Does teacher tenure have a future?

As a school law instructor and tenured associate professor of educational leadership, I perhaps have a different view of tenure than most P-12 teachers. As we look to what the future of tenure may be, I believe that it’s important to recognize a few key issues that will shape the discussion and form of tenure in the years to come.

Before we begin, it may be helpful to have a quick overview of the history of tenure. Tenure was created to protect teachers against the personal and/or political whims of school administrators (and, sometimes, parents). Initiated by New Jersey in 1910, educator tenure laws gradually spread across the country. Today most states extend some kind of tenure protection to teachers. Protections typically vest for P-12 educators after two or three years in the profession, unlike their postsecondary counterparts, whose own vesting usually only accrues after six to ten years of probationary status. More recently, a few states have actually eliminated teacher tenure or discussed doing so.

So, with that background quickly covered, let’s get into the big issues. Note that the points outlined below don’t address whether or not teacher tenure is ideologically or educationally desirable. Instead, they highlight popular belief systems about the practice.

  1. Many Americans believe that tenure prevents incompetent teachers from being terminated. They see news stories that highlight how long and how much it costs to get rid of bad teachers. They see tales of the New York City Schools’ “rubber rooms.” And they’re not exactly thrilled.
  2. Many Americans have conceptual difficulty with the concept of guaranteed employment. They believe that if they don’t perform on their jobs, they suffer consequences. They see that during times of economic hardship, their jobs are in danger. They feel that workers must be subject to some level of accountability – perhaps including pay – for the quality of their performance. They don’t see these happening in the same way with teachers.
  3. Many Americans feel that tenure and union seniority provisions in collective bargaining agreements unfairly impact talented, but newer, educators. When push comes to shove in most schools – for example, when teachers have to be laid off – seniority and tenure status typically trump considerations of teacher quality and effectiveness. Similarly, citizens don’t understand why in many districts objections of senior faculty often impair schools’ ability to offer hiring incentives that would attract new teachers in hard-to-fill, high-need subject areas such as math, science, special education, and English-as-a-second-language.
  4. Many citizens don’t buy the ‘inability to fairly assess’ proposition. There is a deep skepticism by many that teachers’ jobs are somehow so special that it’s impossible to devise fair teacher evaluation systems, ones based on professional standards and student learning outcomes. Many Americans are in people-oriented (rather than product-oriented) professions, yet they still are somehow evaluated by supervisors.
  5. Many Americans deeply intertwine the issues of ‘tenure’ and ‘unions.’ As union membership continues to decline in America, this commingling is increasingly an unpopular affiliation. Unpopular teacher union political lobbying often doesn’t help any. Neither does the fact that in many communities unions are successfully bargaining for pay raises while non-educators are taking pay cuts or are being laid off. Neither does the common practice of sacrificing some teacher jobs in order to maintain current salaries and benefits rather than sharing the pain across the membership by taking across-the-board cuts.
  6. Most Americans don’t enjoy tenure rights themselves. They don’t understand why educators need tenure protections when other jobs and professions don’t receive them. This is particularly true since the inception of civil rights and other employment rights legislation, which many feel has eliminated the need for separate contractual provisions guaranteeing tenure in addition to what laws already protect.

As a result of these and other issues, many Americans don’t really understand or support tenure. Instead, they see tenure as a refuge for incompetence and a platform for political lobbying that’s perceived as often being only marginally related to education. They wonder why the talented untenured teacher gets fired while the marginally-skilled veteran gets to take over her classroom just because she’s been around longer. They take the incredibly low teacher termination rates in most school districts and compare those to the number of poor teachers their children experience over the years. And they shake their head in dismay.

If you pulled aside your average non-educator American citizen and inquired about his support for tenure, I would venture that such support would be fairly low. In other words, I think it is safe to say that regardless of whatever benefits there still may be for teacher tenure, those arguments are losing in the court of public relations.

I don’t think the education profession is going to be able to withstand the lack of public support for tenure for too much longer. Teacher tenure is too easy a political talking point and too easy to mock with soundbites and statistics. Without compelling rationales for continuing the practice – ones that resonate both intellectually and emotionally with the American public and politicians – it’s only a matter of time before tenure inexorably disappears from the educational landscape.

So if tenure is worth preserving – and many think it is – the challenge for American teachers is to somehow address the issues delineated above and sway the American public back in favor. Right now, I don’t see that happening in any substantive way. Even if teachers made this a major PR push over the next few years, I think it’s an uphill battle.

[cross-posted at TeachHub]

24 Responses to “Does teacher tenure have a future?”

  1. John Weidner, Sr. Reply April 19, 2010 at 11:13 am

    Good points, Scott. However, as long as the teacher unions have political inroads (See the Florida Governor’s action last week) tenure will take many, many years to change, if at all.

  2. Tenure is here to stay – why shouldn’t be? It is an incredible benefit to instructors and there is no motive for teachers to change it. The problem is that there are too many teachers (I work in community colleges) who are not publishing, innovating, researching, updating their curriculum from the time they learned it. (I know of a CSU class on Nobel Laureates in Literature that stops at novels written in the 70s.) Why should these teachers need protection that their union can’t provide? I have seen teachers who were drunks or had sexual harassment claims against them protected by tenure. There are faculty who refuse to participate in committees (because the admins “are evil”), merely punch the clock for professional development, and only come to meetings to complain. Tenure is a real crock.

  3. Interesting post, Scott—and as a full time classroom teacher, I have mixed reactions to teacher tenure. A part of me hates it, simply because it prevents creative thinking about teacher compensation. That means no matter how hard I work, I’m never going to be rewarded for my efforts in the way that I think I deserve.

    Discouraging to say the least.

    But another side of me really wrestles with the “how do you evaluate teachers fairly” issue. I’m not sure there can be fair evaluation simply because everyone—policymakers, parents, principals—has different opinions about what exactly it is that a “successful teacher” does.

    I’m a perfect example: While my students all pass their standardized exams, they do so with some of the lowest scores on the hallway—-yet most parents are thrilled with the work that I do as a teacher because their children end up reinvigorated and excited about learning again.

    So how do I get evaluated? Would my ratings and compensation package change every time that a new principal with different priorities came into my building? Is it possible that someone worthy of termination by one set of criteria can be considered irreplaceable by a different set of criteria?

    Before I’m ready to see tenure pitched for good, I want my community—whether that be the town, district, state or nation—to clearly define a set of tangible outcomes that they expect teachers to meet in order to “stay employed” or “be rewarded.”

    As it currently stands, I feel like an archer with one arrow shooting for several targets set up by different stakeholder groups: I might hit a bulls-eye on the first shot and still be roundly criticized for missing the mark.

    That’s frustrating.

    Any of this make sense?

  4. That means no matter how hard I work, I’m never going to be rewarded for my efforts in the way that I think I deserve.

    Even many higher education institutions have built-in mechanisms (like it or not) to reward professional growth and recognition – promotions from assistant to associate professor, distinguished chairs, rotating department chair responsibilities, etc.

    When will P-12 education catch up?

  5. We don’t have tenure in Texas (a non-union state), but we do use seniority, and my fear is that if districts hit a money crunch – many would choose to gut their experienced, and most costly staff members quickly for cheap newcomers. Seniority protects higher paid staff from getting fired simply because they cost more.

    I also do feel that there is some value to experience. I am finishing my 15th year in the classroom and really feel that I’m only just now beginning to hit my potential as a teacher. It took many years to develop classroom management skills, instructional technique, and familiarity with the many systems that flow through a school to get to the point where I feel highly proficient. I still do not feel like a master teacher, but I feel like I’m on my way. Much of this is difficult to measure and hard to teach in a book. I’ve read many, many books about, by and for teachers. But it has been real classroom experience that has taught me the most.

    I expect that many teachers feel they are one bad, vindictive or incompetent administrator from getting a poor evaluation and on the road to the job hunt. Tenure, seniority or professional protective practices give teachers a feeling that they can weather a bad administrator or two.

    Does this help bad teachers stay on the job? Unfortunately it does. But it is often because poor administrators did nothing when they had the chance to – before that teacher got tenure/seniority/etc. Too many times bad teachers are simply allowed to find new positions at other schools instead of being removed from the profession. This often takes an investment of time and documentation by a vigilant administrator. Too bad it many times takes a criminal case before anyone thinks to act.

  6. I have heard a couple of teachers say “Thank god I got tenure, I don’t have to listen to my students anymore.” Seriously, I have heard that at least twice and something close to it on other occasions. In other words, when they are accountable, they will do something about things that don’w work, and when they get tenure, there is no accountability. You get two teachers – the one before tenure and the one after. Administrators are not psychic – it is hard to measure personal integrity and character and I am sure there are union rules against either 🙂

  7. “Most Americans” think standardized testing is a good thing…
    Just because “Most Americans” think something, does not necessarily mean it is the best thing. Agreed that tenure has its problems – however, until a reasonable/realistic method of performance assessment comes along I would find it hard to accept the further devaluation of teachers by further limiting their input and voice.
    While many complain about teacher tenure, I see far too many decision makers that have little to no experience (or have been out of the classroom for 10-20+ years) in the classroom. I would like to see administrators and principals be required to spend every fifth year in the classroom – it never hurts to be reminded what teaching is truly involves.

  8. Isn’t tenure just another part of the compensation package offered to teachers? Like a pension (also almost non-existent in private industry), tenure is an incentive to stay in what is a relatively low-paying, low-status job. If society wants to expose teachers to the risks of the marketplace, society should be willing either to pay those teachers a wage similar to other knowledge workers or change their working conditions in other ways (such as in private schools where there is no tenure, but student loads are often half that of public schools and there is generally greater autonomy in the classroom). Why should teachers give up a significant benefit for nothing? And, why are they taken to task for it? No other workers, union or no, would give up this level of compensation for nothing either.
    I also have to note that tenure is not synonymous with mediocrity. Students in Massachusetts, home to one of the strongest teachers’ unions in the country, recently scored in the top 6 internationally on the TIMSS (, suggesting that excellent performance, excellent teaching, and tenure can co-exist.

  9. I am a student majoring in education at the University of South Alabama. I have been perusing you posts for over two weeks now and am now a big fan of your blog. I would have to agree with Dante Alighieri’s comment about tenure protecting people who shouldn’t have a place in the classroom. I too have seen this first hand and the results were detrimental to many of my fellow students. However, on the other hand, I like the fact that tenure does protect the rights of those who deserve it during a time when it seems like teachers’ voices often go unheard. Tenure is like a double edged sword. Feel free to check out my blog at

  10. Tenure is certainly a complicated issue. I agree with you, Scott, in that the fight to save tenure might be a losing one.

    I wonder if K-12 teaching will evolve into a profession for the young. The solutions people are throwing out there right now are seem to support it: tearing down tenure, pressuring principals to cut budgets and get rid of older staff, certification programs that bring recent graduates into the classroom with little preparation and sometimes little desire to keep teaching after two years, etc.

    Do you think it’s possible that we’ll start assuming people should stop teaching in K-12 at a much younger age?

  11. I’m not sure why some of you think that tenue keeps a person in a position. All it does is better protect them according to the collective bargaining agreement. A tenured teacher can be dismissed just like a nontenued teacher. The administration has to follow the provisions of the CBA. There isn’t any special piece to tenure that keeps a poor performing teacher in their job. Does the administration have to prove “just cause”— yes, do they have to show evidence that this person should be removed from their job — yes, do multiple administrators have to agree on the performace of this teacher — yes… I guess I would like to know why that is a bad thing. I would think that everyone would want that in their workplace. So, just because you don’t have it in yours do you feel justified in wanting others to suffer with you??

  12. I have taught in a state that didn’t have tenure (North Dakota.) I have tenure in the state I am in (Minnesota.)

    I can’t say I have noticed much difference, especially when due process rules are followed. In fact, I think it is harder to get rid of a poor performing early career teacher in the non-tenure state because of those due process laws. Same rules and protections for everyone…

    Nick, I hope that teaching doesn’t become a profession of the young. My kids NEED someone with experience teaching them. Teachers who know what to do and have done it well often.

  13. At least you can sue a doctor for malpractice! 🙂

    Teachers think we are talking about their jobs – we need to get away from thinking of schools as employment agencies and retirement homes. What we are really talking about is the many students who are graduating without the basic skills they need to succeed. There are many causes to this and one (among many) is the fact that poor teachers are so difficult to replace. I have seen the review process take two years and the poorly performing teacher is STILL in the classroom not doing the job up until the bitter end. A teacher looks at this situation and see two years of a contract – everyone else sees hundreds of students who have to waste their time with this teacher not learning anything.

    BTW I have met some amazingly innovative teachers who keep up with their subject and what is happening in teaching and learning who are well over 55 – the myth that only the young get new things is perpetuated by the lazy.

  14. The fact that “Many Americans believe that tenure prevents incompetent teachers from being terminated” is a symptom of a public relations crisis rather than an attack on tenure. What has led these Americans to believe that public education includes incompetent teachers?

    As a teacher, I have to behave as a PR agent to the 28 families in my class. My district can’t afford to hemorrhage students to charters due to ignorance or inaccurate perceptions. Tenure is little comfort to teachers in a district with sinking enrollment.

  15. It’s not age. It’s not everyone. It’s not random.

    As a practicing administrator, I do believe that a teacher should be a part of the building team, and tenure can create a feeling that doing so is not necessary. If a school hires a principal that a teacher does not like, with tenure it is the teacher that causes the problems (such as going through the motions, using the same curriculum for 20 years, and just being negative), yet the principal must document this and then support it with another administrator. I’ll tell you that isn’t always easy when administrators are few in a district-personal experience with this one. Also to the concept of a principal being in the classroom to understand the current challenges faced by teachers, I agree. With limited substitutes, I am in the classroom several times a week – not observing but teaching. Then I stay late and come in early to get my own work done. It is legitimate to believe this is necessary as it does allow me to see the daily routines used by my teachers. I also know when these routines are lackluster and inadequate. Why would it then be inappropriate for me to determine a specific teacher should be removed from their duties if I believed our students were not getting the opportunities they deserve? If I am not fulfilling that role, I believe that it would be effective to have a superintendent remove me from my duties, and if that was not being done, the board should remove the superintendent as well.

    It requires due process. It requires diligence. It requires integrity.

  16. I think it’s likely that tenure will survive for the same reasons it was created. Teachers don’t make enough to keep people in the profession without some amount of job security. There are social pressures pushing people away from the profession (it’s stressful, it pays poorly) and tenure acts as a pressure pushing in the other direction.

    Tenure is also valuable because as you note, it protects teachers from the whims of their evaluators. A good teacher who takes risks can’t point to their sales figures or profit margins to justify staying in their job. A good teacher in a tough school probably can’t reference their students’ sky-high test scores. But if we want talented teachers to perform with some confidence, to take some risks, and not to kowtow to every administrator who saunters through the door, some degree of union protection is necessary.

    If we ditch tenure without significant increases in pay and professional respect, we’ll soon find that only sub-par performers will go into the teaching profession. Then we’ll get tenure back.

  17. I’m a teacher and I’m against tenure. Quality teaching is about effectiveness and has very little to do with time spent in a classroom. I’ve been teaching for 3 years and I have been shown to be more effective, in my school, with our students, than teachers who have been teaching fro 15, 20 or 30 years.

    How I do know this? I am evaluated informally each week and formally 4 times a year by a highly qualified teacher who has been trained on how to evaluate other teachers and by my principal who also has that quality training. In addition, I’ve seen my evaluators teach and lead and I respect them.

    My scores from evaluations are well above proficient and near excellent (on the rubric terminology). In conversation and from knowing the rubric and watching other teachers, I know they are lacking in areas.

    Is the rubric perfect for evaluation. No. Nothing is perfect for evaluation. Is excellent. Yes. It truly measures quality teaching.

    Tenure makes it hard to reach teachers. They simply aren’t able to change, don’t want to change, or don’t care. Our students can’t and shouldn’t have to put up with teachers who aren’t at least proficient.

    Good day.

  18. I’ve been teaching for 27 years.

    I used to be completely against tenure because it can breed complacency and protect mediocre teachers who aren’t driven by any personal sense of craft. But as others have pointed out, lazy and/or exhausted/overwhelmed administrators should take care of this. But notice I said “used to be against tenure.”

    A few years ago, I had a student who got C’s in my class. He didn’t feel like doing homework, didn’t study much, and put more effort into being popular than he put into schoolwork. In other words, he was a typical high school senior–not a bad kid, just getting through a required English class. His average was 78 and he was fine with it.

    Maybe other experienced teachers know where this is going.

    The boy’s father, a prominent local politician, wasn’t fine with it, and of course, it was my fault. Maybe the father was used to “fixing” the kid’s grades? I don’t know. But it was hell. I gave the kid extra work, extra time, etc., but he didn’t do it. He wasn’t interested. Ok. Again–nice enough kid. No big deal to him.

    But the father sent me letters, called me at home, and issued threat after threat. He had meetings with administrators, counselors, and Board members who, in this city, are elected. From what that man put me through, I can say with complete certainty, had I not been tenured, I would’ve been, as they say in baseball, outta here.

  19. I will be tenured this coming September, and I do agree with some points that have been made. It is somewhat of a shame when I see veteran teachers doing the same lessons they’ve been doing 20 years ago.It is also a disgrace when there is a slight change in performing tasks such as creating lesson plans, and veteran teachers are so quick to roll their eyes and sulk in disapproval. We are in an ever changing world – things like that do happen. I have seen too many veteran teachers not performing to their highest potentials and the principal agrees too – that is sad, and nothing can be done about it because they are tenured teachers. All hell would break loose if merit pay came into effect – imagine that. I’m sure that would shape them up.

  20. Seniority, tenure, collectively bargaining are all things that protect the status quo in schools. By attempting to improve things for teachers we have built a system to protect the mediocre amd which prevents rewarding the exceptional.
    We have become a society of entitlement where we accept and even enjoy hearing about how much some people get paid for doing as little as possible.
    People focus on improving our pre-k-12 system while never looking at what they are up against or even the resources which are being allocated to them when compared to the community college or university system. We talk about how tenure is allowing the veterans in the elementary and secondary schools remain while we loose the young and enthusiastic due to tenure or collective bargaining agreements. Just think how much better the young and enthusiastic teachers might be if the university were to evaluate out their obstinate veterans.
    Even tenure and collective bargaining are not to blame where high expectations are not being placed on staff by their administrators/supervisors.

  21. Tenure is a slippery slope statewide for teachers…however my question remains…which states have eliminated tenure for public school teachers totally and absolutely?

    Also how do rules of tenure affect administrators in schools who were previously teachers? How are they evaluated statewide?

  22. I work in a non-union, non-tenure state and it drives me nuts to hear colleagues from other (unionized) states bash their own unions. At the end of each year, I don’t sign a contract, I sign what amounts to a term of indenture. I sign this because there is no union to advocate for me, there is no union to get me tenure, and there is no other choice, save not being employed.

    While the oft-publicized examples of tenure misuse dominate our perceptions, I think that tenure can allow teachers to challenge authority. The district in which I teach has a tech coordinator who is an abomination. While I understand that there are many different types of tech coordinators, he seems to take his job as police officer of the internet to be his one and only calling, the one and only line in his job description. I can’t tell you how many times in 10 years of teaching colleagues have gotten riled up and wondered out loud how he still has a job. I can’t tell you how many useful sites are whimsically blocked. I would love to show you the acceptable use policy that gets cited on the Lightspeed Systems Screen of Death-block and demonstrate how it is so vague that the it’s tantamount to censorship. No wait, it is straight, undemocratic, authoritarian censorship. For example, there’s nothing in the policy that speaks about blogs, yet sites are blocked because they are blogs. That’s it, just “site is categorized as: blogs.”

    However, without tenure, there is no protection should anyone choose to do anything but complain to our principals. Heck, there’s no protection for our principals should they choose to do anything with our concerns. In short, there’s little I can do without risking my income, and through extension, my family’s well being. Tenure would at least give me protection to try something more.

  23. As a college student who once majored in education i think tenure will be around alot longer but isnt promised.I think they wont offer this promise to as many as they have in the past.They should keep it around to encurge workers.With Georgia being a union organized state it will take alot of work to get that changed or taken out period.I feel we should and will have a tenure future.It may take more to earn it but it will be around for years to come.Education really isnt going any where.

  24. If we ditch tenure without significant increases in pay and professional respect, we’ll soon find that only sub-par performers will go into the teaching profession. Then we’ll get tenure back.. Quality teaching has nothing to do with tenure.

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