Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Is Tenure for School Teachers Necessary or Productive? (No.)

When we think of tenure, we think of academic freedom - the liberty of teachers to delve into controversial ideas without fear of losing their jobs. We think of professors like Bertrand Russell who was denied various teaching positions due to some controversial writings he produced (as a professor). Tenure's rationale, then, seems to be a desire to leave professors free to engage in research without having to think about whether their choice of subject or position will affect their employment status.

This concern of academic freedom, though, doesn't seem to have the same import at the primary and secondary school level. Unlike professors, teachers do not engage in research and publishing in addition to teaching duties, do not often have complete freedom to write curriculum, and, even if they do, are strongly advised not to engage in teaching that could be considered controversial or edgy. Because of this, it is tough to see why primary/secondary school teachers need tenure to protect them.

One of the most universal criticism of tenure - at any level of education - is that it makes it difficult, bordering on impossible, to fire incompetent teachers. Once a teacher/professor has tenure, she is stripped of the market pressure to perform that exists in any job where fear of termination could be a motivator. In a recent blog entry, Stanley Fish writes of a professor who, up until now, has been protected by tenure (and even now, it will be extremely hard for the University to terminate him). This professor - Denis Rancourt - is supposed to teach physics, but tells his students that he will teach whatever he feels like teaching (often political activism).

While tenure protects incompetents like Rancourt, many feel that, at the college level, the cost is worth the benefit of ensuring that academics are free to pursue their scholarly interests without fear of termination. The University of Delaware's Linda Gottfredson, , who does controversial research on the relationship of IQ to factors such as race, health, etc, produces very scholarly important research that, without tenure, she may not engage in for fear of termination. Even if tenure protects some bad professors, it is often argued that without its guarantee, professors like Gottfredson would let the topics of their research be motivated by economic concerns, rather than the pursuit of truth.

We know that the same cost of tenure - the insulation of incompetents from firing - exist at the primary/secondary school level, but do the benefits? No. As mentioned, primary and secondary teachers do not have the research responsibilities that do college professors. Thus, the only "controversial" stances they could take would be in the classroom, which has always been ill-advised (witness the sad examples of James Keegstra and Jay Bennish as unfotunate examples of teaching "controversially" to high school students).

I am quite at a loss to find any benefit in primary and secondary school teachers recieving tenure. If academic freedom is the rationale for tenure, then the only question left is whether primary or secondary school teachers have such academic freedom concerns that they should be granted the freedom to pursue ideas that might otherwise get them fired. I simply cannot see that teachers of 5, 12, and 17 year olds would ever need that kind of freedom (and would be concerned if teachers, like Keegstra, took positions in their classes that could conceivably result in termination).

According to this article the push for tenure amongst primary and secondary school teachers:

The start of the tenure movement paralleled similar labor struggles during the late 19th century. Just as steel and auto workers fought against unsafe working conditions and unlivable wages, teachers too demanded protection from parents and administrators who would try to dictate lesson plans or exclude controversial materials like Huck Finn from reading lists.

This, too, is a rationale that is antiquated. Rarely do teachers control whether Huck Finn should be required reading, and rarely would a teacher be fired over their lesson plans. Whether Huck Finn is part of the curriculum has become an administrative issue, and the lesson plans that (public school) teachers teach are heavily dictated by the demands of a curriculum that they didn't write. (Whether this should be so is debatable, but I think this decision is correct for public schools.)

Again, the rationale for tenure amongst primary and secondary school teachers seems to be antiquated and unnecessary. One of the only articles I have found to argue for the justice of tenure for primary/secondary school teachers has the following abstract:

This speech responds to arguments for reform or abolition of teacher tenure acts. The author argues that, inadequate as tenure laws may be, they provide in many States the most practical safeguard against managerial caprice in the educational establishment. Court cases that uphold or prove the value of teacher tenure laws are presented.

Teh large problem with this argument is that "manegerial caprice" is not exclusive to the education industry, and protection against it is hardly a reason to argue that schools are unique in needing protection from it. One can certainly argue that, without tenure, good teachers might be fired simply because they are not liked by peers or superiors, but this could just as easily happen at a bank, a restaurant, or a law firm. It is unclear why schools are unusual in needing protection from "managerial caprice." If it is argued that schools are particularly susceptible to such political decision-making, then this seems more like a "childishness" problem, rather than a problem warranting exceptional "tenure" protection.

A Gallup Poll report suggests more of the same:

Those in favor, including teacher unions and state school board associations, have long held that tenure is necessary to protect teachers from dismissals based on unpopular opinions, arbitrary administrations, or simply the ebb and flow of cultural tides. "I'm in favor of job security for all types of work, including teaching," says Todd, a 45-year-old respondent from Maine who is "somewhat familiar" with tenure and likes what he sees. "Teachers put in a lot of time and they deserve to know their job will always be there."

As we have discussed, dismissal because of unpopular opinion is much more likely with college professors, and "arbitrary...ebb and flow of cultural tides," is not a factor that is exclusive to schools.

But a new argument is that since teachers works so hard, they deserve job security for life. I am a teacher, and can attest that we do work hard. But I can also attest that (a) good teachers (the ones the quote focuses on) wouldn't need tenure to be able to keep their jobs; and (b) there aer plenty of other professions with people that would "deserve" job security if the criteria is how hard the work is.

Anyway we slice it, justifying tenure for primary/secondary teachers is a stretch. Unlike college professors, we don't have much occasion (or is it advisable) to hold opinions in the classroom that would warrant tenure protection. Second, we do not, by in large, control the curricula and, therefore, do not need "academic freedom" for curricular purposes. "Job protection from arbitrary administrations" is a weak argument, as there are many other professions that could fire based on unsound reasons. And, lastly, arguing that teachers deserve tenure because they work so hard ignores all of the other professions that work as hard or harder, yet do not need tenure and do not argue for it.

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