Issues Surrounding Teacher Tenure in Public Schools

Pros and Cons of Teacher Tenure in the Public Schools

Teacher tenure allows schools to retain talent but may also keep poor teachers in the system.
Benefits of teacher tenure can include academic freedom for research, expression of ideas, and innovation. GETTY/Blend Images - Hill Street Studios

What is tenure?

In general terms, tenure establishes due process that defends a principle of academic freedom. This principle of academic freedom maintains that it is beneficial for society overall if scholars (teachers) are allowed to hold a variety of views.

According to an article by Perry Zirkel in Educational Leadership (2013) titled “Academic freedom: Professional or Legal Right?” 

“Academic freedom generally provides much more potent protection for what a teacher says as a citizen outside the school than for what the teacher says in the classroom, where the school board is largely in control of the curriculum” (p. 43). 

History of tenure

Massachusetts was the first state to introduce teacher tenure in 1886. There is speculation that tenure was introduced to counter some of the strict or arcane rules relating to teacher employment in the 1870s. Examples of these rules can be found on the website for the  Orange Historical Society in Connecticut and include some of the following:

  • Each teacher will bring a bucket of water and a scuttle of coal for the daily’ session.
  •  Men teachers may take one evening each week for courting purposes, or two evenings a week if they go to church regularly.
  • After ten hours in school, the teachers may spend the remaining time reading the Bible or other good books.
  • Women teachers who marry or engage in unseemly conduct will be dismissed.

Many of these rules were particularly aimed at women who were a large part of the work force in the late 19th century after compulsory education laws resulted in an expansion of public education. Conditions for teachers were difficult; children from the cities flooded into schools and teacher pay was low. The American Federation of Teachers was started in April 1916, by Margaret Haley in order to create better working conditions for female teachers. 

While the practice of tenure informally began in the college and university systems, it eventually found its way into the teacher contracts for elementary, middle, and secondary school public school. In such institutions, tenure is usually awarded to a teacher after a probationary period. The average probationary period is about three years.

For public schools, the Washington Post reported in 2014 that "thirty-two states grant tenure after three years, nine states after four or five. Four states never grant tenure."

Tenure offers rights

A teacher who has tenure status cannot be dismissed without the school district showing just cause. In other words, a teacher has a right to know why he or she is being dismissed as well as a right to have a decision by an impartial body. University of Pennsylvania’s Richard Ingersoll has stated,

“Typically, tenure guarantees that teachers must be given reason, documentation, and a hearing prior to being fired.”

For the public schools that offer tenure, the practice does not prevent termination because of poor performance in teaching. Instead, tenure requires that the school district shows “just cause” for termination. The causes for dismissal may include the following:

  • Criminal conviction
  • Fraud 
  • Immoral conduct
  • Incompetence
  • Insubordination
  • Neglect of duty

Some contracts also stipulate "noncompliance with school laws" as a cause. In general, academic freedom rights are preserved for university and college professors, while K-12 teachers’ rights may be limited by contract. In 2011-2012 the average number of teachers by school district, according to the Institute of Education Sciences,  was 187 teachers. An average of 1.1 tenured teachers was dismissed that school year.

Tenure declining in higher ed

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has reported a decline of tenure at the college and university level in its “Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession, 2015-16". They found that "approximately three-quarters of all college instructors in the United States worked without the possibility of tenure in 2013." The researchers were particularly alarmed in finding that:

"Over the past forty years, the proportion of the academic labor force holding full-time tenured positions has declined by 26 percent and the share holding full-time tenure-track positions has declined by an astonishing 50 percent. "

The AAUP noted that an increase of graduate assistants and part-time faculty has added to the reduction in tenure in higher education. 

Tenure pros

Tenure allows teachers the following:

  • The freedom to pursue research
  • The freedom from political concerns
  • The freedom to take educational risks or new, innovative strategies in the classroom
  • Protection for investing in personal graduate level coursework

Tenure protects teachers who have experience and/or have spent time and money to improve their teaching craft. Tenure also prevents the firing of these experienced teachers to hire less expensive new teachers. Proponents of tenure note that since school administrators grant tenure, neither teachers nor teacher unions can be held responsible for problems with poor performing teachers who have tenure. 

Tenure Cons

Reformers have listed teacher tenure as one of the problems facing education, stating that tenure: 

  • Encourages complacency among teachers who do not fear to lose their jobs
  • Offers unnecessary protection because of laws against job discrimination
  • Makes the removal of poorly performing teachers so difficult that most schools do not pursue that option
  • Keeps the "last-hired, first-fired" policy regardless of teacher performance

Most recently a court case brought in June 2014, Vergara v. California, a state court judge struck down teacher tenure and seniority laws as a violation of the state’s constitution. A student organization, Student Matters, brought the lawsuit stating:

"Current tenure, dismissal, and seniority policies make it virtually impossible to dismiss bad teachers. Therefore, tenure and related statutes obstruct equal educational opportunity, thereby disproportionately depriving low-income, minority students of their Constitutional right to equal educational opportunity."

In April 2016, an appeal to the California Supreme Court by California Federation of Teachers along with the district's teacher's union saw the 2014 ruling in Vergara vs. California overturned. This reversal did not determine that the quality of education was compromised by tenure or job protections for teachers or that students were deprived of their constitutional right to an education. In this decision, Division Two Presiding Justice Roger W. Boren wrote:

“Plaintiffs failed to show that the statutes themselves make any certain group of students more likely to be taught by ineffective teachers than any other group of students....The court’s job is merely to determine whether the statutes are constitutional, not if they are ‘a good idea.’”

Since this ruling, similar litigation on teacher tenure has been filed in 2016 in the states of New York and Minnesota.

The bottom line on tenure

The controversies of teacher tenure are likely to be a part of education reform in the future. Regardless, it is important to remember that tenure does not mean that a cannot be dismissed. Tenure is due process, and a teacher with tenure has the right to know why he or she is being dismissed or the “just cause” for termination.