Recruitment & Retention Opinion

How to Redefine Teacher Tenure

By Gary M. Chesley — April 26, 2011 6 min read

We are witnessing a national search for a scapegoat. The conversation shifted from Wall Street and the banks, to mortgage brokers and politicians, and now to public-service unions and teacher tenure. The media must explain a struggling economy, budget deficits, political dysfunction, and a failure to compete globally. Through all this noise, teachers and the tenure laws present a fertile target for bombast and demagoguery.

The word tenure is derived from the Latin tenere, meaning “to hold” or “to keep.” Tenure, designed to protect the teacher from political reprisals or arbitrary dismissal, started in 1866, when Massachusetts communities enacted such teacher-protection laws. In 1909, New Jersey became the first state to adopt a tenure statute. The purpose of teacher tenure was to provide the same protection deemed essential to judges and university professors. These professionals were to be unencumbered by undue influences when making decisions about the law or instruction. Teachers of the day needed protection from boards of education and administrators who summarily replaced them to reward cronies or as punishment for curricular, instructional, or disciplinary decisions drawing ire.

There have surely been periods of societal upheaval that justified tenure protection. In 1937, in Philadelphia, and in 1953, in Los Angeles, tenure shielded teachers accused of being Communists. In 1956, Louisiana teachers who supported racially integrated schools needed tenure to protect their jobs from segregationist politicians. The concept of tenure was even distorted at times to push a particular social agenda by the local board of education. In 1971, a female New Jersey teacher underwent a sex change. As a consequence, the employing school board revoked her tenure, claiming the teacher had earned it as a female and not as a male.

Now is an ideal time for educators to redefine the concept of tenure. We have an opportunity to make tenure describe achievement."

Today, citizens incorrectly define tenure by reducing it to the notion of protection for incompetent teachers. Further public confusion about tenure stems from politicians, interest groups, and journalists defining the concept to suit a current political agenda. At the same time, educators have not created a viable tenure system that serves the needs of the profession. Statutes generally speak of tenure in terms of time served without defining the breadth or quality of that experience. In the absence of statutory language, it is clear that individual schools and districts can set de facto performance standards for the achievement of tenure. Most school systems fail to exercise this right judiciously. Schools take the path of least resistance by allowing the mere passage of time to automatically affirm a teacher’s abilities. Teachers receive tenure by default in the absence of a finding of gross incompetence.

Now is an ideal time for educators to redefine the concept of tenure. Principals can establish a culture in which granting tenure is not the mindless, default position. We can make tenure a rite of passage, the culmination of a planned series of events and assessments measuring competence in subject matter, instruction, assessment, planning, and class management. We have an opportunity to make tenure describe achievement.

Schools can reform the tenure system by prescribing essential skills and dispositions that beginning teachers must master. We should recognize that becoming a master teacher is a developmental process. Mastery takes practice, repetition, successes, and failures. Administrators should establish performance milestones to be reached and documented over a probationary period. Districts can develop “tenure panels” consisting of administrators and teachers charged with affirming a candidate’s qualifications to receive tenure. The concept of a “tenure panel” recognizes that teaching is a collegial and collaborative profession. Experienced teachers should share responsibility for developing the talents of those entering the field.

Several elements should be part of the process:

• To earn tenure, a probationary teacher should plan and execute three units of instruction during each of the first three years of employment. These units should be subject to a self-critique by the teacher and to adjudication by a tenure panel. Planning is a foundation skill that every teacher must demonstrate daily. This adjudication exercise can affirm a teacher’s mastery of content knowledge, understanding of skill development, and organization.

• To earn tenure, a probationary teacher should write three unit assessments in each of the first three years of employment that demonstrate a variety of testing protocols. Teachers must be able to react to the results of their instruction. The assessments should also be subjected to a self-critique by the teacher and adjudicated by a tenure panel. This assessment exercise can affirm a teacher’s mastery of assessment strategies, differentiation practices, and the success of interventions for struggling students.

• To earn tenure, a probationary teacher should develop and execute a student-management plan annually. Teachers must consistently execute procedures and rules enforcement that promote learning. Student behavior should also be subject to a personal critique, classes should be routinely evaluated by the administration, and the management plan should be adjudicated annually by a tenure panel.

• To earn tenure, a probationary teacher should receive no fewer than three classroom evaluations per semester. The administration and the tenure panel can develop an observation schedule that allows observations by colleagues who are master teachers. A plan of development should be in place for each nontenured teacher. We need evidence that the teacher can assemble the components of planning, student management, and instructional delivery at a high level.

• To earn tenure, a probationary teacher must achieve student academic growth in specific skills that are targeted and tracked. Teachers should be able to identify the academic level at which students enter classes for reading, writing, and computing. While teachers cannot account for the social, economic, and psychological conditions of their students, their instruction should be able to produce academic growth.

• To earn tenure, a probationary teacher should document contributions to the profession and to the employing school. Also, every beginning teacher should be asked to track his or her participation in activities designed to improve teaching skills, including what he or she learned in those professional sessions, and how it was applied in the classroom.

Successful completion of these professional requirements would mean that the tenure panel could validate the teacher’s achievements and can recommend tenure to the employing board of education. Tenure would not indicate merely the passage of time—this passage should be noted by a ceremony and a formal document noting mastery of the essential elements of teaching.

These steps can take place without any effort by lawmakers. These protocols are within the purview of all local boards of education and do not require collective-bargaining fights. In taking these steps, educators can define to teachers and to taxpayers the expectations of the profession.

Simplification of this procedure should be negotiated as part of a system of five-year renewable tenure. Smart unions know they need to help make evaluation of their members become a truly valid exercise. Principals need the courage to “say what they mean and mean what they say.” Evaluations must differentiate among teachers. The criticism of “last in, first out” policies can be addressed by a clearly defined tenure system, specific criteria to maintain this status, and a system that places responsibility on administrators to write defensible evaluations.

We can assure parents that teachers earning tenure are truly capable of excellence. We can provide better guidance and coaching to beginning teachers by utilizing the strengths of our experienced educators on tenure panels. We can significantly raise standards for classroom performance, and we can define the concept of tenure in the terms that the profession deserves. If entry into the profession is clearly defined and stringent, disparagement of tenure will dissipate. The time has come to give real meaning to tenure.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 27, 2011 edition of Education Week as Now Is the Time to Redefine Teacher Tenure


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