Saturday, August 2, 2008

OK, Let's Talk About Tenure

“Why do teachers get a lifetime guarantee of employment?” The simple answer is “they don’t.”

Far from being an irrevocable guarantee of employment regardless of performance, tenure actually gives teachers the same protection any employee in any profession takes for granted. “Tenure” simply means that a teacher who has passed a probationary period – usually three years – cannot be dismissed without cause. That’s a revolutionary idea, isn’t it? By contrast, probationary periods for other jobs are often 30 to 90 days. Any organization that employs someone for three years ought to be able to determine whether he or she is a quality employee. Tenure also requires that a dismissed teacher be given due process – another standard right of any profession.

Tenure is necessary simply because probationary teachers can be dismissed without cause or justification – a precarious situation that doesn’t exist in any other profession. In that time, school boards have unlimited authority. Thus, tenure is designed to prevent proven, competent teachers from being dismissed for reasons unrelated to their job – reasons such as personal beliefs, low grades or disciplining of influential students, personality conflicts with parents or administration, changing administrations, union activity, etc.

Of course, people argue that it’s impossible to get rid of bad teachers; that simply isn’t true. Any school district in the country can dismiss tenured teachers for incompetence, and they should. North High School in Denver replaced roughly a third of its staff several years ago by requiring that all teachers – even tenured ones – reapply for their jobs. The school simply didn’t rehire the teachers it found to be ineffective. This practice is not unheard of in struggling schools, and it debunks the notion of “invincibility.” Yet, this is not to say some schools don’t have trouble. Anyone who has seen John Stossel’s “Stupid in America” can point to the ridiculously convoluted teachers’ contract in New York City. The obvious question, though, is why any school board or administration would have signed such a disaster. Clearly, that system should follow North High School’s lead and start from scratch.

Sadly, I’ve read reports – of dubious validity – that describe schools that claim they can’t dismiss teachers who were drunk in class, teachers who sold drugs, and teachers who were unable to demonstrate basic math and literacy skills. That is ridiculous. Any school board or administration that can’t dismiss teachers in those situations is completely incompetent. When I talk to friends who work in the private sector, they often speak of the ridiculous bureaucracies that protect – and even promote – incompetent workers and administrators. Thus, there is no reason to oppose tenure for qualified teachers after a lengthy probationary period; doing so simply gives those teachers the same rights as anyone else.

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