to prepare our students for their future. Why continue to invest in our own development when all teachers have to do now to ensure their employment is to continue to remain constant?

Clearly, something has to be done. Tenure may be about due process, but firing an ineffective teacher should not be as difficult as it is. So, in the spirit of compromise until we can find a better solution, perhaps we should look to the DMV for inspiration.

Now hear me out. The DMV grants you a license that qualifies you for a chunk of time. After so long, you have to take the test again. What if tenure worked like that as well? Meaning, what if tenure what granted in chunks such that you earned it, but then were reevaluated for it again after, say, 5 years? And much like a senior citizen who cannot pass the vision test must then go seek aid from a specialist recommended by the DMV, could a teacher who is found inefficient or unsatisfactory also be recommended to seek help as well? Rather than suspend their credential while they sought help, perhaps it was their tenure that became suspended instead?

So, a teacher would need to be reevaluated every 5 years in order to maintain their tenured status. There would need to be clear guidelines as to what qualified as ineffective, of course, in order to disallow the price of a teacher to influence a decision not to re-up his or her contract, because let’s face it, as one’s price goes up, should we not be held accountable for our cost?

As I have said in my prior article: tenure should be a golden chalice, something that is not taken for granted. It is necessary to aid in creating a protected army of teachers with experience and wisdom, but it must be held at a higher standard and not given out with such casual leniency.

To be effective, and to maintain due process, tenure should be a combination of both security and incentive.

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Posted in: Educational Policy
  1. Paul Bogdan
    March 2, 2011

    Tenure needs to be abolished. Waiting for Superman left a lot out about what we need to do to improve schools, but it made a very clear point about the fact that tenure is keeping crappy teachers in the classroom.

  2. Gail Ritchie
    March 5, 2011

    Paul (the previous poster) left out the fact that Waiting for Superman was propaganda, not a real documentary.

    Heather, I like your suggestion of a system where teachers demonstrate their continuing refinement of their professional abilities in order to keep their positions.

    • Steve Owens
      March 6, 2011

      We already have this in place. It’s called re-licesure. The advantage of using this process to achieve the positive outcomes you cite is that licensing is not linked to the single salary schedule, which is a deferred income system. So you don’t have to dismantle multiple systems with a raft of unintended consequences. Plus, lifting the non-performing individual’s license helps to guarantee that they won’t continue to participate in the dance of the lemons.

      The DMV issues licenses. So does the state department of ed. There’s your real analogy. Tenure is the wrong argument. Here in Vermont we complete a portfolio every seven years to demonstrate growth. Guarantee that the licensing process is transparent and meaningful. The tenure argument is merely a smokescreen for a reactionary political agenda intended to put us in our place – and our place is doing what we are told, not having the freedom to use our professional judgment to provide the best education for children.

      • Heather Wolpert-Gawron
        March 6, 2011

        Thanks so much for the push-back. Vermont has a system that CA does not, and it sounds like it is on the right track to promote a constant quality profession.

        I do believe there is a relationship between being granted a license, eventually being granted tenure, and rising on the seniority list. There needs to be tenure. There needs to be come kind of protection and due process, especially for those who earn more on the salary scale as it exists. However, we need a more structured system of how to earn it so that it isn’t taken advantage of.

        Thanks so much for checking in. Your expertise is much appreciated.

        aka Tweenteacher

  3. Dinah Mack
    March 8, 2011

    I just read this on Huffington Post and was excited to find your blog. You have eloquently captured the pro and con list that plays in my mind each year as we go through the pink slip routine and discuss the budget. The current onslaught against teachers in the media is uninformed- posts like yours are essential to educate the public. I look forward to reading more on your blog. I teach 7th grade Social Studies in western Massachusetts- my classroom blog is http://www.placeintheworld.typepad.com
    I am always thilled to find kindred energetic middle school teachers- we are a rare group!

    • Heather Wolpert-Gawron
      March 8, 2011

      What a pleasure to have found you as well! Thanks for your kind words. It’s always great to meet someone that enjoys and appreciates this age group as they can be crazy!

      I try to see multiple sides of the issues surrounding education, and if I don’t see them, then I seek out those who see things differently than I do. It’s how I grow as a learner and an educator.

      I look forward to hearing more from you, and thanks for commenting!

      aka Tweenteacher

  4. Can't Leave Real Name
    May 27, 2011

    As a new public school teacher who has been pink-slipped almost every year, one might think I’d be opposed to tenure, but I’m not. In all the schools I’ve taught at the last 4 years, I haven’t seen one teacher that I would classify as inadequate. Some who might be able to be replaced with better teachers? Maybe 2 or 3 out of hundreds.

    As a new teacher, I’ve absolutely depended on the experience of tenured teachers to improve my own skills (and I had a lot of teaching experience before becoming a public school teacher.) As a parent, the best teachers my children have had have been those with many years of experience, and we’ve had serious problems with inexperienced teachers.

    One reason FOR tenure that you did not mention directly is that it gives teachers the protection to stand up for what they think is best for students, even when their ideas are in conflict with those of the administration. In my experience, un-tenured teachers are often quite reasonably afraid to even ask questions about decisions for fear that they will be fired.

    But the biggest reason is that I was not renewed as a teacher last year, almost certainly for discriminatory reasons–the case is currently being investigated by the state fair employment agency. I was given no indication that my performance was inadequate prior to being told that I would not be offered a contract for the next year. The administrator was incompetent (the entire teaching staff wanted this person fired even before I was hired), and this person’s decision seriously harmed my teaching career. The tenured teachers knew they would be able to wait out this person’s time as school leader, but those of us who were untenured walked on eggshells.

    Frankly, in my time as a public school teacher AND parent, administrator incompetence seems to be a far more widespread problem than teacher incompetence. I’ve heard that upwards of 90% of administrators go into administration because they were not successful in the classroom, and that number seems reasonable based on my own experience. I think union contracts DO have the tools to get rid of ineffective teachers, and if more administrators were exemplary teachers, they could use the tools they already have to get rid of ineffective teachers .

    But I’m also open to some reform of the system. My only concern is that I think teachers need protection from administrators whose decisions are based on factors other than teacher competency.

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