Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Exactly How Does Tenure Hurt?

I've heard numerous intelligent and knowledgeable people argue for the abolition of tenure over the past few years.  It's a pretty easy case to make: clearly, more than a few tenured teachers across the country do a disservice to our schools, and getting them shape up or ship out isn't always that easy.

But I have yet to hear anyone explain precisely how tenure, in an of itself, is hurting our schools.

I've heard people argue that many systems award tenure too quickly (NYC, for example, does it in three years).  I've heard people argue that too many bad teachers earn tenure  I've heard people argue that in some places tenure makes it too difficult to fire teachers.  But these aren't arguments against the concept of tenure; they're arguments against the specific ways in which certain places have implemented tenure.

The fact that "bad teachers" earn tenure doesn't mean that tenure is bad, it means that principals aren't doing their jobs.  If principals fail to fully evaluate teachers before awarding them tenure, how can we hold teachers responsible?  And if principals know that the teachers to whom they're awarding tenure have shortcomings but make a calculated decision that they likely can't hire anybody better, I again fail to see how tenure, in and of itself, is at fault.

In an ideal school, I'd imagine a scenario something like this: new teachers are given copious amounts of support for their first couple years and given maybe five years or so to prove that they're capable teachers -- during which time they're under fairly intense scrutiny.  Once a teacher has proven that they're competent, administrators can turn their attention to helping/evaluating newer teachers and have some peace of mind regarding the veteran teachers b/c they've proven that they know what they're doing.  In such a scenario, the only way tenure could do harm is if teachers subsequently became worse because they'd earned tenure.  And I'm not sure I've heard anybody make that argument.  Nor have I seen any evidence that it's true.

So can somebody please explain to me exactly how tenure, in and of itself, destroys our schools?  Because until I hear that elucidated I can't think of any reason why we should strive to eliminate, rather than modify, current tenure systems.

28 comments:

JSS said...

One thing I wonder about your ideal scenario is that if tenure is supposed to ensure due process (as opposed to ensure no one ever gets fired), five years seems a long time to wait for that assurance. Perhaps tenure needs to be a two-step process: assurance of due process (i.e., can't be fired "at will") after something shorter like 2 years and then maybe a bumped-up level of security after 5 years. What do you think, Corey?

Attorney DC said...

JSS: Good point. Especially since teachers often don't work forever at the same school, requiring 5 years for due process protections is a long time to wait.

M said...

I think tenure in schools other than universities is harmful and unnecessary. The issue isn't whether individual teachers underperform after receiving tenure; it has to do with the unbelievable policy of making it hard to fire teachers. Why do primary and secondary school teachers need tenure? If there are any civil servants that we should be aremove quickly from their positions, those who are teaching our children should be it. Giving impunity to people who are supposed to be teaching our next generation is the opposite of good sense.

I understand tenure for university professors, as many of them are constantly publishing and serving on government committees, etc. and could be subject to unfair treatment based on political disagreements. It should be noted, however, that tenured professors are experts and pioneers in their fields, with PhDs. Such is not the case with primary and secondary school teachers. They are not such high-skilled brain-treasures that they merit the kind of job security that NO ONE ELSE in America (except the military) receives.

Maybe this was angry for my first post here, and I do apologize if I seem caustic. To give some background, I make these statements as a senior in college about to get my teaching license in social studies. I'm looking forward to doing the job, but I dread dealing with the deluded self-importance of today's teachers.

Corey Bunje Bower said...

M, why would we wait to fire bad teachers? Why wouldn't we just get rid of them before they earn tenure?

M said...

Not all deficiencies show themselves immediately. There are plenty of things a teacher can do after five years that merits firing, but tensure closes the door on that ability (or makes it so difficult it's generally avoided). Cases of incompetency probably do show themselves early on, but there are many things that could warrant termination after five years.

M said...

Additionally,teachers *should* be under constant evaluation. Undeserved permanant job security breeds laziness and complacency, and that's what we see constantly in the schools (helped along by teachers unions).

Corey Bunje Bower said...

Tenure neither removes the right of a principal to fire a teacher nor exempts the teacher from further evaluation. A tenured teacher is harder to fire and observed less frequently. I fail to see a problem with this. In any business or organization, I'd expect that those with a long history of success would be given more leeway and less supervision. This seems sensible, efficient, and fair.

Attorney DC said...

M: Tenure is, in essence, "just cause" protection. That is, teachers with tenure may only be fired for cause; they cannot be fired simply on a principal's whim with no evidence of incompetence. I think that once you've had the experience of working for an irrational or incompetent principal, you'll be glad that teachers have some protection. To respond to your previous point, teachers are NOT the only workers with this protection: Most civil servants (e.g., goverment workers) have "just cause" protection. Public school teachers in states without unions have it just the same as teachers in states with unions, to my knowledge.

M said...

I do see where you're coming from, but I think that defining "a long history of success" as "having worked here for five years" is the problem. You are correct that it's wasting resources to evaluate teachers who constantly perform at or above standards, and education resources shouldn't be squandered. But my problem is that seniority is the definition of success.
I should clarify that I'm attacking tenure pretty voraciously when a confluence of factors play into the problem of underperforming teachers. Tenure alone is not to blame.
Tenure, as I stated before, is something found in almost no job fields except teaching, and the only time it makes sense is when the teacher is subject to political coersion that could impune the integrity of their research, and I fail to see what it is about primary and secondary school teachers that warrants giving them that level of job security.
But taking that aside, as that boils down to an opinion difference, tenure for secondary school teachers should be earned and periodically reviewed.

M said...

Attorney DC: True, and look at the level of service we've come to expect from civil servants.

Corey Bunje Bower said...

M, this is exactly my point. Seniority is not the "definition of success" because of tenure.

Tenure is designed to be awarded to teachers who have a proven track record of success. If a principal awards a teacher tenure solely b/c the teacher has taught in a school for x number of years, that's the fault of the principal -- not of tenure.

din819go said...

Hmmm...in any business organizations ineffective workers are fired routinely. They are evaluated at least three times a year. They have goals to achieve both objective and subjective. Weaker associates are coached and trained. Companies constantly top grade. Seniority is not a right to a job if one is not performing...

Same should be with education. Tenure was designed, I thought, to protect teachers from lawsuits. Now it is job protection. Teachers are not good always once they reach the five year mark. Giving one job security is a sure fire way of getting ineffective workers willing to only do the minimum required of their contract. I have seen it too often in education...to the detriment of the children!

Ineffective teachers (you know who they are, parents and students know who they are) need to be gone and gone quickly. If they are allowed to stay they only hurt the kids.

Geez...seniority should not make ANY difference in education. Look at real businesses to see what they do then come back and answer your own question. Education is not run as a business but it SHOULD be!

Attorney DC said...

Din814go said: "Education is not run as a business but it SHOULD be!"

I respectfully disagree. Education is not a business can therefore cannot be run like a business. There is no "profit" -- So how do you define success? If success of a school is measured by high test scores in English and Math only, then schools should be given great leeway in expelling students who disrupt the education of the other students -- But they can't, because laws protect student rights. If success is measured only by Math and English scores, then schools should eliminate all other courses and their teachers, and force students to take only Math and English all day. But the public understands that schools are not all about scores, and parents want their children to learn history, art, science, foreign language and other subjects.

Anonymous said...

You need to be asking why we need K-12 tenure in the first place. We as a society, that is. I see why the less able teachers would love tenure -- once they slip in, they're golden. But I don't see why anyone else should think it's a good idea.

Should doctors have tenure at hospitals? Absolutely not. If a surgeon starts doing shoddy work in his 20th year, for whatever reason, it's good that there's no tenure system to protect him. Of course, we think doctors area actually doing something important that affects people's lives.

Anonymous said...

You need to be asking why we need K-12 tenure in the first place. We as a society, that is. I see why the less able teachers would love tenure -- once they slip in, they're golden. But I don't see why anyone else should think it's a good idea.

Should doctors have tenure at hospitals? Absolutely not. If a surgeon starts doing shoddy work in his 20th year, for whatever reason, it's good that there's no tenure system to protect him. Of course, we think doctors area actually doing something important that affects people's lives. When people are doing something important, you don't give them a license to screw up and still have job protection.

M said...

@ Corey: If tenure is really awarded on those grounds and based on continued excellence, then I would have to recant my statement that it's harmful. I would point out that I don't think tenure is something that should be done so much to reward the teachers as to ensure that the resources available for observation and correction (if necessary) are allocated to where they're most needed.

@Din814go: I think calling education a "business" would degrade it. As AttorneyDC pointed out: the "profits" are not dollars and cents, and the general agreement is that what we define as "success" is producing students who have a firm grasp on the material their state deems necessary.
Generally, education is not successful by that measure--and there are a number of reasons for that, and I don't think teachers have the lions share of the blame by any stretch, but that's a different discusson--but we cannot run it like a business.
Now, what we can do and what IS done frequently is allow healthy competition, usually via private schools. That's really the only thing about the school system that should resemble the business world.

M said...

Also, Corey: getting back to the original question you asked, which is "what about tenure in and of itself is harmful?" I'd like to pose the opposite question, which is: What benefit does it bring to the school systems--the students, not the comfort of the employees of the system?

Attorney DC said...

M: To repeat my earlier comment, tenure in the world of public education is simply the requirement of "just cause" prior to termination. New teachers do not have this protection, and can be fired for any reason whatsoever (excluding certain discriminatory reasons such as race). Experienced teachers may be fired, but only if the principal systemtically documents their ineffectiveness and follows the proper procedures.

This means that it's harder to fire teachers who may deserve to be fired, but it protects many teachers who would otherwise be fired based on the personal whims of the principal or (to go back to the business analogy) because newer teachers cost less: If the schools could fire all teachers once they hit 10 years in the system, the schools would save money, but it would discourage talented people from entering the teaching profession. Look at tenure as a perk: In exchange for challenging work and relatively low salaries, teachers at least can rest assured that they won't be fired mid-career by a capricious administrator.

M said...

@ AttorneyDC: Understood, but my question still centers on why that's necessary in teaching when it's not anywhere else. The principle of cheaper, less experienced labor being a threat to veterans in any field holds true.
Now I can see where the difference lies, in that students could come out the losers in a scenario where a principal is constantly bringing in first or second year teachers while solid, successful ones are being put out to keep costs down, certainly. However, I think that the "cost" to society of keeping on crap teachers (as you point out can happen as a result of the difficult firing process associated with tenure) to save a few good teachers exceeds what we should be willing to pay as a community.
Further to that, principals' success is determined by a number of factors; the largest factor is how well the students at their school score on the standardized tests. Does it seem to you that many principals will fire good teachers to bring in new teachers when this will probably have an adverse effect on their school's 'report card'? That in itself is a kind of protection afforded the good teachers who raise students' scores.
Do we really need it in cases where a) most teachers belong to a union and have a certain level of protection through that system and b) it generally serves the best interest of principals to keep good teachers on? To me, it seems as though all it really achieves is making it so hard to fire bad teachers that they are left in the system for however many years of poor performance it takes to justify getting rid of them. How many students do these teachers need to fail miserably for a principal to be able to kick them out and let them fail somewhere else?
So, this was kind of wordy, but to sum up: good teachers have a de facto protection in the way principals are evaluated, and the motivation for wholesale firings at the tenth year (as the example used) doesn't really exist.
There would be a few cases in which a good teacher would be fired by a capricious administrator, certainly. However, keeping that one teacher's job at the cost of keeping jobs for 10 incompetent teachers does not add up to me and appears harmful rather than helpful.

Attorney DC said...

M: Thanks for the interesting dialogue. In response: First, I'd like to note that principals are not judged based on test results for all subjects and all teachers. They are judged under AYP provisions of NCLB, on very specific test results (reading and math) and only in certain grades. The vast majority of teachers (I think it's about 80%) in public schools today do not teach a subject/grade combination that is tested under NCLB. Therefore, principals have no incentive (from a test-results perspective) to retain good history, foreign language, science, arts, or other teachers, or English/Math teachers in non-tested grades.

I also think you and I differ in our estimates of the number of instances that good teachers are dismissed irrationally by principals vs instances in which bad teachers who should be dismissed are not (and, if they were dismissed, could be replaced by better teachers). I think there are many instances of the former (and would be even more, absent tenure protections) and fewer instances of the latter -- you obviously think it's the opposite.

Corey Bunje Bower said...

I have yet to hear an answer to the question. How, exactly, does tenure hurt?

The evidence is pretty clear that teachers rapidly improve in their first 3-5 years -- and that, on average, they'll perform about the same (or slightly better, depending on the study) after that point. So Principals should be able to get rid of the worst teachers before they earn tenure, and I see no evidence that teachers stop being effective after earning tenure.

I don't doubt that school systems and principals are failing to implement tenure in an effective and responsible manner in many instances, but I have yet to hear a convincing argument that tenure, in and of itself, harms schools.

Rachel said...

I don't think tenure hurts in and of itself. I think some of the protocols that have evolved around due process and evaluation are problematic.

The other piece that's problematic compared to many businesses is the last-hired-first fired approach to layoffs. It would be nice to be able to keep the 3rd year teacher who was getting glowing evaluations over the 10th year teacher who was getting marginally satisfactory ones.

But in response to din819go... I think businesses that evaluate 3 times per year are a rarity. Most places I've worked it was once per year, and most people viewed their evaluations as either arbitrary or a joke.

M said...

Rachel is right; at every business I've worked at (including government positions) formal evaluations take place once per year.
Corey, it doesn't appear as though your question has been answered, although I think the issue is that anyone's answer is predicated on personal opinions about what the ratio is of good to bad teachers in the school system. If you think there's more good than bad, then tenure does no harm, and if you think there's more bad than good, then you consider it a hindrance to good school management.
I think a question that should be brought up alongside yours is, "What GOOD does tenure do?" One can easily argue that tenure makes students the losers in cases where bad teachers are left to teach for enough years to build cases against them due to restrictions; what is the argument for the benefit of tenure? And not the benefit of it to *teachers,* who I do not consider uncompensated as a 9-month workyear is not exactly burdensome and the only complaints I have ever heard about the workload have come from teachers who have never held a job outside of school systems.
All questions about school policy need to begin and end with the benefit toward the students, no one else.

And as for alternatively certified teachers being brought in: what does that tell you? What it tells me is that the education profession is suffering from what economists would call "adverse selection." Those that want to do it are generally not those who *should* be doing it.

Roger Sweeny said...

Corey,

You don't go far enough. All elected officials who have served for three or more years and been re-elected once should keeop the job as long as they aren't impeached and convicted of gross incompetence.

After all, they've shown they can do the job. If they can't, it's the fault of the voters who elected them and didn't exercise adequate supervision. Why should the office-holders be punished because the voters didn't do their jobs?

Anonymous said...

The evidence is pretty clear that teachers rapidly improve in their first 3-5 years -- and that, on average, they'll perform about the same (or slightly better, depending on the study) after that point.

So what the evidence may really show is that teachers improve precisely when they don't have tenure yet -- because they're more motivated -- but that they coast for the rest of their careers as soon as their positions are safe.

Roger Sweeny said...

Corey,

Is it really true that, "The evidence is pretty clear that teachers rapidly improve in their first 3-5 years"?

I wouldn't be surprised if many of the worst teachers dropped out in the first few years. So the average quality of fifth year teachers would be significantly greater than the average quality of first year teachers. Is there any research separating out how much individual teachers get better and how much the average quality goes up because the less good have Darwined out?

That question inevitably brings up another, more basic, one. You have said (I paraphrase) that all merit pay plans are crap because there is no objective way to tell who is a better teacher and deserves more money. But if there is no way to tell who is a better teacher for merit pay plans, then there is also no way to tell who is a better teacher for educational research.

Roger Sweeny said...

Tenure is designed to be awarded to teachers who have a proven track record of success. If a principal awards a teacher tenure solely b/c the teacher has taught in a school for x number of years, that's the fault of the principal -- not of tenure.

That's a real "guns don't kill people; people kill people" argument.

Of course, in both cases, it is a joint result. The person with a gun kills (and might not without the gun). The incompetent principal awards tenure, but couldn't if there was no tenure to award.

din819go said...

guys -- if education which is a multi billion dollar endeavor is not a business what is it? what do you call not for profit entities? think about this differently...education's role is educating students to be successful in life...that is its BUSINESS/it's misison. It takes OTHER PEOPLES MONEY (remember this term - ope?) and in many aspects manages it very poorly. It follows fad after fad, supports those who profit from its endeavors (textbook companies, testing companies, etc) tends to be very paper oriented which keeps more people employed than necessary in an electronic age and protects poor performers...i.e just like unions and other NFPs..oops it is unionized and it is an inefficient NFP. Silly me!

So...if tenure is to protect teachers from being sued needlessly and to protect teachers who speak up I am fine with that. But tenure should not protect ineffective teachers (and anyone else covered) period.

The business aspect -- I believe you need strong financial controls in education to stop the chasing of fads and wasting OPE. If you step back and look at the waste in K-12 education, educators are not good stewards of the taxpayer dollars.

I also believe you need strong CIOs in the system who balance the curriculum and learning side of the equation. Together you get a more efficient operation with more money going to the classroom (the area closest to the client/student/family - just like a business does) and less money in the administrative area. If most school districts are like ours (and I believe they are) they are not run efficiently (i.e. being 100% paper oriented) they spend way too much money on the administrative/back office area vs the classroom.

Yes...education is a business. Call it something else if you will, but the US spends more $ on education than any other country and the results are less than stellar. A business would be shut down by now...government education is a monopoly.