Making The Grade: The Case Against Tenure in Public Schools
The Virginia legislature has been attracting a lot of justifiably harsh criticism lately for its foray into abortion politics. First, it was an outrageous bill that would have required women to undergo a trans-vaginal ultrasound before having an abortion; then, following a national outcry, that measure morphed into a bill requiring only an external ultrasound. (The second bill, which was eventually signed into law, was somewhat less offensive—but still despicable.)
Yet there was another noteworthy bill on an entirely different subject circulating in Richmond in recent weeks; and, with the spotlight focusing so squarely on the state’s approach to reproductive rights, it was perhaps no surprise that this measure didn’t attract much attention from the national press. Like the abortion measures, this bill was also pushed by Republicans—but here’s the strange part: It was actually a halfway decent idea. The subject of the bill was an important one: tenure for public school teachers. And, while the proposal wasn’t perfect, it was at least an attempt to rectify what is perhaps the least sane element of our country’s approach to education.
The vast majority of states have long granted public school teachers tenure. The way it works is simple: After a certain number of years, teachers qualify—“virtually automatically” in most states, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality—for a form of job protection that makes it extremely difficult to fire them for the rest of their careers.
The system is analogous to the protections that university professors receive—but with one important conceptual difference. Universities are not just educational institutions; they are our country’s idea factories. 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. So what is the case for K-12 teacher tenure? The truth is, there isn’t a good one. One argument typically offered by tenure defenders is that teaching is a notoriously difficult profession in which to measure success. But this is true for lots of jobs—yet, in all other professions, efforts are still made, however imperfect, to evaluate whether an employee is succeeding and to remove those who are not. Why should teaching be different? In fact, given that teaching is arguably the most important job in our society, it would be difficult to name a profession, save maybe the military, for which these sorts of heightened job protections would be less logical. If a job is truly important to the nation’s future, then you want to make sure that the most able, talented people are doing it—and doing their best work at all times.