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Bruno: Your Tenure Reform Debate Is Overblown

2434803602_8b6041eb9fThe 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)


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Paul--most teachers who didn't get tenure had their probation extended. . .I interpreted this as an indication that two years may not be long enough for a fair evaluation.
Also, speaking as someone with tenure, I really agree re: thinking of it as a job benefit. I think that people who who favor tenure reform figure "If you're a good teacher, you have nothing to worry about." In one sense, sure, but job security is job security. I'm confident that my university values the job I do, but I sure don't shrug and think that tenure has no value to me.
I'm not saying tenure couldn't be improved--I think it could--but your comments illuminate some important aspects of the issue.

I think that's certainly one way to interpret the large number of teachers who had their probation extended, and I'm sure in some cases the administrators came to the conclusion that an additional year was necessary for evaluation purposes. I think the numbers are also consistent with the hypothesis that administrators were feeling some pressure not to grant too many tenure cases but still weren't particularly interested in dismissing their teachers. I guess we'll have to wait and see what happens to the teachers who had their probation extended in subsequent years.

As for the value of tenure, I just wonder about the extent to which tenure really provides job security for K-12 teachers, since it's not clear to me how likely they would be to be dismissed even in the absence of tenure. I think the answer is "somewhat likely, but probably not as likely as they think". And in my (very limited) experience with tenure, I've found that I took a lot more value from avoiding onerous evaluation processes than from any improvement in my job security. (Although as a middle school science teacher with little seniority, the threats to my job security were maybe not typical.)

I think my only problem with the tenure system is that I’ve seen it lend teachers that aren’t necessarily the best in their field credence over young teachers in terms of job position. It doesn’t always promote the innovation necessary to best benefit students.

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