Tenure is tired idea in K12 education. At best it is superfluous, and at worst it is a subtle but steady saboteur of innovation, accountability and improvement.
Tenure is superfluous because union contracts and collective bargaining already provide sufficient protection for teachers against unwarranted dismissals. It sabotages reform because it is based not on merit but on time served. Granted, supervision of new teachers is more comprehensive than in the past, but most teachers today received tenure following two or three years of being observed by a school principal for one class period twice a year.
Tenure also inhibits improvement efforts based on accountability for student success. When every teacher's job is protected by tenure, how can they be held accountable for results? And how can school principals and district administrators be held accountable if they don't have the basic power to hire and fire classroom teachers?
Al Shanker, the late American Federation of Teachers leader, conceded that tenure-protected due process had gone too far in keeping incompetent teachers employed in some districts, but we shouldn't expect today's union leadership to easily give up this ironclad instrument of job security. To wit, in the 10-year period from 1990 to 1999, Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the nation's second-largest school district, which employs more than 30,000 certified teachers, dismissed onlyone tenured teacher. Just one in 10 years.
If LAUSD simply discovered the long sought after secret to hiring only qualified teachers, it is not alone. A recent Detroit Free Press article quotes Art Przybylowicz, legal counsel for the Michigan Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union, saying, "I think the paucity of cases out there shows there just aren't that many incompetent teachers."
He also told the paper that it isn't difficult to remove poor teachers: "If the school identifies the teacher's defi ciency, draws up a plan to help the teacher overcome the deficiency and gives the teacher time to follow the plan, and the problem is not resolved, then the district can take action."
At What Cost?
But the cost of such action can deter district leaders from taking it. According to Alexander Schwab at the Center for Individual Freedom, dismissals of tenured teachers "typically require legal proceedings averaging two years in duration and $200,000 in cost." It may not always be that high, but it's never cheap. Detroit Free Press education writer Peggy Walsh-Sarnecki reported that the Dearborn Public Schools (Mich.) spent $178,308 over the past four years to fire two tenured teachers.
Interestingly, Walsh-Sarnecki also reported that Dearborn "got rid of" four other tenured teachers during the same period for a total cost of $233,181-far less per case. That's not because the allegations were less serious-two of the teachers were accused of substance abuse and two of sexual misconduct-it's because the district negotiated buyouts of the teachers' contracts.
But a buyout is not a good way to avoid a tenure trial. It may be economically advisable, but often it is only agreed to by the teacher and union representative if all references to alleged allegations are deleted from the teacher's file and are not mentioned in response to reference requests. This allows the underperforming teacher to easily apply for employment as an experienced teacher in another district, a result borne out by the Detroit Free Press report, which found that seven of 27 teachers receiving buyouts in the greater Detroit metro area soon showed up as employees in other nearby districts.
When underperforming teachers aren't bought out, they are often transferred to other schools, particularly in large districts. While this may placate complaining parents, it too often results in moving underperforming teachers to the lowest-performing schools, where parental involvement is generally lower and complaints against teachers fewer. This satisfies the union goal of saving jobs, but further underserves already underserved students.
Tenure will not stop suffocating school improvement efforts until it is replaced by strong supervision and professional development programs targeted at ensuring student success. Accomplished teachers should be able to earn "highly qualified teacher" or even "master teacher" endorsements, and teacher unions should lead, not resist, such efforts. Good teachers want to be measured by the success of their students, and more young people will pursue the profession if they believe advancement is based on results rather than years in the job. As Schwab writes, "When all teachers, good and bad, are treated equally, the mediocre stand to gain the most and those are precisely the individuals enticed by tenure promises. Good teachers don't need tenure to protect their jobs-students and parents will do that.
Daniel E. Kinnaman is publisher of District Administration.