The Tenure Debate: Pros and Cons

Across the nation, teacher tenure is becoming a major flash point in many states. Florida and New Jersey are considering ending tenure altogether. Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania are also considering significant changes. Teacher tenure is the increasingly controversial form of job protection that public school teachers and university professors in all states receive after one to seven years on the job. As you’ll learn in the pros and cons about tenure in this article, tenure isn’t a guarantee that teachers will retain their jobs for life. And, considering all the other threats to teachers’ positions — including being falsely accused of a variety of matters — teachers may find that their teaching performances are more important than ever.

    Teacher
  • CON: Teacher tenure creates complacency, because teachers know they are unlikely to lose their jobs. Tenure removes incentives for teachers to put in more than the minimum effort and to focus on improving their teaching.
  • PRO: Since school administrators grant tenure, neither teachers nor teacher unions should be blamed for problems with the tenure system. Tenure protects teachers from being fired for arbitrary personal or political reasons, and prevents the firing of experienced teachers to hire less expensive new teachers.
  • CON: Although it is true historically that — before tenure — women were dismissed for getting married, becoming pregnant, wearing pants, or being out too late in the evenings, those social mores no longer exist.
  • PRO: Teachers still can get fired for becoming pregnant. And, women still are discriminated against when it comes to tenured positions. Because 90 percent of women become mothers during their working lives, discrimination against mothers reflects discrimination against women as a group. According to a survey by the National Science Foundation, female scientists with children are 27 percent less likely to win tenure than male scientists with children, and are far more likely to become lecturers or adjuncts. A similar pattern occurs across all of the disciplines.
  • CON: Given current laws against job discrimination, teachers shouldn’t fear losing jobs for any reason. This job protection allows the removal of poorly performing teachers while keeping the stellar performers. And, even tenure can’t survive public outrage. Howard Zinn lost his tenured position as chair of the history department at Spelman College in Atlanta because of his civil-rights activism in the 1960s.
  • PRO: Firing a tenured teacher because of politics or any other reason would occur more often without tenure. Additionally, society remains unready for teachers to take on unpopular subjects or otherwise challenged curricula such as evolutionary biology and controversial literature. Without tenure, teachers would not enjoy academic freedom for fear of being fired. Literature such as To Kill a Mockingbird was banned by some school districts as recently as 2010.
  • CON: Granted, good teachers don’t have time to fight for their job security, but administrators could create renewable contracts that provide some long-term stability. Those contracts also could make strong demands on teachers to demonstrate success and improvement. With creative leadership, ending tenure as we know it could lead to something much better for teachers and for their students.
  • PRO: The threat of economic firing overrides job discrimination. Older, more experienced teachers rightfully cost more than new and inexperienced teachers. Without tenure, those more experienced teachers can be replaced with new and less experienced teachers.
  • Teaching and Moodle
  • CON: Most teachers are not incompetent or dangerous; but, with more than 3.2 million teachers in the U.S., even a small percentage of lousy ones adds up to a lot of students’ being shortchanged. Today there are simply too few teaching licenses being revoked.
  • PRO: A 2009 report by the New Teacher Project looked at teacher evaluation across the country and found that less than one percent of teachers were rated unsatisfactorily. Given that many schools provide a dismal profile in general, that rating defies common sense. Again, the blame is not on the teachers’ unions or the teachers — ineffective administration is a big part of the problem. Without tenure and even with renewable contracts, teachers may not be treated fairly by administrators.
  • CON: Administrative fears are overblown. Again, a variety of federal and state laws exist that protect workers from unfair and discriminatory practices. Plus, teachers union leaders are elected, so they’ll do whatever it takes to remain in their positions — including resisting changes that risk their members’ job security.
  • PRO: Instead of weakening or abolishing tenure, administrators could create a more thorough and meaningful teacher evaluation process. Administrators are responsible for evaluating teachers before granting tenure and helping to develop struggling teachers. According to a 2008 report by the National Council on Teacher Quality, not a single state has even partly developed a meaningful tenure-granting process.
  • CON: Tenure makes seniority the main factor in dismissal decisions, instead of teacher performance and quality. Tenure laws maintain the “last-hired, first-fired” policy. On Feb. 24, 2010, the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit against the Los Angeles Unified School District, claiming that basing layoffs on seniority harms younger teachers as well as “low-income students and persons of color.”
  • PRO: Contrary to public perception, tenure does not guarantee a teacher a job for life. Tenure has become a scapegoat for problems facing education. If tenure is abolished, problems of underfunding, overcrowding, and lack of control over students’ home lives will persist.
  • Teachers Day
  • CON: In that 2009 study by the New Teacher Project, researchers found that 81 percent of school administrators knew a poorly performing tenured teacher at their school; however, 86 percent of administrators said they do not always pursue dismissal of teachers because of the costly and time consuming process.
  • PRO: Tenure protects teachers from being prematurely fired after a student makes a false accusation or a parent threatens expensive legal action against the district. After an accusation, districts might find it expedient to quickly remove a teacher instead of investigating the matter and incurring potentially expensive legal costs. The thorough removal process mandated by tenure rules ensures that teachers are not removed without a fair hearing.
  • CON: The reality is that because it is far easier to encourage teachers to move to another school or district instead of trying to formally remove them from yours, sometimes people who are not only not good at teaching but actually dangerous to children bounce from one school to the next. Additionally, tenure often is just too easy to obtain. Additionally, it appears that tenure really doesn’t protect teachers from being falsely accused. The burden of proof may be lowered to 51 percent.
  • PRO: This is why tenure is even more important, as tenure should encourage the careful selection of qualified and effective teachers. Again, tenure should encourage school administrators to take more care when making hiring decisions and in giving tenure to teachers. In that case, tenure prompts administrators to dismiss underperforming teachers before they ever achieve tenure and cannot be removed as easily. Employers can make this process easier by only hiring teachers who are competent, qualified, and caring in the first place.