Pros and Cons of Teacher Tenure

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Teacher tenure, sometimes referred to as career status, provides job security for teachers who have successfully completed a probationary period. The purpose of tenure is to protect teachers from being fired for noneducational issues including personal beliefs or personality conflicts with administrators, school board members, or any other authority figure.

Tenure Definition

Teacher tenure is a policy that restricts the ability of administrators or school boards to fire teachers. Contrary to popular belief, tenure is not a guarantee of lifetime employment, but "cutting through the red tape" needed to fire a tenured teacher can be extremely difficult, the website notes.

Laws pertaining to teacher tenure vary from state to state, but the overall spirit is the same. Teachers who receive tenure have a higher level of job security than a nontenured teacher. Tenured teachers have certain guaranteed rights that protect them from losing their jobs for unsubstantiated reasons.

Probationary Status vs. Tenured Status

To be considered for tenure, an educator must teach at the same school for a certain number of consecutive years with satisfactory performance. Public school teachers, in grammar, middle, and high school generally have to teach for three years to earn tenure. Private school teachers have a wider range: from one to five years depending on the school. The years prior to tenure status are called probationary status. Probationary status is essentially a trial run for teachers to be evaluated—and if necessary to terminated—through a much easier process than one who has received tenured status. Tenure does not transfer from district to district. If a teacher leaves one district and accepts employment in another, the process essentially starts over.

In higher education, it generally takes six or seven years to earn tenure, which at colleges and universities is known as a full professorship or simply as achieving the position of professor. In the years before achieving tenure, a teacher might be an instructor, an associate professor, or an assistant professor. Typically, college or university instructors are given a series of two- or four-year contracts and then reviewed around their third year, and again in the fifth or sixth year. To achieve tenure, a non-tenured instructor might need to exhibit published research, proficiency in attracting grant funding, teaching excellence, and even community service or administrative ability, depending on the institution.

Tenured teachers in public education at the grammar, middle, or high school level, are entitled to due process when they are threatened with dismissal or nonrenewal of contract. This process is exceedingly tedious for administrators because just like in a trial case, the administrator must show proof that the teacher is ineffective and has failed to meet district standards in a hearing before the school board. The administrator must produce definitive evidence that he gave the teacher the support and resources necessary to correct the problem if it is an issue relating to the educator's performance. The administrator must also be able to show proof that the teacher willingly neglected her duty as a teacher.

Differences Among States

States differ as to how a teacher achieves tenure, as well as in the due process procedure for firing a tenured teacher. According to the Education Commission of the States, 16 states regard performance as the most important step for a teacher to earn tenure, while others place a higher level of importance on the amount of time an educator has spent working in the classroom.

The organization notes some of the differences in how states handle the issue of tenure:

  • Florida, North Carolina, Kansas, and Idaho have chosen to repeal tenure outright, phase out tenure, or remove due process provisions, though Idaho’s effort to abolish tenure was reversed by its voters.
  • Seven states require districts to return teachers to probationary status if their performance is rated unsatisfactory.
  • Instead of making layoff decisions on the basis of tenure status or seniority, 12 states require that teacher performance be the primary consideration. Ten states explicitly prohibit the use of tenure status or seniority.

The American Federation of Teachers notes that there are wide disparities in due process in regard to firing or disciplining tenured teachers. Citing a New York court case, Wright v. New York, the organization said that due process for firing a tenured teacher—which the plaintiff's attorney in the case called "uber due process"—lasted an average of 830 days and cost more than $300,000, meaning that very few administrators would pursue a case of terminating a tenured teacher.

The federation adds that an analysis using the New York State Education Department data found that in 2013, disciplinary cases took only about 177 days statewide. And in New York City, data show that the median length of proceedings is just 105 days. Indeed, Connecticut has adopted an 85-day policy for terminating tenured teachers, unless there is agreement from both sides to extend the process, the AFT says.

Pros of Tenure

Advocates for teacher tenure say that teachers need protection from power-hungry administrators and school board members who have personality conflicts with a particular teacher. For example, tenure status protects a teacher when a school board member’s child fails the teacher's class. It provides job security for teachers, which can translate to happier teachers who perform at a higher level.

ProCon.org sums up a few other pros of teacher tenure:

  • "Tenure protects teachers from being fired for teaching unpopular, controversial, or otherwise challenged curricula such as evolutionary biology and controversial literature," says the nonprofit website that examines the arguments for and against various issues.
  • Tenure helps with recruitment because it offers teachers a stable and secure job.
  • Tenure gives teachers the freedom to be creative in the classroom and rewards them for their years of dedication.

Tenure also ensures that those who have been there longest have guaranteed job security in tough economic times even though a more inexperienced teacher may cost the district significantly less in salary.

Cons of Tenure

Opponents of tenure argue that it is too difficult to get rid of a teacher who has been proved to be ineffective in the classroom. Due process is particularly tedious and difficult, they say, adding that districts have tight budgets, and the costs of a due process hearing can cripple a district’s budget. ProCon.org summarizes some of the other cons opponents cite when discussing teacher tenure:

  • "Teacher tenure leads complacency because teachers know they are not likely to lose their employment.
  • Teachers already have sufficient protection through court rulings, collective bargaining, and state and federal laws making tenure unnecessary.
  • Because of tenure rules, it's too expensive to remove educators, even when their performance is subpar or they are guilty of wrongdoing.

Finally, opponents argue that administrators are less likely to discipline a teacher who is tenured compared to one who is a probationary teacher even if they have committed the same offense because it is such a difficult proposition to remove a tenured teacher.