The Issue of Tenure for Teachers

The Los Angeles Superior Court has ruled that tenure for teachers is unconstitutional (in the State of California), with the reasoning that California’s constitution guarantees “a basically equal opportunity to achieve a quality education.” The judge states that poor teachers end up teaching in schools in low-income neighborhoods.

Before speaking about tenure, I would like to make one thing abundantly clear: the problem of low-performing teachers concentrating into poorer schools is real (to a certain extent), is very unfortunate, and has nothing to do with tenure. It has everything to do with the following facts: (a.) teaching in a low-performing school makes for a much more difficult life than teaching in a higher-performing school, and (b.) “good” teachers are more in-demand, and better able to dictate and settle into the more desirable positions at higher-performing schools. I think it’s obvious eliminating tenure will do nothing to fix this problem, so it’s a bit frightening to see that an individual capable of applying so little logic (a.k.a. “judgment”) to such an important issue is able to become a judge. Not to mention how demeaning this judge’s decision is to the great teachers who made a conscious choice to teach at low-performing schools because they want to help those kids.

And when it comes to those who actually are in the business of delivering Public Education, make no mistake: very few decision-makers outside of a school building care the first iota about the quality of Education. Most only care about providing Education at the lowest possible cost, and with the least amount of work possible. Most will make small exceptions to that rule-of-thumb to avoid either (a.) losing their jobs, or (b.) a public outcry so strong that they lose their jobs.

With that in mind, yes, people say eliminating tenure is about firing bad teachers. This is a lie. Eliminating tenure for teachers is about nothing more than firing experienced teachers at the top of the pay scale. This means if you don’t allow tenure, experienced teachers will be fired at will without regard to their quality because inexperienced teachers are cheaper. Mark my words.

It bears repeating: when it comes to delivery of Education, most school districts and states are worried about cost, not about quality. Never forget this when trying to determine why politicians, DOEs and Districts make certain decisions.

A lot of quality people, especially quality STEM people, already avoid K-12 education, because the salary is so much lower than is available elsewhere — again, especially in STEM. Tenure is truly the only thing teaching has going for it monetarily compared to other professional careers. It’s a promise that even though you’re making $30,000/year with a Master’s degree right now, if you stick to it long enough, you’ll eventually make a decent salary with good job security. This Los Angeles ruling, SB736 in Florida, and the tide of political opinion is taking that away (I seriously blame Waiting for Superman, one of the worst influences on Education in the past quarter-century).

I mean, we’re so worried about bad teachers… and yes, bad teachers exist, and we should try to minimize their impact. But at the same time, why are we so worried about bad teachers when that’s literally the least of our problems in Education? We need to worry about bad administrators, bad superintendents, bad politicians, and bad judges making horrible Education policy decisions they know nothing about.

Teachers often are literally the only ones in the system fighting for your kids, and the only way we as teachers can fight against and shield your kids from bad policy (which I unashamedly have done this year), without fearing for our jobs, is tenure. (Let’s be clear: I don’t have tenure. What I do have is a second career waiting for me that would double/triple my salary if my resistance to misguided District initiatives gets me fired. Conversely, 20/30-year teachers do not generally have alternate careers to fall back on).

In short: Tenure protects teachers’ livelihoods when we stand up to corrupt or incompetent administration. Some of you hate the new standards? An experienced teacher with tenure can shield your kids from bad standards by doing what they know is best without fear of losing their jobs. Without teacher tenure, most of us can’t afford risking our jobs, thus your kids have little-to-no protection from the whims of politicians who have no training or experience in Education. Again: you take away teacher tenure, you take away teachers’ ability to stand up to corruption and incompetence in Education. Believe me, it’s there, and teachers are the last line of defense from your kids being harmed by that corruption and incompetence.

I love teaching, but if I leave it, a large part of it will be because brain-dead rulings like this ensure I will not be allowed to make a living as a teacher when I am old. I’m sure I’m not the only one.

3 Comments

Filed under SB736

  • Sabba

    you addressed some great points and definitely brought to light many of the problems in the field. However I dont think you address all the problems that tenure brings with it. Ask any teacher who graduated in 2007 till now what its been like as a first year teacher with great evaluations only to be made felt like you are just another number and how when layoffs come around quality of teaching has nothing to do with with decision making. As a result, a teacher who perhaps is not as good as a new teacher will not be let go simply because of tenure. So the argument that tenure opens the door for districts to pay people less isn’t completely correct. Clearly you are someone who is tenured and enjoy and benefits from that status. I also gather you are a teacher who takes their job very seriously :)

    While some people like you may take their job seriously, unfortunately many enjoy the comfort that comes with knowing that the only thing that will cause them to lose their job are only extreme circumstances ex murder or sexual harassment. Ive seen teachers who till this day refuse to change, refuse to adopt new technology, use the same lesson plan year after year, and unfortunately its not a small number.

    I also wonder why this is the only field where people have this fear that you mention, if all leaders were to be the way you describe then every employee would fear their job. If this is a reality is tenure the only way to address it? People are evaluated in all fields and this should be welcomed as a chance to learn and grow. Perhaps the tenure system needs to be modified to allow for all teachers to benefit not just the ones who have this elite status.

    I think in a lot of your points, tenure isnt so much the issue as is the overall system. If public schools are short money where does that shortage come from. As a society what have we prioritized? Students performing poorly in low income areas has very little do with teachers and more to do with the overall economy and other socioeconomic/cultural problems that come along with those areas that education alone cannot fix, yet no one wants to address. No Child Left Behind is a great example of this.

    I think you started a much needed conversation and we should all take a hard look at the root cause of the problems because only then can we successfully work towards a solution that actually works! :)

    I think this is a great start – http://www.tickld.com/x/wtf-is-wrong-is-wrong-with-americans-this-guy-nails-it

    • mbkhalil

      Sabba,

      Thanks for your response, and for disagreeing in a respectful manner.

      Let me begin by stating that I do not have tenure, and never will by State Law. I will likely leave the profession soon, largely because of this fact.

      Secondly, I feel education is different from other professions, because (a.) Outcomes are nebulous, and therefore no one has figured out how to measure teachers effectively… I mean, the attempts thus far to do so are worse than laughable, (b.) in business you have a profit motive to keep productive employees you don’t like, while education has no such motive, and (c.) with the way teacher pay scales are now, tenure is inherently part of our compensation.

      If they do away with tenure, why would anyone stick through this, working for 10 years before cracking $40k/year, with no job security? If they want to remove job security while still retaining good people, they need to accelerate the pay scale so that young teachers can actually make a good salary rather than holding out for false hope that they might make a good salary in the future.

      Except that no one is willing or able to pay 5-year teachers $60-70,000/year.

      It’s a complex question that has been oversimplified by many.

  • flowerofhighrank

    I teach at a high school that is in a poor area but is the best school in my district. I have tenure (not a big deal, but enough to prevent my being f’d with for no reason). I teach my classes and they do well. I specialize in ‘diamons in the very rough’, kids who disrupt classes, fail everything, etc. If I can’t get them to the next level, probably nobody can. I teach the way I want to teach. Common Core isn’t going to bother me much- I’ll take what’s good from it and dump or hide the rest. My students will still end up succeeding/graduating/going on to future gains. My principal is smart enough to leave me alone.

    My wife teaches at another school. her last principal was horrible. The principal tried to f-over some teachers, my wife brought in the union to stop her. In retaliation, her principal tried to have my wife transferred to the worst school in our district. My wife specializes in middle school gifted programs and this school is gang-infested, has very few programs for gifted kids and is a HIGH SCHOOL. But the principal wanted to ‘get’ my wife. Luckily I had an ace in the hole: I called our state senator (his kids were past students of mine and loved me). My wife got to keep her job and the principal was moved to another job.

    Her principal chased away ten good teachers; they weren’t the right ethnic group, they weren’t her pets or on her team or they just didn’t fit her f’d up vision of what her school should look like. When she found out that teachers were having meetings in a certain room to discuss her, she had a TAPE RECORDER CONCEALED UNDER A DESK. The teachers found it and demanded to know why it was there. She blamed one of her lackeys and said that the lackey WAS TRYING TO FIND EVIDENCE OF A GHOST RUMORED TO HAUNT THE CLASSROOM.

    (I know. You probably think I’m making this up. But seriously, she was one of the dumbest people I’ve ever met, she had to think fast and she probably thought ‘okay, ghosts are scary where I come from and nobody would bat an eye at this in my home country, so let’s try it.’)

    Tenure is the only thing that protected my wife, it’s the only thing that protects me if the next joker comes a long and doesn’t like the cut of my jib (and my jib is great, look at my test scores). Tenure should be STRENGTHENED or we are going to end up chasing away future teachers, especially in STEM areas. This isnt Hollywood, where you might get fired next week so save part of your million dollar paycheck. This is teaching. I make a good living, but it ain’t great. I like the time off, but if I have to kiss too much ass and sabotage my kids for the sake of some policy change from Washington eggheads, well, I’ll think very carefully about how much I’m willing to give up.