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Teaching Profession Opinion

Unexpected Benefits: A Defense of Teacher Tenure

By Boris Korsunsky — October 05, 2011 4 min read
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There has been a lot of talk in the media lately about improving the quality of public school teachers. Much of that talk has focused on somehow enhancing the compensation of effective teachers while doing away with tenure. Let’s face it, though: considering the current fiscal situation, meaningful salary increases for teachers are bound to remain mere rhetorical tools for years to come. So, what’s left seems to be an effort to improve quality of the teaching workforce by taking away one of its central benefits: tenure.

I believe that, in order to attract and retain better teachers, the tenure system should be expanded, not taken away. States should be considering strengthening tenure systems as a cost-effective way of making the profession more attractive. Stronger tenure provisions would attract a better pool of teacher candidates while improving the morale of the current teachers.

I know that my suggestion may go against the conventional wisdom, which seems to be: “Let’s get rid of tenure! Tenured teachers have no incentive to work hard because they can’t be fired!” As an award-winning teacher with a long history of success in the classroom and a great passion for my job, I assure you that this is not the case. It is important for the public to understand that tenure is not a lifetime job guarantee. Rather, it protects the teachers from being fired at the mere whim of an administrator. The unions, contrary to a popular myth, do not go out of their way to help truly incompetent teachers keep their jobs; they simply make sure that the teachers’ rights to due process are protected and respected.

That due process, mandated by tenure systems, is important because it is notoriously difficult to assess the quality of a teacher in any objective manner (some policymakers’ faith in student test scores notwithstanding). In reality, any teacher is only as good as his boss thinks he is. Without tenure, the teachers who would be fired first may not be the least competent ones. Rather, the principals may target the most experienced (that is, most expensive) teachers and, of course, the “troublemakers.” The latter often includes the most creative—and hence, potentially controversial—employees. Do you want your children’s teachers to be silent in faculty meetings for fear of displeasing the principal? Do you want your child’s biology and history teachers to be fired each time a different political party wins a local election, or when a principal has a nephew or a girlfriend who needs a job? I have heard plenty of such stories from my colleagues working in the “non-tenure” states.

Most people seem to agree that our teachers are overworked and underpaid—which is part of the reason schools often have a hard time recruiting talented individuals into teaching. Somehow, with all the legendary perks of the job (short days, long vacations, free apples), teaching is still not seen by many as a desirable career. The stress, the loneliness, the lack of respect, the evening and weekend grading, the low and stagnant salaries with no promotion opportunities—all these factors make teaching a hard sell to bright and creative young people. A strong tenure system, however, could outweigh these drawbacks by giving teachers the job security and the intellectual freedom that they need no less than college professors do.

The main beneficiaries of the tenure system, in the end, are the students and their parents, not the teachers. Without tenure systems, the nation’s public school teachers would be either much less competent or much more expensive—or both. The evidence of the positive effects of tenure can be found, for instance, in the generally higher levels of student achievement in the “tenure” states as well as in the presence of tenure-type systems in some of the best American private schools, such as Phillips Exeter Academy. As a teacher, I am grateful for the tenure system. As a parent, I am glad my children’s teachers have it. As a taxpayer, I know that many of the nation’s best teachers would have left the profession for the private sector if their paltry public-school salaries were not augmented by relative job security.

I would agree that the process of granting tenure could be made more rigorous than it currently is in some districts. But in the end, all qualified teachers should be given tenure for the same reasons that our Supreme Court justices have it. Without tenure, no president would be able to find decent candidates for a stressful job with no promotion opportunities, no objective quality indicators, plenty of public backlash, and a comparatively low salary. And, as we all know, America needs a lot more than nine good teachers every year, doesn’t it? How do we lure tens of thousands of bright and passionate young people into the classroom every year? Free apples just won’t cut it, I am afraid—but some job security should help.

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