WEINBERG: Why Tenure Creates Such A Mess

When it comes to teacher tenure there is a divide as wide as the Grand Canyon between those who favor it (teachers in tax supported institutions, mostly) and those opposed (just about everybody else). Teachers and their unions were in a tizzy when the judge ruled in the Vergara case in California that tenure meant keeping poor teachers in their classrooms, and that minority students were the most heavily impacted. The left-leaning teacher unions were quick to disavow the notion that tenure not only protected poor teaching but that it hit those in poverty and minorities the hardest.

How did tenure come about and how has it been so terribly abused?

Historically, tenure was a guarantee, particularly at the college and sometimes high school level, of teachers’ rights to free speech. Tenure, not due process, was understood as the protection against firing for personal reasons as opposed to poor classroom practices discerned by principals, supervisors and parents. Teachers below the college level came to see tenure as a way to defend their teaching approaches, even if those methodologies were not successful. The line between protected speech and just bad teaching became blurred.

Outside of education, meanwhile, most people are “at will” employees. Generally, a person can be fired with two weeks notice even after many years of service at a company. Most workers understand that if they perform their jobs well they will not likely be fired for personal idiosyncrasies that bother their managers. While there are obviously poor managers who may act vindictively toward certain employees, there are factors limiting this type of behavior. Companies expect to see a profitable bottom line. If a manager is too quick to release effective employees and profitability or efficiency in a department or division suffers, there will likely be consequences for that manager. Lawsuits by employees claiming any type of discrimination, from sexual orientation to personal habits are not welcome in the business world.

In business, one can justify one’s value to the company by showing how objective standards of measurement, often determined cooperatively by the employee and the manager, have been met. But that is where the education establishment falters. What are the standards of success? To some, it means every student graduating high school. To others, it means every student must go to college. To others, it means that every student leaving high school is ready for career training or college or a job waiting for them. The bottom line: whether there should be or not, there is no set of criteria determining what success in school means.  If success means just advancing a student as far as he or she can go, is that sufficient?

More than that, principals who cannot always make a case for teacher success or failure in objective terms determine their fitness for the classroom with only subjective opinions. The same inefficient bureaucracy which ultimately hires teachers also hires its managers, the principals. Despite state laws requiring experience in the classroom and acquisition of supervisory degrees from academia, many principals do not have the requisite skills or proper training to adequately perform their functions. Unlike the private sector where success or failure falls on the shoulders of managers as well as the workers, principals are generally free to shift all the burden to teachers. Without clear, agreed-upon expectations how could this not be the case?

Thus tenure becomes the teacher safety net. Due process has become an incomprehensible  tangle of rules and bizarre institutions such as “teacher jail” where teachers deemed unfit for service are sent to offices to do nothing for days on end or call in hourly from home to indicate that they are indeed doing nothing productive. Often, teachers do not even know why they have been pulled from classrooms, what actions are being investigated, who is deciding their fate and what consequences might result. Outside legal help is also not generally an option at this stage of “due process.” 

This state of affairs helps explain teacher reticence to give up tenure. However, that knowledge still doesn’t improve student educational outcomes. Good teachers still fret that their reputations are sullied by the incompetents who can’t easily be removed. And the teacher unions don’t care.

Solutions will be easy to suggest, and hard to implement. We have all heard about the need for privatization and use of vouchers that follow students to any schools among other plans to free families and their children from the tyranny of public schools.

The fact is that there has been some success along these lines in places like Los Angeles and even New York City ( the election of Bill De Blasio notwithstanding). Nevertheless, for many reasons, public schools will continue to exist. Not the least of the reasons that public schools will survive is the federal requirement to provide for special needs students. It will take a separate discussion to explain why this mandate will be met largely in the public schools rather than in private ones.

Recently, the Wall Street Journal reported that Wal-Mart’s new CEO was making many changes in company business models. In an otherwise upbeat meeting of managers, after a listening tour aimed at hearing extensively from employees and customers, the CEO laid out the law. Managers must take full control of their stores, know what products sell, make sure the shelves are properly stocked, and ensure that customer service is king. Where are the school boards who are willing to hire the CEOs of schools (superintendents) who will set up the new business models of clear expectations, consider the needs of customers (parents and students), take into consideration the opinions of key employees (teachers) and hire the properly-trained managers (principals) whose feet will be held to the fire?

Philip Weinberg recently retired from the Los Angeles Unified School District, where he taught for 24 years.