Notes on Teacher Tenure

Steven Singer offers a spirited defense of teacher tenure — here are his key points:

1) Tenure does not mean a job for life. It just means you have to follow due process before firing a teacher. Many other jobs have similar due process rights for their workers that they don’t call tenure. Unfortunately that leads to the belief that teacher tenure is special or unique. It isn’t.

2) Teachers are Evaluated Based on Student Test Scores. This is ridiculously inaccurate and unfair. Standardized tests do NOT effectively measure student learning. They measure family income. So teachers who have richer students have generally more favorable evaluations than those who teach the poorest and most difficult children. Value-Added Measures, as these are often called, have been labeled junk science by national statistical organizations. They violate a basic principle of the field that you cannot use a test designed to evaluate one factor as a way to evaluate an entirely different factor. Removing due process would make the teachers who serve the most at-risk students, themselves, unfairly at risk of losing their jobs.

3) Firing the “least effective” teachers doesn’t improve education.
I know this goes against common sense, but facts are facts. If you fire someone, you have to find a replacement. Ideally, you want a replacement who will do a better job than the person being removed. However, this is incredibly difficult and expensive. Half of teachers who enter the field leave in 5 years. It’s a tough job that many people just can’t handle. Moreover, it takes a long time to get good at it. A much more cost-effective approach is providing high-quality professional development. You can’t fire yourself to the top. Yes, if a teacher has no interest and doesn’t improve after multiple attempts to help, then it may be best for that person to seek employment elsewhere. But it’s not step 1!

4) Tenure Protects the Most Experienced Teachers. Without it, veteran teachers could not compete with new hires who enter the field at a lower salary. In the long run, it costs less to keep and train veteran teachers than hire new ones. But administrators and school directors often only see short-term gain. Without due process, veterans would be in danger of unfair firing to increase the short-term bottom line. This would reduce the quality of education kids receive because they’d be denied a wealth of experience and talent. Moreover, who would enter a field that only values new hires? There’s no future in such a job and it would just be a repository for a series of temps with no other choice than to teach for a few years before moving on. Teach for America, anyone?

5) Tenure Allows Teachers to Innovate. With due process, teachers can more easily make decisions based on what’s best for their students and not what’s politically acceptable. They don’t have to give the school board director’s son an A just because of his patronage. Kids actually have to earn their grades. And if a student doesn’t like a teacher, he can’t destroy the adult’s career by making a baseless accusation.

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