Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Teacher Tenure: Fog Warning

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Teacher Tenure: Fog Warning

Article excerpt

Schools, districts, lawmakers, teachers, and unions are abuzz over plans and initiatives that change tenure protections. In this conversation, are we asking the right questions and looking at the best data?

"[T]he way tenure works for public school teachers today is that once they have it, they have a job for life--regardless of performance. That, I would say, is what is harmful to children ...

--Michelle Rhee

"Tenure protects academic freedom. In the absence of tenure, teachers may be fired for any reason. Teachers may be fired if the principal doesn't like them or if they are experienced and become too expensive. Teachers may be fired for being outspoken."

--Diane Ravitch

Teacher tenure reform proposals abound these days; over the last few years a number of states have changed tenure rules such that they now provide teachers less job security or less job security early in their careers. Debates over the efficacy of tenure are long-standing (Scott, 1986), but tenure reform is now more prominently in the public eye given the high-profile Vergara vs. California lawsuit as well as recent high-profile legislative battles in states like Ohio and Wisconsin.

This focus on tenure also is a natural outgrowth of the large body of research showing that differences between individual teachers can have profound effects on student achievement. Not only do they swamp the effects of other schooling resources, such as class size (Goldhaber, 2002; Rivkin, Hanushek, & Kain, 2005), but some estimates show the differences between having an effective teacher versus an ineffective one are equivalent to more than a full grade level of student test achievement (Hanushek, 1992). More recent work shows that teacher effectiveness is predictive of student test achievement and also of a variety of important outcomes later in life such as the likelihood that students go on to college and their labor market earnings (Chetty, Friedman, & Rockoff, 2014).

Much of the rhetoric in debates about teacher tenure has centered on whether it makes it impossible for systems to fire ineffective tenured teachers (McGuinn, 2010; Edwards, 2014). It is important to note that tenure does not preclude teachers from being fired; rather it requires that just cause and due process precede a firing. Due process laws vary by state, but, in general, tenured teachers are entitled to a hearing, and districts must provide evidence of misconduct before a tenured teacher is fired. And evidence suggests that very few tenured teachers are ever fired. For example, of the over 100,000 Illinois' tenured teachers, only 44 were dismissed from 1991 to 1997 (Goldstein, 2001).

But, as some contend (e.g. Matus, 2009), the high costs associated with the teacher dismissal process may be tantamount to a guarantee that teachers won't be fired for poor performance. While the typical legal costs of firing tenured teachers vary by state, it can often be several times a teacher's annual salary, exceeding $250,000 (Associated Press, 2008).

Yet there are also arguments that weakening tenure will lead to a lower-quality teacher workforce. Teaching is not a terribly lucrative profession, but it does afford a good deal of job security and certainty about compensation. It is possible that weakening this aspect of a teacher's job could make it a less desirable profession. Indeed some argue that the recent drop in individuals choosing to pursue a career in teaching is related to what's being called the war against teachers, with tenure reform representing one front in that war (Goldstein, 2014).

While there is strong rhetoric on both sides of the tenure debate, our opinion is that direct empirical evidence fails to support the claim that the current wave of reforms affect the teacher labor market or student achievement.


After New Jersey enacted the first comprehensive statewide tenure law in 1909, a number of states followed suit; by the 1940s, about 70% of teachers were tenured (McGuinn, 2010). …

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