The Shibboleths of Tenure Haters

Checker Finn gives the “ending teacher tenure” argument the old college try:

Tenure arrived in K–12 education as a trickle-down from higher ed. Will the demise of tenure follow a similar sequence? Let us earnestly pray for it—for tenure’s negatives today outweigh its positives—but let us not count on it.

Yeah, let’s not.

I wish all these tenure-haters would at least acknowledge that teachers can be easily dismissed in some circumstances. Teachers are fired for crossing clear, bright lines is done every day. Having sex with students? Gone.  Proven violence against students? Buh-bye.

Even fuzzy lines lead to firing if the circumstances allow it. Have a past or a present that’s simply….distracting? Easy.  Have an unpopular opinion? Game over. 

Firing teachers simply because the boss just doesn’t think they’re very good? Book some time, start a file, document madly, hit every deadline, give them a lousy schedule and hope they get the hint and leave.

We teachers don’t really have free speech or a right to privacy in any meaningful way, if the students know about it. But we also don’t have any agreement on what makes a bad teacher, which turns out to be our secret weapon. It’s much easier to fire an exemplary teacher who strips (or, gulp, blogs) in private than it is to fire a mediocre one whose students are bored. A new principal who really wants to ‘clean house’ and bring in a bunch of bright shiny new cheap teachers to do her bidding is doomed to disappointment.

You’d think by now that any article pushing to “fire bad teachers” would start by making that distinction, but here I’m the one likely to be disappointed.

Checker’s a bright guy, capable of thoughtful discussion. But here he brings up a goofy red herring, arguing public school teachers don’t deserve the same protections that university professors do.

I’m not convinced by the analogy. K-12 tenure is “trickle down” from university tenure? Eh, maybe. While many journalists give Massachusetts credit for instituting teacher tenure in 1886,  the text of the law doesn’t suggest any such thing. More accurately, I think, New Jersey first passed teacher protection laws in 1910. By 1930, tenure had come to most states, and by the 1950s, some 80% of teachers had tenure.  The push for women’s suffrage, the ridiculous controls schools boards put on teachers’ private lives, nepotism, and a desire for good governance were all involved in granting K-12 tenure (Dana Goldstein agrees, a tad repetitively.)

Ultimately,  university tenure became much more about lifelong employment and academic freedom–similar to judicial appointments. Teacher tenure, on the other hand, began as and remains an offering of job security, more akin to my favorite parallel for the teaching profession: police. So the four or five paragraphs Checker devotes to arguing that K-12 teachers don’t really need academic freedom is pointless.

I agree, we don’t need academic freedom. Which is good, because we don’t have it and have never had it. That’s why I’m anonymous.

Checker asks:

How valuable is job security to the employee….Would you rather earn $50,000 a year in a job that you know will continue indefinitely and does not depend on performance, or $75,000 in a job that is assured only for a several-year term and where renewal of the position hinges on your performance in it?

But Checker’s own organization surveys teachers on this very issue every year. Did he forget? Why not cite his own data? Probably because it shoots his case down cold. Teachers are quite consistent: less than 1 in 5 wants merit pay.   3 in 5 teachers in EdNext’s survey think tenure’s a good idea.

Checker again:

It’s no secret that the HR practices of private and charter schools—neither of which typically practices tenure—work far better than those of district schools from the standpoint of both school leaders and their students.

This, too, is a curious argument to make. First,  given the fact that neither private nor charter schools have managed to post extraordinary gains over publics, Checker’s claim that tenure is better for students is a bit shaky. At best, all the selection bias and skimming has gotten Checker’s preferred options are a few fractions of a standard deviation, if that.

As for flexibility working better for school leaders–well, immediately before Checker’s article is this piece by Kirsten Schmitz: Why do Private School Teachers Have Such High Turnover Rates? Bad timing, that. Charter turnover is so high we have a term for it.

So Checker’s got some chutzpah in asserting that privates and charters get a big win out of flexibility.

(Notice whose standpoint isn’t mentioned, of course, when discussing hiring flexibility. Notice, too, that Checker argued for decreasing job security as a tradeoff for improving teacher pay but neglects to mention that private schools pay far less than public schools.)

A while back, Paul Bruno argued that teacher tenure is a perk, since the reality is that our chances of being fired are quite low. Bruno’s logic here has never, to my knowledge, been engaged and it’s inescapable:

One of the central tensions for reformers when it comes to improving teacher quality is that on the one hand they believe teachers are fighting desperately for excessive job security but also, on the other hand, that you can substantially reduce that job security without making teaching significantly less attractive.

In theory this is not impossible. Making it work, however, requires admitting that job security is a benefit for teachers and that taking it away will – all else equal – make being a teacher less appealing.

Bruno believes (or believed, he hasn’t been writing for a while) that teacher valuation of tenure is overrated, since we’re not really at risk of being fired, anyway.  I agree we’re not at risk of being fired, and tenure vs untenured doesn’t seem related. Compare terminations per district (per teachers per district) in tenured or non-tenured states. My rough take is that terminations has as much to do with size of the district as it does tenure policy (the smaller the average district size, the more firings, particularly in rural areas or charter districts).

But  freedom from random firing because a new boss has a new agenda is of considerable value–Paul cites 10% of salary, I’d guess more. Moreover, bosses get extremely tempted to cut payroll by canning older employees. Freedom from that fear is worth a few ducats, too.

Meanwhile, as Checker advocates for easier teacher dismissals, Idaho and South Dakotas legislatures’ attempt to end tenure was  rejected by voters.  In CaliforniaMinnesota, and North Carolina , the courts did the rejecting. Kansas, which did successfully end tenure, is now working to enact legislation to bring it back. Wisconsin’s rollback of tenure and union protections may have led to the state’s teacher shortage, but it’s definitely increased district hopping as teachers negotiate better salaries–not, perhaps, the ideal outcome for anyone but those teachers. Yet Checker acts as if schools are groaning under the weight of unwelcome pension-pathers.

Supply’s the problem, Checker. Firing teachers, ending tenure, pay for performance–those are the choices available in a teacher glut. No one has really pinned down the nature of the current teacher shortage–I wasn’t terribly impressed with this recent study, although I quite like Goldhaber usually–but  state behavior of late is pretty consistently taking actions to increase supply. New York’s much derided decision to end the literacy credential test, Illinois similar decision to reduce the testing requirements for  teacher credentials, large California districts aggressively recruiting senior teachers from smaller districts with moving bonuses and removing the work years cap for salary calculation(a big disincentive for switching districts)–that’s just a small sample. Most states are making decisions that suggest they’re worried about getting and keeping teachers.

Checker knows better. But his audience–and his funders–don’t. So he keeps spinning the same old line.

Random but not unrelated: My administrator just emailed me my review, with an  “outstanding” rating,  I am convinced administrators meet up and decide which handful of teachers are going to get singled out for top marks while the rest (usually including me) get lumped into “satisfactory”.  Administrators, like bosses everywhere, are restricted on how many top marks they can give out. Most teachers I know realize the box checked isn’t as important as the review text–is it anemic, or strong? Complimentary or critical? The box, eh.  But if you think I shrugged off this rating, ask yourself why I mentioned it.


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17 responses to “The Shibboleths of Tenure Haters

  • anonymousskimmer

    “Charter turnover is so high we have a term for it.”

    The URL in this sentence (on the word “term”) does not give a special term, and doesn’t back up your statement (and even argues against it).

    I believe the term you mean is “leaver”, which is stated in the previous hyperlink.

  • anonymousskimmer

    “How valuable is job security to the employee….Would you rather earn $50,000 a year in a job that you know will continue indefinitely and does not depend on performance, or $75,000 in a job that is assured only for a several-year term and where renewal of the position hinges on your performance in it?”

    *I* turned down a job that promised to pay about 10% more (after bonus), in a significantly cheaper part of the country. I turned it down in favor of a government, union job. I did this because, as a worker with some job experience, I know that the attitude of my management is more important that the attitude of my coworkers, and with a government, union job I am both a citizen, and have an actual say in that attitude.

  • Purple Tortoise

    I think there are some parallels with tenure at the university level. Tenure doesn’t protect bad actors, and mediocrity means no merit raises. Since cost of living increases are rare these days, continued good performance is the only way to keep up with inflation.

    Moreover, a look at finances will demonstrate that the salaries of tenured professors are not the cause of rising college costs, which are mostly driven by non-instructional factors, so getting rid of tenure is not going to do much to bring down tuition.

    In fact, for decades the fraction of tenured professors has been declining and the fraction of instructors hired on a semester by semester basis has been rising. Many of these non-tenured instructors are poorly paid part-timers who are principally evaluated on the basis of student opinions. Does any sane person think that such a system will result in better teaching and learning?

    Pensions are a problem, but that is largely driven by failure of states to make contributions as originally intended. When revenues are low, payments to the pension system are cut, and when revenues are high, taxes are cut rather than build up any reserve. And the real abusers of the pension system (e.g., spiking) are the police and firefighters.

    It’s certainly true that tenure prevents older and more expensive professors from getting laid off in favor of younger and cheaper professors, but it would be difficult to attract good candidates if they had no long-term security of employment after more than a decade of specialized training that had very little applicability to other jobs. And consider Harvard, which has an enormous amount of money and prestige. If anyone could eliminate tenure and do well, it would be Harvard, yet they have not done so. This suggests tenure is financially and educationally useful.

    It seems to me that calls for ending tenure are driven by two factors. 1) A false belief in the financial benefits, or 2) envy that some people have more secure jobs and a desire to pull them down rather than raise others up.

    • anonymousskimmer

      “It seems to me that calls for ending tenure are driven by two factors. 1) A false belief in the financial benefits, or 2) envy that some people have more secure jobs and a desire to pull them down rather than raise others up.”

      I think a great many people think they prefer a more cut-throat, individual-negotiating system. They believe this will encourage a person more like themselves to enter the teaching profession. They don’t realize that there are many other aspects of the teaching profession that a person of such a bent would find off-putting. And that such a person is less likely than a current typical teacher to actually be an effective teacher. And they certainly don’t realize that such an incentive system will necessarily make current teachers worse. It’s hard to be considerate of the student’s needs, at least in a timely manner, when you’re focused on the sword hanging over your head.

      “It takes all kinds to make a world” is a genuinely difficult insight, and too many people avoid the experience necessary to come to this insight.

  • bingohead

    “university tenure became much more about lifelong employment and academic freedom–similar to judicial appointments”

    Yes, and its silly. I’ll give one example:
    I was employed in the environmental industry, and had to research areas where large projects were going to be built. Its history, private ownership, history of environmental spills/problems, potentially cultural/sociological/historical significance, resident population, etc.

    The work I did, because it was done in a public manner, was FOIA-able. In other words, it was not protected by any expectation of privacy. This, in spite of the fact that much of it (status of privately owned land, as the obvious example) truly private information.

    Yet university professors, doing similar work (say, researching contaminant travel through groundwater) have an expectation of academic freedom and privacy, simply because they are ‘professors’ rather than ‘environmental scientists.’

    This example could be extended throughout our society. Professors’ expectations that they deserve greater professional courtesy and privacy than non-professor equivalents are guilty of simple inaccurate narcissism. What professors do is broadly irrelevant to our society, and doesn’t deserve more protection than a government-employed lawyer, engineer, scientist, economist, or anything else.

    Another issue: university employee professors, who happen to be medical professors (rather than history, sociology, English, business, etc) are hired on one year renewable contracts. They have literally the same job title, working for the same organization. But if they don’t pull their weight, they are let go. They face this every year (contracts generally go July -July. This is when medical residents graduate, and the entire profession builds on that).

    The obvious justification: English professors are irrelevant, so we can afford to offer them ‘tenure’ which they don’t actually deserve. But medical professors do important work (i.e. perform surgery). We as a society can’t afford to offer them something like tenure-we have to hold them accountable.

    I mean this sincerely, and if think its backhand praise, you are right. Tenure is for the irrelevant-if they were doing important stuff, we couldn’t afford to offer it to them.

    Which is really saying, they don’t deserve it at all.


    • educationrealist

      So judges are irrelevant and worthless?

      • bingohead

        Apparently, I made a mistake. When you spent the entire post discussing tenure for university professors and high school teachers, I assumed you were referring to tenure for university professors and high school teachers. Apparently, the actual text of your post was irrelevant: you were, in fact, discussing tenure for the judiciary. I guess, when reading posts on this blog, I have to learn to read between the lines…

      • educationrealist

        Or be less grandiose in your generalizations.

    • anonymousskimmer

      @ bingohead
      Tenure historically exists for jobs in which performance is genuinely difficult to measure.

      This rubric applies to all of the jobs you listed. At least on a historical basis.

    • Purple Tortoise

      Professors at public universities are definitely FOIA-able. And the majority of people doing university teaching and research in the U.S. are on short contracts or only paid if they can bring in their own salary (the specific percentage varies from one institution to another). The tenured professoriate has really shrunk over the past several decades as a fraction of total instructors and researchers, but I guess they still make a good whipping boy.

  • static

    It’s really pretty simple. You get a teacher hanging on and not contributing any more- with 20 years in the system, and you can’t rid of him. Seniority pay in general is bad, you have to keep paying people more as they get older, even if they aren’t performing better. Neither is an element of a healthy employment environment.

    Why no tenure for principals?

  • Anonymous

    US Army, using DATA like education, would keep switching theater commanders every two weeks with the profound insight that the commander of Fort Hood in Texas consistently looses less troops to enemy combat than those “ineffective” commanders in Afganistan.

    All those stateside Commanders are “Highly Effective” the DATA clearly shows it beyond doubt.

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