Across the country, the teacher tenure debate is heating up.
In Los Angeles this week, a judge allowed a lawsuit that would overturn teacher tenure laws and seniority rights to move forward. A committee in the North Carolina legislature is now studying a bill that would eliminate tenure for all teachers.
On Election Day, Idaho voters rejected a series of anti-teacher laws, including scrapping tenure, proposed by the state legislature. In South Dakota, voters shot down an effort to make teacher tenure a local option instead of automatic statewide.
Teacher tenure is complex, controversial, and political throughout the United States, and many state legislatures plan to examine the matter in their upcoming 2013 legislative sessions.
What is tenure, exactly? Simply put, it gives teachers a permanent contract after a set term of employment, ensuring that they cannot be fired without just cause. In order to fire a teacher, administrators have to conduct intense reviews of the teacher’s performance and navigate miles of bureaucratic tape.
Proponents cheer tenure because it protects jobs, academic freedom, and teachers’ rights. Unions often cite that without tenure, school districts could easily fire veteran teachers, who cost more, and hire first-year teachers who would work for less pay. It also protects teachers, advocates say, from dismissal because of political, social or religious beliefs.
The National Education Association is in favor of tenure. Its policy states, “The National Education Association affirms that academic and intellectual freedom in institutions of higher education are best protected and promoted by tenure, academic due process, and faculty self-governance.”
Opponents say that it makes firing bad teachers virtually impossible. They argue that teachers are granted tenure before it's proven that they can actually teach.
“Teachers need to know that they will not be fired arbitrarily, but the current tenure system in many school systems has gone too far,” Geoffrey Canada, president and CEO of the Harlem Children's Zone in Harlem, New York, says. “A system that favors seniority and ignores merit sends a terrible signal to anyone thinking about teaching.”
States vary on when teacher tenure occurs. Mississippi, for example, allows for tenure after only one year of teaching. The majority of states allow tenure after two or three years. Ohio doesn’t grant tenure until after seven years of teaching.
According to a study by Teach Plus, a Boston-based teacher-policy organization, new teachers who have been in the field for less than 10 years are more likely to support lessening tenure protections.
In the study, Aadina Balti, a teacher in the Boston public schools, said that teachers should push themselves like they push students. “That’s why I am willing to give up some of my current tenure protections in favor of a new system that emphasizes performance,” Balti said. “I know many teachers who could be great at their jobs, but who are no longer putting in the effort to be excellent every day because the current system does not hold them accountable for their work.”
President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have said the country needs teacher reform. Earlier this year, Duncan launched RESPECT Project, a national conversation led by active classroom teachers with the hope of reforming the teaching profession. One of the key issues of the Project is looking at how to reform tenure while raising the bar for teaching, protecting good teachers, and promoting accountability.
Duncan explains: “This effort will require the entire educational sector—states, districts, unions, principals, schools of education—to change, and teachers have to lead the change.”
What are your views on teacher tenure? Share your thoughts in comments.
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Suzi Parker is an Arkansas-based political and cultural journalist whose work frequently appears in The Washington Post and The Christian Science Monitor. She is the author of two books. @SuziParker | TakePart.com