Columns / Discourse / February 23, 2011

Voice of Reason: Talking about tenure

Last week I mentioned briefly something that I’m sure practically said itself: America’s public schools have serious problems. Then I moved on to my main focus and largely let that point drop, partially because to propose a solution to the problem in a single column with rather tight space limitations is impossible and it would waste your time to read any attempt to do so. With that in mind, I would like to focus on a small piece of the vast puzzle that is the task of fixing the school system.

What purpose does tenure serve in the modern public school? At the college level it makes sense. Some professors are going to hold unpopular views or do controversial research and it doesn’t benefit the academic environment to have them fired or frightened into compliance. Though it may cause some decline in productivity and a focus on publishing at the expense of teaching, it doesn’t seem like those problems are significant enough to really make college tenure a problem.

But below higher education, the explanation clearly falls short. I’ve yet to hear of the high school math teacher with radical new theories on the teaching of geometry that gets her into trouble with society or the junior high music teacher who plays by his own rules in teaching the recorder. Quite simply, no more than a minority of public school teachers are even in the position where they even should be discussing controversial topics in class and even fewer work under administrations that wouldn’t support them. Tenure seems, with only that reasoning, unnecessary.

But there have been other reasons floated. Some say it is a reward for seniority. Yet in other professions, people with seniority seem to get by pretty well with informal preferences for those with the most experience. If a teacher has been effectively teaching at a school for a while, it’s hard to see her getting fired first if the budget forces teacher layoffs. Others say it is a compensation for lousy pay. That is also wrong, and vaguely patronizing to teachers. Not only is that, again, not present in other industries, but it also implies that teachers only take the job for material gain.

Sometimes defenders of tenure claim that there are rigorous protections in place to ensure that only the best teachers qualify. In New York’s public schools, about 99 percent of teachers will qualify for lifetime employment and cost of living increases after three years of service. If the New York public schools had such astounding teachers, the rich parents who spend huge sums on private academies in the area must be either the dumbest people in the world to pass up such a spectacular free education or they realize that something doesn’t add up. Or perhaps tenure exists as a protection against changing administrations bringing in their own people. But again, that doesn’t exist in any other profession. If the Board of Directors changes in the private sector and they want to fire a bunch of people, they can and no one will stop them.

Many of the provisions of tenure are redundant anyway. Numerous laws already protect against wrongful dismissals and teachers’ unions still have contracts that prevent arbitrary dismissals. The bottom line is it that it does little to help teachers who already are doing everything they can to excel and does quite a bit to protect mediocre ones who have the privilege of making school miserable and pointless for dozens of children annually. In Michigan, for example, a discharge of a tenured teacher will run the school board somewhere between $250,000 and $500,000. When schools are having enough problems keeping themselves heated and keeping the textbooks updated, it’s no great mystery why lousy teachers aren’t getting fired.

In most industries, incompetent workers are fired and good ones rewarded. But in education, arguably America’s most important, bad workers are rewarded and it is assumed the good ones can’t possibly keep their jobs without archaic protection measures. That’s wrong and it’s long past time for us to stop believing it.

Matt Barry
Matt Barry is a senior majoring in international relations and double minoring in economics and German. This is his third year working for TKS, having served previously as discourse editor. He has worked for such organizations as the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Premier Tourism Marketing and the Council on American Islamic Relations-Chicago, where his work appeared in such publications as Leisure Group Travel, Ski & Ride Club Guide and The Chicago Monitor. Matt has written his political opinion column, "The Voice of Reason," weekly for three years, which finished in first place at the 2012 Illinois College Press Association conference and was also recognized at the 2013 conference.

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