The Case for Tenure.

via Sully, some very thoughtful arguments for teacher tenure, the bogeyman of education reform.

Knocking teacher tenure is easy but simplistic. There would be some specific gains from eliminating tenure — getting rid of (or re-motivating) some deadwood.  But you’re ignoring the real systematic costs. Tenure is a form of compensation: it gives teachers job security and some degree of classroom autonomy. If you already think that teaching is not attracting enough quality candidates, why would you propose cutting compensation?  If you really believe in market economics, you have to grapple with the likely effects of making the job even less attractive than it already is.

There are also reasons why tenure should be attractive to anyone who is suspicious of big, centralized government.  As far as I can see, tenure — to the extent that it promotes classroom autonomy for teachers — is one of the few things cutting against the movement to turn our schools into federally- directed test-prep centers.  The relentless pressure to focus on short-term test-score improvement, even if it gives kids an impoverished understanding of what learning is and why they should ever want to pursue it, is killing my daughters’ school.  If tenure helps a few teachers resist that pressure, then more power to it.

UPDATE: And some very good arguments at Culture11 about tenure and merit pay not needing to be mutually exclusive.

Comment one:

Point two assumes pay can be linked to performance for professionals. That’s not been my observations over the years. For example, I was hired in 1988. Engineers typically see big increases in starting salaries right at the end of business expansions. Hence, the new guys getting hired right out of school as scientist I’s in 1990 were getting paid as much as I was with two years experience. So in 1990 I got a huge raise. People hired in, say 1985, did not get this raise because their salaries after five years on the job were still higher than the new entrants.

As a result of when I started my salary stayed high relative to the median in my field for a long time, only reaching the median recently (after 20 years on the job). The idea of rewarding professionals for doing a good job by using salary administration is problematic. The salary pool is always going to be too small and much of the money will have to be used to keep your newly trained people from bolting.

School officials cannot afford to treat teachers like professional workers. Is it any wonder teachers have a union?

Comment two:

My whole issue with this is that finding some legally administrable definition of what constitutes a “good teacher” is almost impossible. I know one when I see one, as I’m sure most do, but good luck trying to define that in a way which will avoid discrimination lawsuits. The only hard-and-fast rule that anyone seems to be able to come up with is test scores, and we all know that’s bogus.

How else would one measure it though? And how are we going to single out the effects of just one teacher? We need to do that if we’re going to tie pay to performance, but does anyone honestly think that there’s any way of doing this that isn’t just as arbitrary as what we’ve got not? Just saying “pay good teachers more and bad teachers less” isn’t nearly the solution that it appears to be.

I think the only way of doing this is to completely abolish public schools as a government service and go to 100% vouchers. That way parents can vote with their dollars about which teachers are good and which ones are not. As long as teachers are civil servants, merit pay is going to be completely impossible.

Having said that, I don’t think actually doing it would be a good idea, for logistical reasons which I hope are self-evident.

One thought on “The Case for Tenure.

  1. verdeluz November 14, 2008 at 5:26 pm Reply

    Good point: “If an administrator won’t eliminate a poor teacher when they can, how does giving them the opportunity to eliminate them when they normally can’t suddenly solve the problem?”

    I’m a little iffy about tenure in general. Except, of course, as it would apply to me. I’m all about having a job where I can do nearly anything I want without getting canned.

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