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