School & District Management Opinion

Thinking Anew About Teacher Tenure

By Paul S. Sutton — December 15, 2009 5 min read
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In most cases, the track for K-12 teacher tenure is too short, and tenure itself is too long. Yet in policy movements such as the federal Race to the Top reforms, as well as in foundation-supported education initiatives, little or no mention has been made of this fundamental obstacle to improving instruction: unlimited teacher tenure.

Tenure, as defined now, is the result of an observation process by which teachers are determined competent and then, after a predetermined amount of time, usually two or three years, are given a continuing contract. After teachers receive tenure from a district, they are organizationally protected.

Historically, tenure has played both a supportive and a confounding role in efforts to improve instruction. Originally created to protect teachers from frivolous dismissal, tenure allows teachers’ union members the freedom to do their jobs without fear of retribution or administrative malfeasance. But district administrators often have decried unions’ propensity to hide behind the evaluation process associated with tenure in an effort to shield bad teachers.

Until we come to grips with the realities of tenure, we cannot legitimately advance the cause of authentic learning. Our reluctance to reform tenure policies will serve to undercut any meaningful efforts to improve teacher effectiveness.

As it now exists, the system for gaining tenure confuses competence with compliance and encourages professional apathy. In a short-term tenure track, such as current two- or three-year systems, new teachers learn the rules of the game quickly. They learn to please their supervisors, which means determining the evaluators’ pet expectations, meeting them, and essentially passing the test.

As it now exists, the system for gaining tenure confuses competence with compliance and encourages professional apathy."

The thought process of a young teacher seeking tenure goes something like this. Does my supervisor like group work? Great, I’ll do group work. Does my supervisor like an objective written on the board? Great, I’ll put an objective on the board. In other words, these teachers do what they wish their students wouldn’t. They focus on protecting their jobs, rather than improving their craft.

Once tenure is attained, the pendulum swings radically to the other side. Protected by a removal process so onerous that few evaluators ever initiate it, many tenured teachers become entrenched in their own methods and are reluctant to change and improve. In either a short-term tenure-track system, where compliance rules, or a long-term tenured status, where intellectual inertia too often rules, some teachers inevitably will ignore risk-taking and innovation to the detriment of their students, schools, and larger communities.

Teachers ought to place their focus on continuous learning, which involves practice, observation, reflection, scholarship, and then more practice. Instead, they focus on employing the tricks of the trade to fool administrators, whom they believe are intent on catching them in the act of ineffective instructional practices.

Some will argue that the opposite is true: that teacher tenure fosters innovation and instructional creativity in the classroom and should not be restricted. This may be true in isolated cases. But unfortunately it is human nature to expend the least energy necessary to accomplish a task, which is regularly seen by teachers as maintaining the status quo. Data showing ever-widening achievement gaps, shameful graduation rates among students of color, and subpar college readiness among most American high school students correlate well with this tendency. If our current system spurred effective instruction by unleashing untethered creativity and innovation, wouldn’t those statistics look markedly different?

Walk into any public school and you will find that the vast majority of teachers are dedicated professionals. Most are members of their local unions, and although they often feel underpaid, they do their best for their students. The predominant culture of tenure puts them in a difficult situation. They know that bad instruction by one teacher makes their jobs harder. They also understand the inherent dangers of reaching out to help struggling colleagues. The culture of tenure promotes instruction as a private enterprise. This closed-door attitude is pervasive and systemic. As a result, teachers turn to quietly compensating for others’ poor instructional practices, which are evident in various ways in the struggles of students most in need.

Supervisors are also in a difficult position. Rather than constructing an evaluation process emphasizing coaching and support, they find themselves forced to make snap judgments. They are generally given two years to assess the instructional quality of new teachers, judge how they might affect the overall climate and culture of the school, and predict whether they will continue to hone their instructional abilities. Improperly informed, these decisions come closer to an educated extrapolation than a data-based, thoughtful choice. Rather than allocating time and energy to grow a true professional over multiple years, many administrators find themselves adhering to the “when in doubt, out” rule, for fear of being saddled with an underperforming teacher for the next 20 years.

In this environment of educational change, unions and districts need to rewrite the rules of tenure. They could start with the following suggestions. Make the track longer. Break benchmarks into five-year periods and attach pay increases to passing the rigorous hurdles of a tenure review. Require that the first five years be probationary, with tenure status up for review every five years after that. Each succeeding five-year period would be characterized by the teacher’s gaining greater instructional skill and leadership ability, and the standard for improvement would increase the further a teacher progressed in a career. Finally, make the standards for a successful review public and transparent, and improve the induction process for both administrators and teachers, so that each will have confidence in the expertise of the other.

Imagine the professional growth that could occur for teachers, and the increased ability administrators would have to judge progress and quality, in a reconfigured, five-year process. Imagine the sense of accomplishment and the respect that would be earned by a teacher who successfully completed a rigorous tenure review, one that included demonstrations not only of instructional ability and success with student learning, but also of academic contributions to the field. Most important, imagine the impact of this process on students, who would be able to learn from proven and dedicated professionals engaged in continuous improvement.

Both teachers’ unions and school districts have much to gain in modernizing tenure practices: professional respect, institutional loyalty, instructional expertise—all put to use in pursuit of student learning and continuous improvement.

A version of this article appeared in the December 16, 2009 edition of Education Week as Thinking Anew About Teacher Tenure


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