Abolishing Teacher Tenure Will Not Solve Our Education Problem

            job in collegeA child’s academic success is highly dependent on the quality of their teachers. Most people surely agree with this statement; however, due to the complexity of learning, is this really true? Many believe so, suggesting that a simple fix to our educational system may come by the means of disallowing teachers from becoming tenured. Tenure refers to a type of job security given to teachers, which ensures them due processes when threatened with dismissal. For one to become tenured, typically they must first undergo a three-year probationary period at a given school so that administration may evaluate their effectiveness and quality. After this probationary period, if the teacher is considered to be effective, only then may they become tenured. This status is important as probationary teachers may readily be dismissed for non-performance or work-related reasons. Tenure is a way of protecting our many good teachers and the removal of it is not a solution to the academic crises befalling our children.

            Recently, courts around the country have been dealing with cases regarding teacher tenure. This past June, the families of nine students brought up a case (Vergara v. California) in which they claimed that teacher tenure led to the retention of many “grossly ineffective” teachers, especially in minority school districts. They also claimed that, “seniority and tenure disproportionately harm minority students in high-poverty schools by making it too difficult to fire incompetent teachers.” The court agreed with the statements made by the plaintiffs saying that “grossly ineffective” teachers impose much harm to a student’s ability to succeed in school and that California does in fact have many ineffective teachers currently working. Because of this, the court ruled, “five provisions of the California Education Code that protected teacher seniority and tenure” to be unconstitutional. In New York, two similar cases are currently being filed, also addressing the negative effects of tenure on the educational system, mainly in areas of poverty.

            As these lawsuits emphasized, many people believe that tenure makes it nearly impossible to fire ineffective teachers. This belief was propagated by a recent movie, Waiting For ‘Superman’ in which the filmmakers claim, “…in Illinois, 1 in 57 doctors (1.57%) loses his or her medical license, and 1 in 97 attorneys (0.51%) loses his or her law license, but only 1 teacher in 2500 (0.04%) has ever lost his or her credentials.” According to the Federal of State Medical Boards though, between 2005 and 2009, Illinois had an average of 129 out of 41,512 doctors (0.31%) who had their license revoked per year while according to the American Bar Association, each year on average, 441 out of 1,180,386 lawyers (0.04%) are disbarred each year across the country. Additionally, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, between 2007 and 2008, 4.1 out of every 167.6 public school teachers (2.45%) in Illinois were dismissed for poor performance. Out of the teachers that were dismissed, half of these were those with tenured status. These numbers differ greatly from those presented in Waiting For ‘Superman’, showing that on average, teachers are dismissed at a rate, eight times higher than that of doctors and 61 times that of lawyers. The statistics presented by Waiting For ‘Superman’ are misleading hugely due to the fact that the numbers were taken greatly out of context with different time frames being represented (notice the use of the word “ever” in their statement).

              Tenure in no way makes it impossible to fire teachers, but instead, serves to give them protection from corrupt administration. According to the president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, “Tenure does not mean a job for life, a cloak of incompetence or an excuse for managers not to manage, but instead empowers teachers to help kids and ensures we base dismissals on just causes.” This means that teachers may still be dismissed for subjective evaluations of inadequacy in regards to their teaching effectiveness and control of students, but before they can be dismissed, they must first be notified of their inadequacies and be given the opportunity to improve. According to Keith Reeves, an administrator and educator that has taught from the kindergarten to university levels, tenure serves to protect teachers from “people who have vendettas, people who have bad ideas, people who are pushing agendas and in many cases, people who are being influenced by American corporate reform.” Historically speaking, many teachers have been replaced due to non-work-related reasons such as changes in the dominating political party, becoming pregnant or for even staying out too late. Tenure though, fights to avoid replacement due to personal and unjust reasons like these. Reeves continues to comment, “Due process is important to ensure that good teachers have the academic freedom and are encouraged to do what is right, to teach students effectively no matter what deleterious influences are pushing at them from the outside.”



              Those opposed to tenure argue that it is the reason for a disproportionate amount of low-quality teachers in high-poverty areas, exemplified by the recent California and New York legal cases. Sure, there is definitely a correlation between tenure and the amount of low-quality teachers in high-poverty schools but this does not definitively, or even adequately suggest causation. Many high-quality teachers do not work at impoverished schools because of numerous factors independent of tenure. First, according to a Harvard study, many high-quality teachers leave high-poverty schools in search for “better” schools with higher achieving students. High-poverty schools present many challenges to these teachers such as poorer working conditions, lack of supplies, and based on a study by the National Center For Education Statistics, more children that act out. These factors generate a stressful environment and when compiled with typically low-test scores, which reflect poorly on the teachers, many tend to leave for middle-class schools when given the opportunity to. Various efforts have been made recently though, to increase student performance at schools throughout the country. These include giving $5000 – $15,000 bonuses in Nashville and $3000 bonuses in New York for teachers who were able to increase their student’s test scores. These efforts sadly worked to little avail, but in another attempt to improve education, 1,500 effective teachers were given the opportunity to apply for jobs at high-poverty schools for two years, with the incentive of a $20,000 bonus upon completion, regardless of how well their students performed. Less than a quarter of the selected teachers even sent in applications. This effort along with other studies illustrates the limited appeal of low-quality environments to even the best of our teachers across the nation.

            Efforts on improving student education should be based less on the tenure status of teachers and more on the environment in which these students are immersed. Studies conducted by the Illinois State Board of Education showed that “income level alone accounted for 71 % of the variance in test scores” while “student race, class size and several teacher-related variables accounted for only an additional 7% to the predictability of student performance.” Associate professor at Mary Lou Fulton Teacher’s College, Audrey Beardsley reiterated this point saying, “Current research suggests, unfortunately, that teachers only truly impact about 10-20 percent of student achievement.” With all the studies suggesting the minimal influence of teacher quality on student success, we should take a more holistic approach to remedying this problem. By addressing poverty as a whole and decreasing the academic segregation amongst low and middle-class students, we will be able to fix the foundation of a problem that feeds back throughout the entire school system. Abolishing teacher tenure will not solve this. We mustn’t attempt to cure the symptoms that present themselves in schools, but instead, must treat the underlying cause.

One Comment to “Abolishing Teacher Tenure Will Not Solve Our Education Problem”

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