Whither tenure?

California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is bent on ending teacher tenure as we know it. If legislators won't budge, he's gathered signatures to put it on the ballot and let voters decide. "If they don't do their job," quoth the Gubernator, "then we go to special election without any doubt."

It's enough to make one ask: What is tenure and why do teachers have it? Where did this peculiar custom come from and what exactly is the matter with it?

Tenure, of course, means you have a guaranteed job and salary, year after year, pretty much unrelated to your performance. Sure, the job itself may be eliminated if a school is closed or the system shrinks. And if you do something horrendous—a criminal or moral offense, say—you might be terminated despite your tenure. But such things are rare and painful. The norm for tenured employees is that their job and paycheck are assured from one year to the next and while their performance might be evaluated, it has little bearing on their employment or salary.

Tenure in modern America is found, with minor exceptions, in four places: the civil service, the judiciary, universities, and schools. Everybody else has a contract or is some sort of at-will employee.

The history of tenure for university professors is bound up in the long saga of academic freedom and its protection. Traces can be found in battles over governance of the earliest European universities, but it's mainly a 20th century development, famously enshrined in a 1940 "statement of principles" by the American Association of University Professors, which held that "After the expiration of a probationary period, teachers or investigators should have permanent or continuous tenure, and their service should be terminated only for adequate cause, except in the case of retirement for age, or under extraordinary circumstances because of financial exigencies." This principle was tested during the McCarthy era and today is generally adhered to on college campuses, at least for those in "tenure track" positions.

One can wonder whether a principle that made sense where learning was rare and learned people were vulnerable still applies to a land that employs over a million faculty members for its 16 million university students. One can question whether such a principle was more important back when nearly every professor was an active contributor to the store of human knowledge than today when campuses abound in nine-hour-a-week instructors whose "scholarly" contributions could fit into (and be less valuable than) a Kleenex box.

Moreover, tenure sometimes shields professors who do outrageous things. Recent squalid examples include an alleged terrorist on the faculty of the University of South Florida and that contemptible fellow at the University of Colorado who described the 9/11 victims as "little Eichmanns." The former malefactor was eventually dismissed; the latter's case is in the hands of a faculty committee charged with looking into "research misconduct." But for tenure, I doubt he'd be handled so gently.

The good news is that, in the typical university, "getting tenure" is a big deal. Ordinarily, an instructor or assistant professor must strive for five to seven years to demonstrate his/her scholarly prowess and productivity, as well as (often but not always) classroom skills. An elaborate review and judgment process is followed before tenure is conferred, and every year thousands of youngish academics learn that they are not going to get it and must therefore seek work elsewhere.

Tenure in public schools is vastly easier to get. In most of the U.S. today, under state law, it comes more or less automatically after two to four years of employment by a school system. In many cases, the third or fourth year's teaching contract lasts forever. Which means, in hundreds of thousands of cases, the person getting tenure is in his/her mid-twenties, has accomplished little other than to survive a few years in the classroom, and has not been judged by anyone other than a supervisor or principal. Whereupon one has a job indefinitely in that school system, assuming one wants to stay.

Some states now deny that they tenure schoolteachers, but in fact nearly all of them use other terms for essentially the same thing: "continuing contracts" or "due process procedures" under which a teacher is presumed to have ongoing employment unless the school system goes through a costly, burdensome and time consuming dismissal process. (You can find a compilation of state-specific information here.)

Teacher tenure weakens the quest for quality K-12 education in five ways:

First, it removes a powerful incentive for teachers to strive throughout their careers to "leave no child behind." By eradicating risk to the teacher's own job security, tenure means, in practice, that the student is far more apt to be held accountable for learning than are those who teach him—and that real school-based accountability (including the restructurings and interventions built into NCLB) carry scant real-world significance for teachers.

Second, though it's probably true that few experienced teachers are lemons, the very existence of tenure gives the entire occupation the reputation of protecting its incompetents rather than self-policing and quality-controlling.

Third, the fact that tenure arrives with the fourth or fifth year's contract gives school systems an undesirable incentive to keep restocking their classrooms with beginning teachers so as to avoid overburdening their ranks (and budgets) with people who then have the right to stick around forever.

Fourth, because teacher tenure is given so rapidly, so automatically, and at such a young age, winning it is no great accomplishment and signifies no particular prowess or ability as a teacher.

Fifth, because tenure is specific to individual school systems, it discourages teacher mobility. In a highly mobile society, that deters able people from entering and staying in the teaching field if, for example, they imagine one day relocating from Trenton to Tucson. It also makes personnel management harder for school systems, particularly in shrinking communities where virtually every teacher may now be tenured—and where it's unrealistic for the superintendent to suggest that someone consider moving from, say, a declining inner city system to a booming exurban opportunity.

Schwarzenegger's right. Tenure and its equivalent may make sense for federal judges but not for public school teachers.

"Reform plans head to ballot," by Harrison Sheppard, Los Angeles Daily News, May 11, 2005

"Don't count out 'Governator Schwarzenegger,'" by Chuck DeVore, Human Events, May 16, 2005

"Eight state initiatives await final approval," by Jeff Katz, California Aggie, May 16, 2005

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