Education Opinion

Teacher Tenure and Excellence #TBT

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — January 22, 2015 5 min read
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Seventeen years ago, Professor Richard Elmore of Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education was quoted in an Education Week article:

The current interest in principals’ tenure arises because most serious state reforms end up focusing on the school as the unit of accountability ...I see it becoming more visible.

The article goes on to say:

Reflecting the long-standing debate surrounding teacher tenure, critics of similar job protection for principals say that it can act as a shield for mediocrity and even incompetence. This is seen as especially damaging at a time when principals are increasingly expected to propel their staffs to higher performance.

Accountability is the crux of the tenure argument. The growing demands on schools and those who work within them require the capacity to learn and change. Every generative 21st century environment holds the capacity for responsiveness to changing demographics, rocket speed generation changes in technology and communication vehicles, evolving social values and new laws reflecting them, and innovations in science and the arts. Hence, there is a need for teachers to be able to learn and develop new practices quickly. Principals are charged with coordinating these changes in schools. observing and coaching their staff, and never forgetting the students. Relationships and trust are the key factors here.

Teachers are focused on the students in their classrooms. Getting new information to teachers, providing opportunities for learning these new facets of their jobs, knowing how to observe and offer feedback, encourage and nudge are all the responsibility of the principal and his or her leader colleagues.

Tenure is given within an accountability system. Whether to a teacher or principal, tenure is given after a number of years in which observations and evaluations were done, conversations took place and feedback was exchanged, growth occurred and standards were met or exceeded.

There are some who believe tenured professionals change their behavior, sit back and slide into complacence and mediocrity. Without crystal balls, it is hard to predict who those might be. But, the judgment of the leader sets the direction of the tenure process . After tenure is granted, there is a career to be spent together. Principals, central office leaders and superintendents will continue to observe, evaluate, have conversations, coach, and monitor progress. The conversations can be hard ones and the push back sometimes very uncomfortable but leaders set the bar. Those with the opportunity to develop relationships and trust build the team and can fuel the motor of the continuous change our students deserve.

A 2008 Time Magazine article on tenure recounted:

The start of the tenure movement paralleled similar labor struggles during the late 19th century. Just as steel and autoworkers fought against unsafe working conditions and unlivable wages, teachers too demanded protection from parents and administrators who would try to dictate lesson plans or exclude controversial materials like Huck Finn from reading lists. In 1887, nearly 10,000 teachers from across the country met in Chicago for the first-ever conference of the National Educator’s Association, now one of the country’s most powerful teachers’ unions. The topic of “teacher’s tenure” led the agenda. By the turn of the century, tenure had become a hot-button issue that some politicians preferred to avoid. In 1900, the Democratic Party of New York blasted their rivals in the Times for taking up the issue, writing, ‘We deprecate the tendency manifested by the Republican party of dragging the public school system of the State into politics.’

Where do we stand now? Can we deny that there are those who have bestowed tenure on those who didn’t deserve it? Can we deny that there are those who could do a better job of developing their teachers and principals? These debates bring with them confusion, resentment, and resistance. We have also seen top notch professionals commit daily to getting better and to caring even more. Most of us want a surgeon, if we need one, to have performed an operation multiple times before we come under the laser or the scalpel. What parents wouldn’t want the most experienced and creative teacher for their child? What parents, teachers, superintendents and boards wouldn’t want school leaders who never back away from the beliefs and actions that every child is full of potential to be discovered and encouraged? What teacher wants to work for one who lets us fail?

Each change impacts students and their parents. There is advantage to having teachers remain in a school or district. They become known and trusted. Well led, they grow together. The same is true for principals. Teachers’ and principals’ work in schools goes beyond the classroom and the front office. Teachers lead extra curricular activities. Teachers and principals go to sporting events, presentations, concerts, and meetings well into the evening hours. Some arrive early and some stay late. Their presence in the building invites students and their parents to informal access for conversations that would not otherwise happen.

So is the publically perceived failure of schools related to tenure? Without tenure there would likely be more turnover among teachers and principals but will that improve the capacity of schools to offer innovative and creative teaching and learning? Is school performance the result of job security and a failure of leadership? We say maybe but no one can say surely the system will improve without them. We do not believe job insecurity improves performance. We do assert that no one trained even five years ago to teach or lead doesn’t have something to new to learn today.

Schools must be places of learning for all. No one would want to see a doctor who has not read a journal, gone to a professional development session or course, updated her techniques, or worked in an outdated hospital for that matter. In fact, they are required to stay current; so, too, are educators. Tenure is not the problem; it is that we let tenure minimize accountability. Laws and costs discourage us from moving against those who aren’t still the best. That needs to change. As children grow in our care, the responsibility for the quality of their experience depends on the quality of the learning environment, its design, and the people working in it. Excellence is a leadership issue, not a tenure issue.

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.