All of the recent talk about the need to eliminate teacher tenure has gotten me thinking. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t fully understand the ins and outs of teacher tenure in public education. Working in independent schools, it isn’t something I’ve ever dealt with on a personal level. Perhaps I shouldn’t wade too far into this debate, seeing as how I don’t really know what I’m talking about, but that has never stopped me before, so here goes.

First, my instincts tell me that no teacher should be totally insulated from dismissal, so perhaps eliminating teacher tenure makes sense. If we’re being honest, there are a lot of unengaged teachers in the public schools. I had a few of them myself–but I also found a way to be successful without their help (and I don’t think this point can be emphasized enough: at the end of the day, responsibility for success must rest first and foremost with the students themselves).

Firing every single one of those bad teachers tomorrow–as some seem to demand–is not a practical solution, and more importantly, it would not solve the problems that our educational system faces, even if it were possible. On top of this, the little bit that I’ve read suggests that teachers can be terminated for such reasons as “incompetence” or “inadequate performance,” so would we really need to eliminate teacher tenure to get rid of the bad apples? Perhaps so. It’s certainly easier for politicians to sell (and voters to buy) “firing bad teachers” than defining incompetence or inadequate performance in the classroom. If NCLB has shown us anything, it’s that the very attempt of defining competence or adequacy in the classroom is fraught with challenges.

That said, a shake-up of the system couldn’t hurt. This is by no means a simple fix–I don’t think people can be scared into doing their jobs well–but it may be a starting point. Combine a more challenging path to tenure with better support for early career teachers, substantial professional development, and the promise of an eventual increase in pay, and maybe we start to get somewhere. Make tenure more difficult to achieve, and I suspect that people would begin to strive for it. Make it the next brass ring in the never ending quest for brass rings. (There are many reasons, after all, why so many Ivy League seniors apply to Teach for America; it’s not simply idealism or altruism.)

I guess what I’m getting at is that maybe teacher tenure should be granted only to those teachers who can demonstrate competence. Notice that I did not say that we should fire all teachers who are not granted tenure. Simple math dictates that we need at least some of those mediocre teachers to stick around for at least a little while longer. Nor do I advocate determining competence based on standardized test scores. This doesn’t work. What we need is a more sophisticated model.

Although tenure in higher education faces significant challenges as well, perhaps we can take a page from the university’s book. Not only must a junior professor demonstrate patience, serving in his or her junior role for five or so years, he or she must also demonstrate competence. In history, at least, this means a proven track record of peer-reviewed publications, respectable colleague and student evaluations, and service to the department and the institution, among other things. Scholars spend a significant amount of their preparing this file for the committee.

Obviously, the actual rubric would look quite different for K-12 teachers–most notable would be the absence of publications–but I see value in requiring teachers to compile a portfolio to “sell themselves” to a tenure review committee made up of multiple constituencies–fellow teachers, administrators, board members, and perhaps even parents.

This is naive, I know. But what I see is a lot of entrenched interests arguing past each other, and I think we need some “outside the box” solutions.

Shifting gears a bit, I can say that as an independent school teacher, I long for some sort of tenure system not unlike the one I describe above. (On this note, is anyone out there aware of an independent school that does grant tenure? I’d love to hear about it.) I suppose I’m looking at a series of one-year contracts from now until I retire, and this isn’t exactly reassuring. Given all that teachers are asked to do, and given the price at which they’re asked to do it, the promise of job security goes along way toward a teacher’s peace of mind. (Summers “off” are nice, sure–but they’re not enough in and of themselves, especially if you’re worried about having the next year “off” entirely.)

The fluctuating independent school enrollments of the current economy make any such promise difficult at the moment, but if lifetime tenure is too much to ask (and realistically speaking, it probably is), I would also be very much in favor of a system of contracts that gradually increase in length. It might look something like this:

  • One-year contract
  • One-year contract (Year 2)
  • One-year contract (Year 3)
  • Two-year contract (Years 4-5)
  • Two-year contract (Years 6-7)
  • Three-year contract (Years 8-10)

From there, teachers could either be granted longer contracts (five years? ten years?) at the discretion of the administration, or they could continue on the “three-year plan.” This would still allow schools some leeway in their staffing, but also provide faculty with a measure of job security. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I think this would inspire loyalty among faculty as well as ensure the institutional memory and program stability that independent schools seem to covet.

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