Education Opinion

Throwback Thursday: Teacher Tenure

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — July 03, 2014 4 min read
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#tbt has come to Leadership360! On Thursdays, we will highlight an issue that was making headlines 20 years or more ago. We’ll examine the status of that issue today and wonder with our readers about what has changed and what has not. We welcome feedback and ideas.

Teacher Tenure
Although the terms of tenure have morphed a bit over the years, the rhetoric about it has not. Tenure laws differ from state to state, but as we have seen with the recent judicial decision on Vergara v California, everyone is paying attention. As California goes, will the rest go? Or has the process already begun, legislatively, elsewhere? Governors in New Jersey, Michigan, Kansas and other places have already begun to revamp the laws.

Is tenure a problem that is preventing schools from becoming as great as their best teachers? Or is tenure a battering ram? Have we, as leaders, attended with integrity to the granting of tenure? And have leaders taken action against those with tenure who are not providing students the education they deserve? Is it the conflict or the cost or the process that deters us? Are there facts or its it the rhetoric that captures the problem?

An Article Published in Education Week in 1982 Reported:

A long-range planning committee of the Tennessee Board of Education has recommended that the state consider adopting a sweeping “accountability system” that would abolish its teacher-tenure law, establish a statewide merit-pay program for all professional-school employees, and provide “incentive” grants to school districts that improve the quality of their academic programs.

John E. Seward Jr., the chairman of the planning committee said the state’s tenure law “gets in the way of evaluation of teachers. It provides teachers with what amounts to a guaranteed job.” He continued, “We are not starting a crusade against teachers, but we need to rid the [state] system of incompetent teachers.” Fast forward...

Chalkbeat Tennessee Reported in June 2014

In 2011, Tennessee legislators changed the state’s tenure law extending the probationary period from three to five years. In order to receive tenure, a teacher in the last two years of the probationary period must receive evaluation scores in the highest two categories. A teacher can also lose tenure status if he or she receives an evaluation score in the lowest two categories for two consecutive years.

Make a Difference
The tone, the purpose, and the emotion have endured through decades. Who can disagree that we need to be able to “get rid of” incompetent teachers? But, really, is it bad teachers that are holding us back from being the successful schools that are envisioned for our country? Are there that many incompetent teachers in control of the success of our schools? As in other professions, surely there are weak teachers and weak leaders. We would be foolish to deny that there are. But what have we learned in those intervening 32 years that could change the dialogue?

In his landmark book, On Becoming a Leader, Warren Bennis begins on the very first pages talking the need for leadership and why leaders are so important. He and many others have studied and written about leadership. But, let us learn from this #tbt that there are leadership steps that can be taken to poke back at this rhetoric and make a difference in our schools.

Race to the Top, and the funds that follow it, have made teacher accountability a hot topic. The supervision of teachers for the purpose of improving instruction and increasing students’ test results has replaced any residual evaluation process that was pro forma and irrelevant. Today, the stakes are high and the process laborious. Some places, it is also worthwhile and growthful for leaders and for teachers. It has required leaders and teachers to learn a new process of incorporating performance data. It forced change.

Yet there is still a public focus on what to do with those teachers who are not making the mark. Is it true that we have not embraced the new processes and therefore no one is making noise about them? It is almost July 4. Couldn’t we celebrate how much more serious the evaluation process has become and how many highly qualified teachers enter classrooms and engage students every day? Don’t we talk about the many because we are afraid of exposing the few? Why aren’t we hosting forums to discuss the reasons for tenure and the alternative systems that might offer protection, stability and excellence? Tenure is resented because it has meant lifetime employment regardless of quality. None of us want that definition to endure another 30 years. But, changing the conversation is something we can do, percolating the story up from local leaders to state houses and legislative bodies.

Can we say we have made that a priority and placed a great deal of time and energy in that direction? No matter the pressures, perceived or real, in order to move the conversation away from tenure and toward offering students the best education possible, investment in developing all teachers is paramount. Leaders must grant tenure with integrity and follow through when someone begins failing to meet the public trust. Whether there are new laws or tenure processes, or renewable multiyear contracts with required professional growth over a career, or if, unfortunately, teachers become employees at will, there are highly successful, innovative, energetic teachers who need our best thinking and our voice to enter this fray. Let’s invest now and not be reading the same rhetoric about tenure in 2046. Really, can’t our mutual interest in children get this issue off the table?

Bennis, Warren G. (2009). On Becoming a Leader. New York: Basic Books

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