The Controversy of Teacher Tenure

Teacher tenure is a highly-debated issue that’s been rocking the nation for years. In higher education, “tenure” gives further protection for professors against unjust firing. In secondary education, we have “Permanent Status,” which is similar. Both have been questioned as a mechanism for reinforcing lower quality teaching, and we asked GGHS students and faculty about the pros and cons of this policy.

THE TEACHERS’ SIDE/PROS OF PERMANENT STATUS

“Tenure exists in higher education and I don’t know too much about that because we don’t have it,” says Mrs. Gerri Brown, GGHS’ Teachers’ Union Representative. “Tenure is that you can’t get fired, but in K-12 that doesn’t happen. Teachers will call it tenure because tenure in another meaning means that you’ve been somewhere for a long time, but with Permanent Status it doesn’t legally say that if you have tenure you can’t be fired.”

Although many long-standing teachers here seem to have easily progressed to where they are, teachers actually have to go through a rigorous process in order to get to Permanent Status.  “New teachers have it rough,” Mr. Griffin states. “Not only are they evaluated all the time, but they have to jump through all these hoops, such as showing their lesson plans, and having a mentor who looks over all of their work. The process of getting to tenure is much more rigorous and thorough so I think that by the time that you get there, they have already figured out the ones who are the ‘weaklings’ that are not going to be retained.”

Mrs. Brown emphasizes how Permanent Status gives new teachers a breather after their first rough two years. “In their first and second year of teaching, the district can get rid of any teacher for no reason. It could be because they just don’t like the looks of you–it doesn’t matter. They don’t have any reason and they don’t have to tell you in these first two years because you’re temporary. And temporary teachers don’t have any legal rights. But once they achieve Permanent Status, now they can’t just go like ‘I don’t like the clothes you wear,’ and BAM you’re gone! They have to go through the due process to remove them. It’s a safeguard so that personalities don’t get in the way because we all know that amongst friends, colleagues, and maybe principals and teachers, sometimes there is a clash of personalities. Sometimes it’s teacher to teacher and it causes problems for the department so whatever the problem is, you want to make sure that the person who has Permanent Status at least gets their fair shake in proving that they’re doing their job and that they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing.”

“It’s just nice to have that sense of security when you leave for the summer to know that you have a job when you come back,” Ms. Dinh explains. Ms. Cao adds, “I feel like if we don’t have tenureship to protect us, teachers won’t feel comfortable. We feel like we won’t feel supported. There’s always their word against us. It’s crazy. Also sometimes a teacher can be bullied by students, principals, and administrators, so without this protection I believe working would be really hard for us. Especially nowadays–I think back then, teachers were given more respect.”  

Mr. Griffin also believes permanent status a reasonable protection for teachers. “Here, tenure means you cannot be fired or let go without due process. And due process entails that it can’t be for something arbitrary such as a parent complaint. It doesn’t mean that you can’t be fired; it just means that you are going to have some say in what happens to you after you have proven yourself after a certain amount of time. I think also it gives a teacher confidence in what you’re doing. When you’re not on tenure, you’re walking on pins and needles a little bit. I’m always afraid that maybe I’m doing the wrong thing and that this could cost me–you know. Or, maybe I’m not up to snuff in this way or that way. But, getting tenure is like a validation that my policies and my performance are going well. It’s a pat on the back for a job well done. And it’s also, kind of, I think, allows you a little more freedom as a teacher. We have to stick to our curricula, but I think it gives you a little more leeway in the kinds of techniques and strategies you might want to employ to be a better teacher.”

Ms. Dinh continues, “I think if you’re a good teacher, then you don’t have anything to be afraid of. I don’t really think Permanent Status is something that allows you to think that you can just relax and not try. I really feel like it’s just a title on a paper because if you are a good teacher and you try anyways, then it’s just a status update rather than an excuse for you to be lazy or rely on your laurels. I think all of it is just fringe benefits, like, ‘Okay, I am now covered over the summer which is good in terms of insurance.’ Sometimes people are afraid of traveling or doing something because they’re not sure if their families are covered. However, if you’re 10-15 years into the job and that’s when you’re like ‘Oh, who cares! I’m not gonna update my ways of teaching because I am comfortable with what I am doing,’ that is problematic because you are not willing to change for the better and that’s when it can be controversial. I don’t know if changing or extending tenureship would affect that one teacher’s mentality and why they went into teaching in the first place.Changing a whole system doesn’t always change the whole individual teacher. But why punish those who perform well–those who could benefit from these fringe benefits? Why not give them that piece of mind?”

As a concluding statement, Mrs. Brown overall disagrees with the idea that teacher tenure reinforces lower quality teaching. “For us, it’s kind of like being a student. Do you really want to sit next to a student who says, ‘This is really stupid. I’m not going to do it. Why are you doing this?’ No! You wanna distance yourself from that and do what’s right. And I think that’s what most teachers do, and I would say that the teachers that I know at this school are very driven to do exactly what they’re supposed to do. I’m sure students and parents see us in different ways, but from my perspective I see a lot of teachers at this school doing everything they can to make sure that our students succeed and can move on as successes.”

 

THE STUDENTS’ SIDE/CONS OF PERMANENT STATUS

One of the biggest issues that result from the difficulty of removing a teacher of Permanent Status is “costly” and thus “too often, incompetent teachers end up in classrooms with disadvantaged children” (Lovett, New York Times). In fact, the main controversy around teacher tenure stems from a lawsuit filed by student plaintiffs in Silicon Valley that claimed that state tenure laws “had deprived them of a decent education by leaving inadequate teachers in place” (Lovett, New York Times). This case, known as Vergara vs. California, had its initial ruling (the overturning of teacher tenure laws) reversed after it was moved to an appeals court. These appeal judges claimed that teacher tenure statutes are not to blame for the disadvantages that minority students receive in schools often filled with these teachers. However, the possibility still stands that there is a connection between them.

“It may be completely uncalled for for students to be able to speak up when they encounter a teacher they believe isn’t doing anything to help them learn,” an anonymous senior states. “But it leaves students feeling helpless and defeated whenever they walk into a classroom with a teacher who only causes them feelings of anxiety and stress because they know that they don’t care for their well-being, and instead really only care the most about maintaining their jobs. And perpetuating that kind of mindset within students can have a negative impact on their lives–an impact that lasts far beyond their high school years.”

An anonymous student also comments that “although teachers are often evaluated by administrators, they could present an image to them that is starkly different from who they are when they’re with their students. I’ve been in a classroom where a teacher wouldn’t usually give much instruction, but whenever an AP shows up, they immediately begin to lecture as if they’ve been actively teaching us all year.” Therefore, permanent status or “tenure” in a high school type of environment can be harmful to quality of students’ education if the teacher is someone who continues to get away with bypassing the district’s checkpoints.  But it’s not an issue that can be easily resolved, and teacher tenure does offer benefits for newer teachers who are indeed doing their job as they should.

Another anonymous student adds, “I believe it’s the mentality of the teacher that’s mainly the issue; however, with policies like permanent status, I think teachers become less likely to change their ways even though most students think they’re ineffective. A lot of the time, I feel like I walk into a classroom and I have to go by the teachers rules, as if they’re saying to me–’This is my way and you’re going to like it, no matter what!’ and as a student who may not learn as effectively as the teacher might with this style of teaching, this has been a recurring issue for me.”

Another con often discussed in anti-teacher tenure articles is how permanent status makes it difficult to remove teachers. Because the due process of removing a teacher is so long and arduous, administrators are often reluctant to start. In addition, seniority is considered a top priority for keeping a teacher in place, rather than continuous high quality teaching and performance (Weisberg).

A study conducted in 2008  by the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education also demonstrated that despite the rigorous assessments new teachers have in the first few years of teaching, a teacher’s performance during the first two years does not accurately predict how they’ll do afterwards (Goldhaber). And despite these evaluations, less than 1% of new teachers are fired, possibly because of how costly it is to actually fire a teacher (Weisberg).

“It’s true that teachers do need to be protected, especially the good ones. But is this really best for our education?” asks an anonymous senior. “When teachers are less careful of the things they say or how they teach it, even if it’s a joking, derogatory remark that seems of little consequence, it can negatively affect a student, and thus a chain of students, years and years after the teacher begins to do it and gets away with it. It affects their self-esteem and makes them scared of the class because that teacher will always remain unchecked for their behavior, thus negatively affecting the students’ performance in the class. But as always, it is the student that is usually blamed for that, not the teacher.”

“I feel like administrators and teachers alike have to be incredibly mindful of the effect they have on students,” an anonymous student expresses. “We learn in psychology that teenagers have an undeveloped frontal lobe, which is a portion of the brain that is highly involved with emotions and decision-making, and a lot of the time in high school, this portion of the brain is bombarded with confusing and stressful stimuli often caused by school and of course, teachers. And creating this sort of indefinite power structure in the classroom, with the teacher at the top for however long they decide to remain, can make us feel like we don’t matter when we’re constantly around teachers who make us feel that way. We feel like we can’t ever speak up, or at least I don’t, because we don’t want to be derided for asking stupid questions as we often are by so many teachers. And because we feel that way, it can create a sort of ‘learned helplessness,’ and as a result we don’t speak up in class. I feel like that’s the main reason for why lately, nobody really ever speaks up in class.”

 

If there’s anything that the long-winded debate on teacher tenure has proven, it’s that the road to bettering our education system is a long and complex one. There are still many issues to be dealt with, perspectives to consider, and things to be learned, so that one day our system can be one in which both teachers and students feel that they can be protected.

 

Works Cited

Lovett, Ian, and Motoko Rich. “Closely Watched Fight Over California Teacher Tenure Moves to Appeals Court.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 25 Feb. 2016. Web. 16 June 2016. <http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/26/us/closely-watched-fight-over-california-teacher-tenure-moves-to-appeals-court.html?_r=0>.

Daniel Weisberg, Susan Sexton, Jennifer Mulher, David Keeling, “The Widget Effect: Our National Failure to Acknowledge and Act on Differences in Teacher Effectiveness“, The New Teacher Project website, www.widgeteffect.org, June 1, 2009 and Michelle Rhee and Adrian Fenty, “The Education Manifesto,” www.wsj.com, Oct. 30, 2010

Dan Goldhaber and Michael Hansen, Is It Just a Bad Class?: Assessing the Stability of Measured Teacher Performance, Center on Reinventing Public Education website, www.crpe.org, Nov. 21, 2008