To the Editor:
Every so often, voices are heard denigrating and attacking professional tenure in education. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York is only the latest to raise this as the bane of education (“N.Y.C. to Scrap Regions, Give Principals More Authority,” Jan. 24, 2007).
Some would have the public believe that tenure is a shield behind which incompetents hide to preserve their positions. Although there probably are instances of such, one might reasonably ask in these cases how the incompetence went undetected by administrators and supervisors in the three years prior to the granting of tenure.
The mayor wants to make the acquisition of tenure more difficult. He wants principals and administrators to use such items as test results in making recommendations about tenure for specific staff members. Those of us who have been in education for many years know very well that examinations and student performance often are determined and affected by factors and variables well beyond the control of individual teachers. The granting of tenure based upon such criteria is the result of incorrect thinking that would have people accept that teaching and learning can never be mutually exclusive.
Those who would wave tenure as a carrot in front of teachers, to be obtained on the basis of test scores or other such measures, would achieve the result of politicizing and demeaning the true nature of tenure. Recent successful attempts to eliminate tenure by estoppel have had the effect of intimidating all teachers on the brink of receiving tenure, even though they may have nothing in their records of probation that would justify denial. An administrator who did not do his job well for two years and 10 months can now deny tenure on a whim. How does this improve the education system?
Most importantly, Mayor Bloomberg and his supporters have not addressed the true importance of tenure. It is not a sanctuary for incompetent teachers. Tenure is a sanctuary for academic freedom and creativity. Democracies built on human rights and liberty cannot exist without academic freedom. Academic freedom cannot exist without tenure.
For proof of this, one need not look any further than Socrates and ancient Athens. Socrates taught his students to think and seek the truth, and to question the statements of others, particularly the government. Although Athens was the birthplace of democracy, its precarious existence prevented the development of a policy predicated on equality for all and the protection of free speech and liberty. Hence it did not have tenure, and Socrates went the way of creative and freethinking teachers similarly situated.
Those who could not bear the prospect of teachers’ encouraging their students to question and create did not provide a defense for such teachers. They did not provide tenure, and academic freedom came much later for Western civilization.
People who would like to eliminate or restrict the granting of tenure must have their motives closely examined. There have been districts that developed reputations for not granting tenure as a device for eliminating staff members for economic reasons. Even if this is not the thought of those who originate attacks on tenure, it can be the modus operandi of those who ultimately lead the opposition to tenure.
In any case, those who would deny or restrict tenure and manipulate its acquisition by teachers go a long way to achieving the goals sought by Fascism of the 1930s.
Joseph B. Margolin
Valley Stream, N.Y.
A version of this article appeared in the February 28, 2007 edition of Education Week as Battle Against Tenure Is Ill-Informed, Perpetual