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Abolish Tenure?

The Virginia state legislature has been making headlines for discussing whether women should have to undergo a trans-vaginal ultrasound before having an abortion, but the same legislative body is receiving kudos, from the liberal New Republic, for seeking to abolish tenure for teachers in public schools.

In backing the proposal, the editors of The New Republic drew a distinction between higher education, where they think tenure is appropriate, and K-12 education, where they want tenure “abolished.” Universities are “our country’s ideas factories,” they write. “And so it makes a certain amount of sense that we would want university professors—the people our society relies on to explore ideas, including unpopular ones—to enjoy protections from ideological or intellectual retribution. But this rationale doesn’t apply at the K-12 level.”

The editorial goes on to say that “there isn’t a good” rationale for tenure in elementary and secondary education. “Indeed, tenure is so illogical that it’s impossible to see why it shouldn’t be abolished.”

But there is a deep logic, and a long history, behind the policy of tenure for both K-12 and higher-education teachers that the New Republic ignores. As the legendary teacher union leader Albert Shanker (1928-1997) noted, before tenure policies were adopted in New York City in 1917, teachers could be fired for disagreeing with the mayor, or refusing to support him in re-election. They could be fired for getting pregnant, or for joining a union.

Now some will point out that today, there are civil-service, antidiscrimination, and labor laws to address these issues. But there are other rationales for tenure that remain important today. Tenure laws protect teachers with seniority and higher pay from being arbitrarily replaced by cheaper, younger teachers during budget crises. They protect teachers with high standards from the wrath of parents angry that their children received poor grades or were disciplined for misbehavior.

Conservative Virginia legislators and The New Republic argue that current tenure laws protect incompetent teachers, but tenure, properly defined, is not a lifetime guarantee of employment, but a right to know why a discharge is being sought and to have the issue decided by an impartial body. In many districts across the country, teachers and administrators recognize that some educators with tenure should not remain in the profession and have put processes in place to remove them. Using a system broadly familiar to those in higher education—the concept of “peer review”—expert teachers seek to work with struggling educators to improve their craft, but if it is impossible to do so, recommend that these teachers be terminated. In Montgomery County, Maryland, according to a recent Washington Post article, a peer-assistance and -review program has “led to the dismissal of 245 teachers and the resignation of 300″ since 2001. In the decade prior to that, when peer review was not in place, only “a handful were terminated for poor performance.”

Teacher tenure, The New Republic argues, does “real damage to the public education system,” but the magazine never explains why, if that is the case, some of the leading education systems in the world—in Germany, Sweden and Japan, for example—have tenure protections that are even stronger than those in the United States.

Teacher tenure, in both higher-education and K-12 schooling, is an important mechanism for attracting talent. Stanford’s Terry Moe, a strong union critic, finds in his polling that “most teachers see the security of tenure as being worth tens of thousands of dollars a year.” His survey suggests a majority of teachers would need to be paid 50 percent more to give up tenure. Take away tenure without substantially increasing pay, and the pool of qualified candidates for the teaching profession is likely to shrink. (Although some might argue that talented teachers will feel confident and flock to teaching even without tenure, research has long found that self-confidence and actual ability are not as tightly correlated as one would hope.)

Most importantly, like the tenure of professors in higher education, tenure of K-12 teachers protects academic freedom. A science teacher in a fundamentalist community who wants to teach evolution, not pseudo-scientific creationism or intelligent design, needs tenure protection. While The New Republic identifies university professors as “the people our society relies on to explore ideas, including unpopular ones,” teachers, too, are in the ideas business. Every day, they seek to spark ideas, sometime controversial ones, in the tender minds of young students—some of whom may grow up to be editors of The New Republic and not realize what their teachers have done for them.

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