Teacher tenure has long protected educators from job termination without just cause, but concern that it protects ineffective teachers has made teacher tenure a controversial issue.
When first introduced in 1886 in the state of Massachusetts, teacher tenure was really a women’s issue. Most of the teachers at that time were women and they were sometimes fired for breaking social rules of the time. They were even sometimes let go for getting married or pregnant. No teacher unions existed yet and teachers united to get protection so that they would not be fired for non-related work reasons.
Each state has its own teacher tenure system, but almost all of them give tenure, or due process rights before being fired, to teachers after a probationary period of competent teaching. The majority of states have a three-year probationary period, but eight states give teacher tenure after two years of teaching, and tenure is given after a one-year probationary period in two states. According to the Education Commission of the States, 10 states now prohibit the use of tenure status or seniority.
Teacher tenure, opponents to the system argue, has caused schools to be staffed by some teachers who are not deserving of the job and that students are suffering as a result. Others opposed to tenure believe that this system protects only ineffective teachers and allege it is a very costly and lengthy process to fire a teacher, causing school districts to just let them continue to teach. A better system, they believe, would be to grant tenure based on an assessment of their teaching effectiveness, or elimination of tenure altogether, and replace it with renewable contracts, or simply allow teachers to utilize the protection provided through state and feral laws, collective bargaining, or court rulings. A lawsuit brought in Minnesota this year alleges, according to the New York Times, “that the state’s tenure and layoff laws disproportionately harm poor, minority children because … the most ineffective teachers are more likely to be assigned to public schools with high concentrations of those children.” The lawsuit also challenges the Minnesota rules that teachers are laid off strictly by seniority when school budget cuts are needed, resulting in good teachers leaving while others who are less effective stay.
Supporters of teacher tenure do not want to give up the protection it provides teachers from discriminatory firing for political views, exercising free speech in opposition to school administration, or academic decisions regarding a student’s grades or failures. They believe it is a good system that has become a substitute for other problems such as class size, school budgets, or student achievement. Some school districts see hiring of less-experienced teachers as the solution to high teacher salary costs, and teacher tenure gives educators protection against the firing of experienced, higher-paid teachers. In what has become a more difficult job with parents, students, administrators, and taxpayers all believing that they are the teachers’ bosses, educators look to teacher tenure to give them job security and protect them from false accusations or threats of legal actions. Some feel that the constant fear of losing their teaching positions cause teachers to be less effective than working with the security and stability that teacher tenure now gives them.
The Future of Teacher Tenure
The battle over teacher tenure wages on as litigation continues in Minnesota, New York and California, while other state leaders, like New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, advocate changes in the tenure system based upon assessment of teacher performance. In a 2008 poll, a majority of teachers said they would favor local unions being involved in guiding ineffective teachers out of the profession, but teachers also oppose elimination of tenure by an even higher margin. The future of teacher tenure remains to be seen.