Are we there yet?
We’ve been riding down the highway of educational reform for decades now, passing exits for No Child Left Behind and the Every Student Succeeds Act. We took selfies at the statues erected for Bloom, Gardner, Wiggins, and McTighe, held our noses as we passed the Value-Added Landfill, and relieved ourselves at the Common Core State Standards Rest Stop.
Now, we’re back in the car, our destination still not on the horizon. One could argue that we’re not even heading in the right direction. Two roads lead to the establishment of consistently vibrant and high-achieving public schools. The more difficult path would be to introduce bipartisan legislation that would undo multigenerational socioeconomic inequalities that contribute to the two-tiered society in which we live and wreak havoc on our schools. The much easier fix is to abolish tenure … NOW.
Wait! Before you turn the page, allow me a moment to assuage your concerns. The most common refrain in the fight song against tenure is that its abolishment would be good for kids. Certainly that is a laudable—and ultimately the most important—goal, but I contend that eradicating tenure is even better for adults.
Myth #1: Tenure protects teachers’ jobs.
When the autopsy following the demise of our public school system is concluded, the coroner will determine that the cause of death was not Betsy DeVos (though she may try her darnedest), but rather that it was tenure. The shortcomings of our current system have given rise to people like Secretary DeVos and the surge of half-baked educational solutions coming out of governors’ mansions, departments of education, and the halls of Congress. If we, as educators, can’t solve the problems facing our nation’s children, Know-Nothings will regrettably fill the void. After all, nature abhors a vacuum.
What allows these ideas to gain traction is that they are supported by a regrettable reality: Our schools are not maximizing their potential, nor are they efficiently deploying the public’s resources. Of course, we can argue that a revolving door of standards, statutes, and benchmarks contribute to tremendous levels of inefficiency. (Countless hours staring into the glowing abyss of social media isn’t helping either. I’m not even talking about the kids.)
There is one universal truth about education: The most important factor in determining student outcomes is the individual in the front of the room. People—not programs, gimmicks, or tablets—are the key. Therefore, we need the very best people in every classroom. Full stop. We also need top-notch folks to train those individuals and ensure their continued professional growth and development (not average people or nice people or workable people). Tenure divides educators into two groups: those who have been around a while and those who haven’t. Policies such as “Last In, First Out” are a deleterious way to staff a building. If Drew Bledsoe had tenure, Tom Brady would be the greatest benchwarmer in the history of the NFL. Tenure does not protect teachers’ jobs; it often protects the wrong teachers’ jobs.
Myth #2: An attack on tenure is an attack on unions.
Tenure need not be synonymous with union. Not since the Gilded Age has the right to unionize and collectively bargain been so hotly contested. Look no further than the ongoing push to create more right-to-work states. Therefore, it behooves all educators to unite and vote into power those who will preserve the precious gift that is a labor union. However, the two tenets upon which these organizations were originally conceived are working conditions and wages, not ironclad job security regardless of performance. Conceptually, tenure should promote greater innovation and risk-taking, but sadly it does not. Rather, it has a propensity to promote a short-timer mindset halfway through some careers.
Despite our noble pursuits, we frequently come up against the Atlantikwall of tenure, impeding systemic progress. Tenure is blind to talent, performance, growth, effectiveness, and passion. It only values time. Once the clock strikes two, three, or four years—depending on which state you work in—the carriage can turn back into a pumpkin and there is little anyone can do about it.
Look no further than the obscene numbers presented in the recent legal battle over tenure, Vergara v. California. Two of California’s 277,000 teachers were dismissed for cause in 2014. Not even in Lake Wobegon are this many people above average. And these statistics don’t even include all of the lackluster administrators who have managed to remain in their positions.
It’s time to show deference to the very best educators among us and promote a solution that will allow each to achieve his or her fullest potential. Labor leaders must be willing to part ways with the small, but substantial, number of individuals who can’t, won’t, or don’t do the job well, despite efforts to bring them on board. They must introduce reforms that will lead to better schools and a more productive, cohesive membership, while guarding against ageism and other unfair practices (such as basing performance on test scores). It’s possible that hardliners and traditionalists may never offer the pragmatism and flexibility that we need in these current times.
Myth #3: Without tenure, teachers will be subjected to tyrannical principals.
In a world without tenure, principals won’t have ironclad job security either. This will reduce the likelihood of despotism because it levels the playing field. Ineffective administrators will find it more difficult to hide in their offices and scapegoat others for their failures. Imagine if there were some recourse to make the bad ideas and subpar leadership stop. Without tenure, principals would be forced to establish better work environments, become more responsible for promoting best practices, and raise the bar overall. If they fail to do so, their best people will walk away. That’s real accountability, not algorithm-based jargon.
It’s not that other districts want to refuse adequate pay for experienced educators, but rather that almost every district has their payroll tied up with ineffective teachers they can’t dismiss. Those districts desperately want the very best people in their buildings, but tenure is an obstacle they are unable to clear. Furthermore, experienced teachers fear giving up tenure for many of the aforementioned reasons. When that kind of disconnect exists, something is askew and in need of substantial reform.
Myth #4: Without tenure, districts would gain the upper hand.
In a world without tenure, educators become more powerful. Currently, we are prohibited from striking (without tremendous legal and financial consequences) and, therefore, can go years without resolving contract disputes. Even when issues are resolved, it is often with concessions that are off-putting to many. Educators do not expect to make star-athlete wages—they just want a place where they can feel supported, remain professionally stimulated, and make a difference in the lives of young people. Compensation is important, but satisfying one’s intrinsic desires is the ultimate reward.
We don’t need charter schools and vouchers and nonsensical methods that measure teacher performance to increase student achievement. But, if we don’t break down the barriers and inefficiencies created by tenure and let talent find talent, we will all suffer at the hands of the Know-Nothings as we careen into an uncertain future.
Marc Isseks is assistant principal at H. Frank Carey High School in Franklin Square, NY.