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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 07/13/2010

The myth of teacher tenure

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is Perry Zirkel, a professor of education and law at Lehigh University’s College of Education.

By Perry Zirkel
If only we could abolish teacher tenure, propose liberals and conservatives alike, surely we could improve our nation’s public schools. Right?

Wrong. Although hailed as a panacea, getting rid of teacher tenure will not solve the problem of incompetent teachers or noncompetitive student achievement in the global marketplace. Separate the lore from the law, and a clearer picture comes into focus for evaluating this prescription.

It is a myth that teacher tenure provides a guarantee of lifetime employment. Tenure is no more than a legal commitment (set by the state and negotiated union contracts) to procedural due process, ensuring notice and providing a hearing for generally accepted reasons for termination, such as incompetency, insubordination, and immorality.

Tenure’s primary purpose is economic job security, tied to the otherwise uncompetitive pay in comparison to other professions; however, tenure is not a lifetime guarantee.

Nor does tenure necessarily mean a costly and complicated process for terminating a poorly performing teacher. The balance between a teacher’s individual rights and the school board’s institutional responsibility can be a fairly efficient process. The extent of the procedural process that is “due” depends initially on the will of the public at the state legislative and local contractual level. It may be no more than reasonable written notice of the charges and a one- or two-night board hearing with prompt impartial review.

The prevailing belief is that the outcome of litigation is usually in favor of the plaintiff-teacher, not the defendant-district.

Quite the contrary. Schools districts consistently win the vast majority of the court decisions concerning the involuntary cessation of a teacher’s employment based on incompetency. In a comprehensive canvassing of court decisions based on teacher evaluation for compe tency, I found that the defendant districts prevailed in more than a 3-to-1 ratio, and that there was no significant difference between the outcomes for nontenured as compared to tenured teachers.

Indeed, in an often-touted table from the National Center for Education Statistics’ 2007-2008 School and Staffing Survey, the standardized percentage of teachers in the United States who lost their jobs due to poor performance via the non-renewal of nontenured teachers (.7%) was half of that for the termination of tenured teachers (1.4%).

Unless and until a multifaceted reform package, including the investment in compensation and professional development attracts and retains a competitive supply of excellent teachers, removing tenure will not change the termination rate, much less the student achievement gap.

Instead, we should look to tailor, not abolish, teacher tenure. Streamlining should include lengthening the probationary period, elevating the standard for moving from nontenured to tenured status, and integrating a growth model of student achievement as a proportional, not primary, piece of the evaluation system.

However, such steps amount to merely moving the deck chairs on the Titanic without progress on other key reforms.

Some are radical and difficult. For example, how do we get teaching competitive with other, more respected professions, such as medicine? One way would be to change the compensation level and mix for teachers from low salaries and defined-benefit pension plans to high salaries and joint-contribution pension plans similar to other professions.

As evidenced by Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s controversy in Washington D.C., moving in the direction of these structural reforms is a matter of political will and personal savvy.

Another part of the solution, which is more specific to teacher tenure, is more subtle, essential, and potentially easy. If we held administrators accountable -- not just institutionally in terms of school and district Adequate Yearly Progress measures as
defined by No Child Left Behind, but individually in terms of their own performance evaluation tied to pay and retention -- for rigorously implementing the existing legal requirements for teacher evaluation, the courts will predictably provide the requisite message that tenure is quite the opposite of ironclad protection for bad teachers.

Thus, the message is not so much to change the law as it is to change the lore regarding teacher tenure. Systematically “deselecting” the least-effective teachers -- like stemming the tide of creative teachers leaving the profession -- is possible by correcting the current beliefs and practices that amount to myths and mediocrity.


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By Valerie Strauss  | July 13, 2010; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, Teachers  | Tags:  ayp and teachers, eliminating teacher tenure, eliminating tenure for teachers, myth of tenure, no child left behind and teachers, teacher tenure, teachers  
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I think that the overall issue of teacher quality comprises two somewhat different lines of atttack. I'll break it down to 2 posts so as not to go overlong.

The first is tenure and the dismissal process due to poor performance. In my experience, principals have rarely held themselves accountable for poor performers and, at the same time, do very little to develop their teachers' skills. To rectify the problems with tenure, admin has to first understand what skills set they need for their students and ensure that their teachers are getting appropriate training to build their repetoire.

The idea that every teacher is effective in every job is absurd. For example, when we complain about teacher quality, rarely do we talk about those who teach in suburban schools. These teachers are often no better than their urban peers, meaning they have about the same skills sets. The difference is that they have a less challenging school population. They have far less remediation to do than their urban peers and far more resources to deal with behavioral issues. This ensures that even just-good-enough teachers do just fine.

Posted by: Nikki1231 | July 13, 2010 7:36 AM | Report abuse

The second problem that effects teacher quality is attaining and retaining good teachers, who either have or develop over time the skills sets needed for a given population of students. This is no easy task.

Throughout the United States we have a persistent problem of teacher quality. In our poorest urban schools, a turnstyle of teachers come out of a variety of teacher preparation programs, work for a short period of time and then leave. Some leave for other careers or leave for private or parochial schools. Less money but more peace of mind.

The idea that large numbers of uncaring, clocking-time teachers exist in our poor classrooms is clearly undermined by the low teacher-retention rate at the most challenging schools. Which brings us to this question: How do we keep new teachers who show promise and develop their skills sets so that they can be highly effective educators?

1) Pay more simply for working at challenging schools. Kind of like hazard pay. A few thousand a year more, not 100k or any other nonsense. teachers don't go into teaching to make a pile of dough but they do want recognition for more difficult work.

2) Clearly identify and provide additional personnel to expressly deal with violence and safety.

3) Establish postive behavioral programs across the entire school so that there isn't the inconsistency that plagues most schools. Bring in specialists who can help all school staff learn to teach social skills to students who lack them.

4) Lastly, ensure that all struggling students are tested for true grade levels with sufficient information on subtests so that teachers can develop more individualized learning programs.

The truth is that many things that you can do to improve *schools* are those that will enhance teacher-quality and promote the retention of the most talented, even in more challenging neighborhoods and districts.

Posted by: Nikki1231 | July 13, 2010 7:57 AM | Report abuse

This is the problem with trying to improve (as opposed to "reform") education, both the Professor and the 1st poster provide detailed thoughtful analysis of at least some of the issues facing inner city education, but each took at least 2-3 minutes to read. Compare that to the corporate-funded sloganeering of the Rhee/TFA/NTP crowd who simply shout "reform," "accountability," (for career teachers, not us) and "lazy union teachers" and get all the press, because the media has a limited attention span and can only process information in 20 second sound bites. That's why Wendy Kopp and Michelle Rhee are dubbed "education experts" while real education experts like Diane Ravitch and L:inda Darling-Hammond are ignored. (I think they use big words and statistics, which also confuses the Post Ed. Board.)

Posted by: mcstowy | July 13, 2010 10:59 AM | Report abuse

I'm sorry, as much as I'm against the Federal Govt. take over in education, I will never support tenure!!

I don't agree with the Feds sticking its nose in local issues. I just think it's a big mistake that tenure is offered to begin with.

Posted by: MOMwithAbrain | July 13, 2010 11:14 AM | Report abuse

MOMwithAbrain wrote: I don't agree with the Feds sticking its nose in local issues. I just think it's a big mistake that tenure is offered to begin with.
So you don't think that people are entitled to due process before losing their job? I've seen principals torment teachers for things that have absolutely nothing to do with effectiveness in the classroom. That should be allowed? If that were the case, every school would have a revolving door as far as staff is concerned. High rates of teacher turnover have been shown to have a negative effect on student achievement.

Posted by: musiclady | July 13, 2010 12:33 PM | Report abuse

I'd like to add to the discussion that the current system makes it VERY difficult for teachers with any experience to change jobs between districts. If an experienced teachers changes districts you pretty much start at the bottom of the pay scale again. Specifics vary, but a 20 year master teacher who gets a new principal does not in reality have the ability to simply move on.

Posted by: mamoore1 | July 13, 2010 1:22 PM | Report abuse


1) What is your understanding of why tenure exists in schools?

2) what is your explanation for why tenure is still embraced by the vast majority of successful, suburban districts in our country?

Posted by: Nikki1231 | July 13, 2010 1:33 PM | Report abuse

A lot of good teachers are fired before they are tenured for no cause. I wonder why the media never mentions this?

Posted by: aby1 | July 13, 2010 2:11 PM | Report abuse

A lot of good teachers are fired before they are tenured for no cause. I wonder why the media never mentions this?
Uh - probably b/c you just made it up.

Posted by: Broked | July 13, 2010 2:17 PM | Report abuse

So you don't think that people are entitled to due process before losing their job? I've seen principals torment teachers for things that have absolutely nothing to do with effectiveness in the classroom. That should be allowed?
You mean teachers should be treated the same way as every other job that exists in the country? Why not? Are they really that special, or are teachers just like the rest of us?

Posted by: Broked | July 13, 2010 2:20 PM | Report abuse


Does your job get sustained by public funding? If so, the taxpayers deserve to get workers who are *qualified* for their jobs.

You may be amazed but for decades, teaching was a patronage job. Any old hack could get employed in a school while good teachers, real educators were fired because the principal didn'tlike them. Again, taxpayers have a right to demand competence and the drive for objective measures of performance (like civil service exams) arose from this need. The measure agreed upon was 1) a period of probation followed by possibility of tenure 2) a system for addressing teaching failures and 3) seniority rights to reward dedication to the job.

Obviously, these measures have their weaknesses. This is why tenure rform is needed. However, just being able to fire people more easily won't fix any part of the problem. In fact, it could easily make the problem worse.

Posted by: Nikki1231 | July 13, 2010 2:46 PM | Report abuse


It is not a matter of teachers being "special". The idea is that citizens will end up relying on the students of today, tomorrow. If good teachers are being fired for no reason, or harassed out, that is not good for our country.

Posted by: celestun100 | July 13, 2010 4:00 PM | Report abuse

Perry Zirkle is just plain wrong. Read "The Dance of the Lemons" about the fight a principal had trying to fire a failing 70+ year old teacher:

Posted by: bbcrock | July 14, 2010 11:09 AM | Report abuse

@bbcrock--Thanks for that link. If that article is accurate (I've learned to face uch articles with a certain degree of skepticism) than most teachers would agree that the situation in LA is bad news. The problem is that the general public, after reading such an article, will think that all school systems operate the same way. This is not true. I teach in Montgomery County and I've seen ineffective teachers removed from the classroom. Typically they will resign before being fired for incompetence which is fine as it serves the purpose of getting them out. I've also seen very effective teachers harassed to the point of transferring to other schools where they are evaluated as highly effective. Employees deserve to be evaluated fairly which often is a costly process. My guess is that overly large urban systems like LA and NYC just don't have the needed funds and personnel to conduct fair and effective teacher evaluations. That doesn't mean that other systems don't.

Posted by: musiclady | July 14, 2010 12:45 PM | Report abuse

In New York, the process for getting rid of teachers can go on for years. Districts win most cases as they only take the best cases to a hearing due to the cost of paying the teacher to do nothing. Studies show that if you can get rid of the lowest 5%, student performance will significantly increase.

Posted by: DrDougGreen | July 15, 2010 9:45 AM | Report abuse

First, I think that teacher tenure should be dramatically changed because it keeps bad teachers in classroom when they don't know the material that they said they knew. To teach
children the teacher needs to know what they are doing. Experience is key and the fact that our schools cannot provide that for children shows us that we are in need of change. The parents expect that their school will provide great teachers who teach need to know material and the USA school system is letting those parents down.

Second, I think that teacher tenure should be changed because it uses up millions of dollars each year keeping bad teachers in schools that do not teach children in what they need to know. Kids foundations start in school and if the teachers union is more worried about money than teaching children than there is a massive need for change.

Third, I think that teacher tenure should be substantially changed because instead of helping to improve teachers that do not meet the expectations they settle for less than what parents expect of their school to teach their children. If teacher tenure is a problem,which i'm sure it is, and if it is so hard to fire these teachers, then we should make the best of what we have and just reform everything that is not satisfactory.

Finally, i think that teacher tenure should be changed because it keeps bad teachers in classrooms not performing as they should, it consumes millions of dollars that could be used to help students learn instead reforming the problem, and instead of fixing the problem all the teahers union does is bicker.

Posted by: brandtlapkogmailcom | July 16, 2010 3:02 PM | Report abuse

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