Education Opinion

The Other Side of Teacher Tenure

By Walt Gardner — August 20, 2014 2 min read
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It’s extremely rare when the opinion pages of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal agree on anything. But that was the case on Aug. 19 when the subject was teacher tenure (“The Trouble With Tenure,” and “The Public Turns Against Teacher Tenure”). Both columnists based their case against tenure on the alleged ironclad protection it grants ineffective teachers.

If tenure is indeed the villain, then why do students in states with strong unions (and strong tenure laws) consistently outperform students in states with weak unions (and weak or no tenure laws)? Massachusetts and Minnesota fall into the former category, while Mississippi and Louisiana fall into the latter. Obviously, something beside tenure accounts for the dramatic differences. Yet neither columnist addresses this fact.

Nor does either columnist talk about the downside of eliminating or weakening tenure. I’ve written often before about the situation several years ago at Brooklyn Tech, one of New York City’s three elite high schools. The principal so poisoned the atmosphere by bullying even teachers with exemplary records that many requested transfers rather than continue to be harassed. Their crime was speaking out against policies at the school that they deemed were detrimental to learning.

Without tenure, these same outstanding teachers could have been terminated, depriving their students of inspired instruction. Once again, this side of the tenure story is ignored or given short shrift. Instead, the two columnists focus on the small percentage of ineffective teachers who hold on to their jobs. In Vergara v. State of California, the judge found that between one to three percent of teachers in the state were grossly ineffective.

What about these teachers? They deserve a chance to improve within a short time frame. If they cannot, they should be fired. School districts can and do fire incompetent teachers. I agree that the process takes far too long, but that can be remedied by changing the law - not abolishing tenure. In other words, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

If tenure is eliminated, fewer of the best college graduates will choose a career in teaching. Those that do so in the belief that their track record in the classroom will protect them from retribution will quit when it becomes apparent they were naive. I’ve seen how retaliation by principals works. It can be quite subtle, such as giving teachers the worst schedules, or it can be quite blatant, such as giving teachers unsatisfactory ratings on trumped- up charges. In both cases, however, students ultimately pay the price because their teachers’ morale suffers.

I do not believe that students will get a better education if tenure is abolished. At first, grossly ineffective teachers will be terminated. That’s as it should be. But after the purge, no teacher will be protected from capricious dismissal. That’s not far fetched. In the distant past, “principals hired and fired teachers based on personal connections, whims, and politics” (“The Myth of Teacher Tenure,” Teachers College Record, Jul. 23). What’s to prevent the same thing from happening again?

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check 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.