Reform, not remove: It’s time to fix the teacher tenure system

December 8, 2016 — by Austin Wang

Should teachers get tenure?

On Aug. 22, the Supreme Court, in a 4-3 decision, refused to review Vergara v. California, a court case in which nine students sued against teacher tenure laws.

The students argued that their education was compromised because incompetent teachers were not being fired due to their status as tenured teachers.

America has long been criticized for its low education rating among the world’s developed nations and many people have blamed tenure for lowering teacher quality and worsening the education of lower income students.

What is often overlooked, however, are the numerous benefits that teacher tenure provides. While some aspects of teacher tenure should be revised, the tenure system is an important source of job security for educators.

Teachers in America have among the lowest average salaries of teachers in developed nations, so the job security that tenure provides is an essential incentive for people to join and stay in the profession.

Tenure also gives teachers more academic freedom so that they will not have to fear being fired for teaching subjects such as evolution or controversial literature such as “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”   

Although liberal subject matter may be unpopular in some regions, teaching controversial material such as black history is essential to widening students’ perspectives. The need to expose students to instances of social and institutional injustices is more important than ever before.

Still, despite the benefits of tenure, it isn’t a perfect system.

Opponents to teacher tenure argue that it allows teachers to become lazy because it too often prevents schools from firing inept teachers. There have been numerous cases of completely ineffective and even abusive teachers not being fired due to their tenured status.

For example, according to the Los Angeles Times, Carlos Polanco, a history teacher at Virgil Middle School in Los Angeles, called a student “weak” for cutting himself and harassed the student for failing to commit suicide. The Los Angeles School board voted to fire Polanco, but Polanco’s tenure status allowed him to continually challenge the decision until a review board eventually overruled the decision.

Currently, in states such as New York and California, it can cost between $250,000 and $450,000 and take up to three years to fire a tenured teacher because the legal process is so complex.

In California, only about two out of 275,000 tenured teachers are fired each year for unsatisfactory performance despite thousands of more complaints on teacher quality.

Although there are instances of teachers abusing tenure, tenure actually generally improves teaching quality because it prevents schools from firing more better and experienced teachers just because they are more expensive.

Instead of removing the system of teacher tenure entirely, states should make it easier and less expensive to fire teachers who are obviously their abusing tenure status. Earning tenure should be based on a rigorous assessment on teacher performance rather than being based mostly on a few years of experience, as it currently is in many states.

Ideally, in order to maintain high teacher effectiveness, teacher tenure should be reviewed by an official not associated with the district after a large number of complaints. Additionally, laws should be put in place to strip teachers of tenure after being convicted of crimes such as abuse or harassment.

Instead of merely pointing fingers at the flaws of teacher tenure and blaming tenure for all the woes of our education system, we should rework tenure into a positive force to bolster academic freedom and incentivize effectiveness among educators.

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