Rick Kahlenberg: Tenure-The Pros, the Cons, the Concerns

Jun 15, 2015 by


An Interview with Rick Kahlenberg: Tenure-The Pros, the Cons, the Concerns

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Rick in American Educator’s summer 2015 issue, you recount the history of tenure. Could you just briefly summarize when it began, and the thinking or logic or reasoning behind it, when it began?

From the rhetoric thrown around today, one might think that tenure for elementary and secondary teachers was started by union “hacks” who wanted to protect incompetent educators.  In fact, it began in New Jersey in 1909 as a clean government reform.  Until then, newly elected mayors and other officials would fire qualified teachers and install cronies as a form of patronage for supporters.  Tenure rights protected against such abuse.  Tenure policies were also designed to protect teachers’ academic freedom – to teach evolution, for example, or to point out the benefits of school integration – without fear of being fired.

2) Some see tenure as “a job for life”.  Is it really a job for life?  Do we need to educate the public about tenure?

That is one of the biggest myths out there.  Tenure does not provide a job for life.  Tenure provides due process – the right to know why a discharge is being sought by the employer and the right to have the issue decided by an impartial body.    Tenured teachers are fired every year; but an employer must show “just cause” – a reasonable ground for the action.

3) Let’s face it. Personality conflicts do exist and sometimes, a supervisor simply does not get along with certain people. Is tenure a good thing to prevent such capricious firings ?

Absolutely.  Polls suggest that most Americans (90%) think that it’s illegal for an employer to fire an employee based on personal dislike.   In fact, employers can dismiss employees for almost any reason, including personal dislike.  The exception is that employers can not discriminate based on characteristics like race, sex, national origin or religion.

Tenure protects against capricious employers.  Importantly, tenure also allows teachers to advocate for students without fear.  For example, tenured teachers can stand up to a principal who advocates wrongheaded policies, such as wanting to shame low-performing students by posting their test scores on the classroom wall.

4) But you’re not arguing that current tenure policies are perfect, are you?

No.  In the article, I point out a couple of important ways in which teacher tenure policies can be improved.  For one thing, some states make decisions about whether to grant tenure to beginning teachers too quickly.  In California, teachers come up for tenure after less than two years, which is unfair to both teachers and principals because a teacher is unlikely to be able to fully demonstrate her mastery of the craft in such a short period of time.  For another, in some jurisdictions, it is extremely difficult to fire even incompetent teachers.  In those cases, I advocate retaining due process protections but coupling them with “peer assistance and review” programs.  Under such policies, expert teachers work with struggling teachers to improve their skills but, if no improvement is seen, consulting teachers recommend that ineffective teachers have their employment terminated.  In places like Cincinnati, Ohio and Montgomery County, Maryland, peer review resulted in higher rates of dismissal than when principals were in charge.

5) Isn’t tenure reform – rather than elimination – what critics like former television journalist Campbell Brown are seeking?

Some critics are looking for a “reasonable middle ground,” but not all.  Brown, who has gotten a lot of attention for seeking tenure reform in New York City, recently spoke at the American Enterprise Institute and was asked by an audience member:  why not simply eliminate tenure altogether?  In response, Brown didn’t cite a single rationale for preserving tenure in some form (the need for academic freedom, the way in which tenure attracts strong candidates to the profession etc).  Instead, she said she backed reform because elimination wasn’t politically realistic.  That suggests that if eliminating tenure were politically realistic, should would likely support doing so.

6) Education reform critic Diane Ravitch praised your tenure article in her blog.  She is viewed as extreme in some circles.  Does that make you uncomfortable?

Not at all.  Diane Ravitch and I agree on some issues and disagree on others.   She wasn’t crazy about a book my colleague Halley Potter and I wrote on charter schools, which suggested that while most charter schools are headed in the wrong direction, there are some good ones (those that consciously promote teacher voice and racial and economic school integration.)  But I was very happy that she and I agree on this bedrock issue of due process for teachers.  As an historian, she has a keen sense of why tenure was created in the first place, and what life looked like for teachers before tenure was instituted.

7) Finally, you seem irked that advocates for weakening or eliminating tenure say they are promoting civil rights for poor and minority students.  The California judge who struck down the state’s tenure law in the case of Vergara v. California, for example, likened the decision to Brown v. Board of Education.

Yes, I think the comparison is outrageous.  The critics of tenure take a very legitimate problem – that poor and minority kids often get the worst teachers – and suggest due process for teachers is the problem.  That’s wrong, and eliminating tenure will only make it harder to attract good teachers to high poverty schools.  The main reason poor kids get weak teachers is economic segregation, which concentrates the neediest children in schools that are often overwhelming to teach in. If we really want to connect poor kids and great teachers, we should give more low-income students a chance to go to good middle-class schools where strong teachers are found in large numbers.  Rather than filing lawsuits to weaken the tenure rights of teachers, as Silicon Valley millionaires and hedge fund billionaires have done, they should be filing suits to go after the real source of the problem:  growing economic segregation of our schools.  Such a suit was successful in Connecticut and should be replicated in other states.  Attacking the rights of teachers is not the way to promote civil rights for poor and minority students.

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