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K-12 Teacher Tenure: Understanding the Debate

By The Editorial Team

Tenure is one of the more enduring controversies of the teaching profession. More than 2.3 million teachers in the United States have tenure, which protects them from being dismissed without due cause. Essentially, tenure makes it difficult to fire a teacher without proof of gross misbehavior or incompetence.

Understanding the history and key issues involved with tenure are the key to understanding why it remains so contentious.

How tenure came about

In the late 1800s, teachers could be fired from their jobs for almost any reason, including pregnancy, race, political affiliation or supposed extracurricular activities (such as nightlife). By 1885, the National Education Association called for the protection of  teachers from unjustified firings. Massachusetts became the first state to establish teacher tenure the following year. By 1909, New Jersey had a tenure law protecting all K-12 teachers. The first unions for teachers were formed during the Great Depression, and about 20 years after that, 80 percent of all teachers in the U.S. had tenure.

A dicey issue

While labor unions fight to maintain good benefits and salaries for teachers, education reformers call for increased evaluations of teachers to maintain a high-performing teacher pool. An increased push recently by districts and reformers to include students’ standardized test scores as a part of teacher evaluations has made the debate about tenure more complex.

Some believe standardized test scores offer clues to a teacher’s performance, while teachers often say tests do not account for factors such as poverty, class size or a perceived need to “teach to the test” (by which teachers focus more on helping students score well on tests).

Pros and cons

Looking at tenure pros and cons, those who favor tenure tend to say:

  • Tenure protects teachers from political, personal or non-work related firing, including false accusations
  • Schools cannot fire older teachers to hire younger teachers for lower salaries
  • Teachers can teach controversial subject matter like evolution without fear of reprisals
  • Teachers can disagree with the district on the students’ behalf
  • Careful selection for tenured positions puts better teachers in classrooms

Critics of tenure tend to fear that what is perceived as a guaranteed job for life will lead to poor performance and ineffectual instruction.  Tenure critics also say:

  • Poorly performing teachers are difficult to fire.
  • Tenure makes seniority more important than quality.
  • Collective bargaining rights and existing laws already protect teachers.
  • Nearly every teacher gets tenure, sometimes in as little as two years
  • Districts that do not have tenure programs have excellent teachers and many applicants for teaching jobs

Recent challenges

A sticking point in the debate about tenure involves how long it can take for a teacher to become tenured. In California, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called a special election in 2005 on this very issue. Proposition 74 would have required five years for tenure, instead of  two. Teachers’ groups opposed the measure, which lost with 45 percent of the vote. A similar case in Georgia may have cost the governor his re-election bid.

More than a dozen states have modified their tenure laws in the past few years. While teachers strive to ensure that their students have textbooks and adequate classroom conditions, districts and reformers are pushing for greater teacher accountability for students’ academic performance.

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