A Modest Proposal for Teacher Tenure Reform

By Greenwald, Richard | In These Times, September 2010 | Go to article overview
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A Modest Proposal for Teacher Tenure Reform


Greenwald, Richard, In These Times


Lifetime employment should be earned

TEACHERS TODAY FEEL EVER MORE under the gun, as state fiscal crises and resentment of public servants dominate the debate over educational reform. In the world of No Child Left Behind, where "accountability" has become the new rallying cry for reformers, we are witnessing a real moment of crisis for education.

At the center of the storm is a lightning rod: teacher tenure. To critics it represents all that is wrong with the system - protecting ineffective and unprofessional teachers. But tenure was never meant to protect bad teachers and, for the most part, it does not. Rather, tenure was designed to protect professionals from undue political interference in the work of education. It was meant to protect the classroom as a place of inquiry.

Principals, until recently, ruled their schools like czars who could hire and fire at will. The fight for tenure came out of a fight for First Amendment protections, as well as a sense that teachers as professionals deserved some freedom in how they ran their classrooms. Tenure freed teachers from the tyranny of administrators, who were often political appointees or friends of the superintendent.

In other words, tenure in public education recognizes that teachers are professionals, as well as intellectuals. Sadly, the majority of Americans do not believe teachers are either. The current wave of education reform, based on business models and efficiencies, coupled with the increasing reliance on testing, has stripped teaching of its creativity and transformed teachers into classroom technicians who administer mandated curricula.

The mainstream press and many on the right have so vilified teachers and their unions that one gets the impression that tenure only serves to protect bad teachers. Timothy Knowles, in a June 18 Wall Street Journal op-ed, writes, "We will not produce excellent schools without eliminating laws and practices that guarantee teachers - regardless of their performance - jobs for life." While we can expend a great deal of energy detailing what these observers miss - which is much - it's true that in most U.S. school districts, a teacher who shows up at work the day after the end of their probationary period - usually 3-4 years - automatically gains tenure, regardless of whether or not they can teach effectively. In short, most school districts grant tenure not on the presence of recognizable achievement, but on the absence of criminal behavior.

The current system of K-12 teacher tenure is therefore politically and professionally unsustainable. So here's a modest proposal: Retain, but reform, tenure for schoolteachers.

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