Bruno: Your Tenure Reform Debate Is Overblown
The hot story in education reform this weekend was the news out of NYC that only 55% of eligible teachers made tenure this year. Tighter tenure requirements excite many reformers and terrify many reform critics, but what if tenure just doesn't matter that much and is (a little bit) good for everybody?
The intuitive assumption many tenure reformers make is that making it harder to get tenure means that many bad teachers will be less likely to earn it and thus more likely to be dismissed (and, presumably, replaced by better teachers.) On the flip side of the argument, supporters of traditional tenure rules assume that without tenure lots of effective teachers will lose their due process rights and be dismissed frivolously.
As I explain below, both of those assumptions are probably overblown, and the tenure reform debate may be distracting us from other, more important ways of making schools better.
The evidence that exists suggests that administrators just aren't that eager to dismiss their teachers, even when it's very easy to do. Even in NYC only 3% of teachers up for tenure were dismissed this year; the rest merely had their probation extended. So tenure is probably not the biggest factor preventing teacher dismissal; it's not even obviously a major factor.
This all suggests that there's not much to be gained by withholding tenure from teachers and that doing so may impose some unintended costs on the system. After all, many teachers seem to like tenure, possibly because they overestimate the job security if offers or because it frees them from onerous and unpleasant evaluation requirements. Whatever the reasons, if teachers like tenure it should be thought of as an employment benefit and making tenure harder to get should be thought of as a reduction in benefits.
Moreover, if administrators aren't eager to dismiss teachers anyway, than granting them tenure is potentially a low-cost way of making their employees happy. Conceivably the more intense probationary evaluations are more likely to help staff improve, but I'd like to see the evidence that that's happening; in my experience such evaluations can be a mixed bag. And if principals don't enjoy elaborate evaluations either, lax tenure requirements could be a benefit for them, too.
All of which is just to say that I think people are overestimating the importance of tenure and taking a too-simplistic view of the role it plays in teacher recruitment and retention. To the extent that traditional tenure rules satisfy both teachers and administrators, reforming tenure might end up being more trouble than it's worth. - PB (@MrPABruno) (image source)