Teacher Tenure Is Necessary, and It Helps Everyone

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

My Dorf on Law post earlier this week discussed two recent entrants in the teacher-bashing sweepstakes: a billionaire-backed group that is bringing suit in New York State to end tenure for schoolteachers, and an op-ed by New York Times columnist Frank Bruni.  Bruni endorsed a Colorado law that can end even effective and experienced teachers' careers, if student test scores do not increase for two consecutive years. Bruni's op-ed was almost endearing in its inanity, uncritically buying into the idea that the only way to improve the educational system is to give heroic administrators the ability to inspire their troops (and to sack those who are not willing to "walk through fire together").

The broader story being spun by the anti-tenure groups is that schools are bad because teachers have too much job security. Falsely claiming that tenure makes it impossible (or nearly impossible) to fire ineffective teachers, this crowd makes it seem as if public school teachers have such cushy, safe jobs that they do not bother actually to teach their students. Combining that falsehood with anti-union bias, the attack on tenure has become another opportunity for nominal liberals like Bruni to "hippie punch" one of the key elements of the Democratic base. (Bruni's colleague Nicholas Kristof has also gotten into the anti-educator game, both at the college level and in attacking tenured schoolteachers.)

This story is then wrapped in a nonsensical tale about how some brave Democrats have dared to "defy" the teachers' unions, which are supposedly the real barrier to reform. Needless to say, Barack Obama's triangulators gleefully join in the attacks on tenure, making it a bit difficult to see what the Brave Union Defiers are actually risking by attacking tenure.

Every aspect of the anti-tenure story is wrong. Here, I want to discuss what tenure really means, the incentives that it creates, and the choice between abolition, reform, and standing pat.

The central lie of the anti-tenure campaign is that tenure "guarantees lifetime employment," or similarly extreme claims. The reality is that tenure is a system that requires for-cause firing, rather than at-will employment. That is, the collective bargaining agreement between the school district and its teachers requires due process and clearly articulated reasons for firing a supposedly ineffective teacher. "She isn't walking through fire with us" is not good enough. There are internal procedures that allow the district and the teacher to resolve issues outside of courts of law, and the teachers are allowed to defend themselves.

There are, of course, a million possible variations on a tenure system. Changes to such systems can be negotiated, and there is no single right way to protect teachers from arbitrary firing.   Suggested changes, including some thoughtful comments on my post this last Tuesday, can run the gamut, and nothing I say here should be taken to mean that I reject any and all changes to how tenure is defined or administered. But two central points must be acknowledged: (1) Teachers can be, and are, dismissed for ineffectiveness under current tenure systems, and (2) The anti-tenure forces are not talking about reforming tenure, but ending it. The actual reformers, in other words, have been the teachers' unions, who have responded to the attacks on tenure by making adjustments on an ongoing basis.

Even so, it remains true that a teacher with tenure is harder to fire than a teacher without tenure. That is the point of tenure. Tenure exists for a number of reasons, only one of which I mentioned in my Tuesday post. In addition to that essential point -- that tenure protects teachers from being arbitrarily fired for making politically unpopular statements (e.g., saying that Karl Marx was not wrong about everything) -- teachers also need to be protected when they blow the whistle on misconduct in their own schools.

Most importantly, teachers need to be able to say no to parents. When I was an untenured economics professor, I received an angry phone call from the parent of a student who "doesn't get C's," but who had earned a C+ on one of my exams. Fortunately for me, when the parent took her complaint to the department chair, he refused to put pressure on me to change the grade; but if he had not liked me, he could have used that incident as a pretext to drop me from the department. At the K-12 level no less than in college, there are all kinds of situations in which a teacher without job protection will be pressured to do something inappropriate in order to save her job. To tie this issue to my recent post on college athletics, consider the consequence for an untenured teacher or professor who flunks a popular sports star and thus keeps him off the playing field.

The objection to all of this, however, is that tenure is over-inclusive, protecting not just teachers who need and deserve protection but also those who are free-riding on a system that allows them to do next to nothing and thus harm their students. This idea, which has more than a whiff of rational-actor theorizing common among orthodox economists, assumes that people are work-minimizers who are looking for every possible way to shirk on the job. One need not believe that every teacher is a selfless saint to suspect that the reality is far from what the anti-tenure people describe. Teachers are well-educated and, at best, paid a middle-class salary, and they deal with the results of family and social dysfunction, along with all of the standard behavioral issues that children present.  That more of them do not quit outright is a miracle.

Moreover, if we insist on seeing teachers as fallible humans who might succumb to the temptations to abuse the system, why would we assume that administrators, parents, school boards, politicians, and the kids themselves are not similarly afflicted with imperfect moral codes? It is bad enough that we allow people to be fired from most jobs (office worker, nurse's aide, fast-food employee) at the whim of supervisors. But if there is any area of the economy where we can have somewhat more trust in the workers, along with good reason to think that the supervisors are going to bend to political and personal pressures, it is in the schools.

In short, once we stop pretending that one or both sides of the teacher/administrator divide is perfect, we find that teaching is a profession in which extra job protections are uniquely necessary. Like any imperfect system, teacher tenure will have imperfect results. In reality, therefore, a healthy political environment would expect and allow tenure standards to evolve over time through careful negotiation. In the context of our unhealthy political environment, by contrast, we have to take sides.

And it is easy to know which side to take. The spokeswoman for the anti-tenure group in NYS (whom I discussed in Tuesday's post) led off her appearance on The Colbert Report by saying: "91 percent of teachers around the state of New York are rated either effective or highly effective, and yet 31 percent of our kids are reading, writing or doing math at grade level." (And 100% of baseball Hall of Famers are deemed worthy of the Hall of Fame, yet the best of them failed at the plate two-thirds of the time.) This kind of simplistic nonsense should wake up anyone who might have hoped that the anti-tenure crusaders are not ultimately blaming the teachers.

The fact is that, even looking at the inevitably imperfect tenure systems that are possible in real life, there is simply no established connection between teacher tenure and student outcomes. Wealthy suburbs around the country rely on tenured teachers to prepare their kids for elite colleges. Public school systems in poor areas that have experimented with non-tenured faculty have not shown improvements in any measurable student outcomes.  So if the choice, because of political polarization, ends up being either to abolish tenure or to keep it as is, we should keep it.