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A Modest Proposal for Teacher Tenure Reform

Lifetime employment should be earned.

BY Richard Greenwald

Why not adopt the best of the university tenure system for primary and secondary education?

Teachers today feel ever more under the gun, as state fiscal crises and resentment of public servants dominate the debate over educational reform. In the world of No Child Left Behind, where “accountability” has become the new rallying cry for reformers, we are witnessing a real moment of crisis for education.

At the center of the storm is a lightning rod: teacher tenure. To critics it represents all that is wrong with the system–protecting ineffective and unprofessional teachers. But tenure was never meant to protect bad teachers and, for the most part, it does not. Rather, tenure was designed to protect professionals from undue political interference in the work of education. It was meant to protect the classroom as a place of inquiry.

Principals, until recently, ruled their schools like czars who could hire and fire at will. The fight for tenure came out of a fight for First Amendment protections, as well as a sense that teachers as professionals deserved some freedom in how they ran their classrooms. Tenure freed teachers from the tyranny of administrators, who were often political appointees or friends of the superintendent.

In other words, tenure in public education recognizes that teachers are professionals, as well as intellectuals. Sadly, the majority of Americans do not believe teachers are either. The current wave of education reform, based on business models and efficiencies, coupled with the increasing reliance on testing, has stripped teaching of its creativity and transformed teachers into classroom technicians who administer mandated curricula.

The mainstream press and many on the right have so vilified teachers and their unions that one gets the impression that tenure only serves to protect bad teachers. Timothy Knowles, in a June 18 Wall Street Journal op-ed, writes, “We will not produce excellent schools without eliminating laws and practices that guarantee teachers–regardless of their performance–jobs for life.” While we can expend a great deal of energy detailing what these observers miss–which is much–it’s true that in most U.S. school districts, a teacher who shows up at work the day after the end of their probationary period–usually 3-4 years–automatically gains tenure, regardless of whether or not they can teach effectively. In short, most school districts grant tenure not on the presence of recognizable achievement, but on the absence of criminal behavior.

The current system of K-12 teacher tenure is therefore politically and professionally unsustainable. So here’s a modest proposal: Retain, but reform, tenure for schoolteachers. Currently, teacher evaluation is a moving and confusing target. Some districts evaluate teachers thoroughly every year, but most do not. Teachers need to be evaluated–education is too important for them not to be. But there must be clear, coherent criteria for that evaluation. And as professionals, teachers must be involved in the evaluation process as partners.

President Barack Obama and many governors want to use student test scores to evaluate teachers, sometimes to the exclusion of other important measures. As a democratic public, we need to work with teachers to ensure that test scores do not become the sole or even the leading indicator of effective teaching and student progress.

We need a formal system of evaluation that measures professionalism and classroom success in meaningful ways. And we need teachers themselves to help define it. Using state teaching standards and other measures, teams of master teachers, which could be certified by the state, could create balanced standards for evaluating teachers. This is the hope of Diane Ravitch, who in her recent book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Undermine Education, turns away from No Child Left Behind and toward a deeper appreciation of teacher professionalization.

Teachers should prepare written self-evaluations and a portfolio that explains how they have met the standards and what they will do in the coming year to improve. This should be part of the tenure process, and it should continue beyond tenure to ensure that no teacher becomes complacent. There should also be a formal mid-tenure review with external evaluations.

In short, why not adopt the best of the university tenure system for primary and secondary education? While there are problems with the university tenure model, what it does well is allow faculty to help define a culture of professional standards, a privilege denied to K-12 teachers.

Tenure needs to be redefined as something earned rather than given. This is something that early teachers’ unions tried and failed to achieve nearly 80 years ago, and it is still worth pursuing. Teachers are professionals, like lawyers and doctors, and deserve a role in setting standards for their field.

Richard Greenwald is a labor historian and social critic. . His essays have appeared in In These Times, The Progressive, The Wall Street Journal among others. He is currently writing a book on the rise of freelancing and is co-editing a book on the future of work for The New Press, which features essays from the county's leading labor scholars and public intellectuals.

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