Monday, November 1, 2010

Teacher Tenure

A commenter on my previous post says:

Since the career path of a teacher is distinct from most others, the onus seems to be on those who do not want reform: what makes teaching different from so many other jobs that necessitates such a drastically different incentive structure? Put another way, do you think that software engineers at Google should be granted tenure, in exchange for significantly lower pay, and significantly lower accountability?

Obviously, teacher tenure is a gigantic issue, but I'll try to address some of the points here.

First, it bears mentioning that in fact the career of a "teacher" (here, I'll use the term to refer to a K-12 teacher, which I believe is the main meaning of the term in this discussion) actually follows a similar career path to that of a "professor" (college/university teacher). In that context, it makes sense that teachers would have the possibility of tenure just as professors do. (Note that tenure for professors also seems to serve as a replacement for higher pay.)

But perhaps you are against tenure in all contexts? What, you ask, makes teaching different?

  • Schools are not a business. The goal of a school is not to make money, it is to educate. This means that teachers' jobs are fundamentally different than industry jobs. While this doesn't obviously directly impact the tenure question, I think it's important to keep in mind that what works for industry doesn't necessarily work for schools since they have fundamentally different goals.
  • Schools are integral to communities. Students are more successful when they are part of a sustained community, when they have consistent adult mentors. They're more likely to show up for school and have a positive relationship to it. But "mentoring relationships of short duration may do more harm than good." So schools are more effective when teachers stay in the school for the long term. Tenure is an incentive for teachers not to move schools frequently. There are other ways to incentivize this, for example Google provides many well-known perks to convince us not to leave - great food, a shuttle service for commuters, etc., all free to employees. But schools are unlikely to do that.
  • Teachers need intellectual freedom. Teachers are, unfortunately, under the whim of politically run school boards. Without teacher tenure Texas might have lost all science teachers willing to teach about evolution. Just to name one example.
  • Evaluation of teachers is not a solved problem. Because of the vast number of variables that interact to create student achievement, evaluating teachers is not a solved problem. It is, for example, drastically harder than evaluating whether someone in sales is performing well.
  • Teachers aren't paid well. This last point is large enough to eclipse all the others, in my opinion. Enough so that I'd consider being for the abolition of teacher tenure if this point were fixed (and a reasonable evaluation structure was put into place). Teachers have high stress high responsibility jobs. They're held accountable for all mistakes in the classroom and those mistakes have real consequences. They should be paid like stock traders, if stock traders weren't allowed coffee breaks. For more on pay and on evaluation, see my previous post on Teachers Have It Easy.

For more examples, citations, and clarity (as well as a bit more attitude) see an NYC teacher's take on the issue.


Anonymous said...

"Without teacher tenure Texas might have lost all science teachers willing to teach about evolution."

Out of curiosity, what if you have the opposite, a teacher who completely denies evolution and says many outrageous things about it? Can that teacher be fired?

AdamB said...

I have to disagree with your claim that the career of a teacher closely follows that of a professor, and thus they both should be eligible for tenure. The obvious difference is research. Tenure for professors grants them (additional) freedom in the choice of research topics. They can do work that is unpopular or riskier in that it is less likely to come to fruition. Tenure is meant to encourage such pie-in-the-sky thinking. When professors go up for tenure, very little of their case depends on teaching performance; it's mostly research contributions that count.

Teachers do not do research. Their goal is not to advance knowledge but to convey it. Tenure rewards individual contributions over consistency: a professor can have a bad year, but make up for it down the road. If a teacher has a bad year, that's very bad for the students. I believe a teacher's day-to-day performance is more important than their long-term potential, which is what tenure rewards.

Not that consistency is easy; I think the job of a teacher may very well be harder than that of a professor. It certainly requires a different skill set. (Though it's not clear to me that the way that academia rewards research performance more than teaching performance is a good thing for college students.)

Personally I would rather see tenure replaced with higher teacher pay, but I am not an expert and have no facts that would suggest this system would be better. High pay encourages good teachers to stick around; lack of tenure would hopefully mean less-capable teachers don't.

In regards to your claim that schools are not a business: some are. Do teachers at private schools get tenure? Are they paid better?

rebecca said...

Teachers don't really have tenure in the same way that professors have - they have a right to due process. See this post that explains it well -

sorelle said...

Adam -

I see what you're saying, but remember that not all professors work at research universities. Many (most?) work at so-called teaching colleges and are given tenure primarily on the basis of their teaching. Perhaps you disagree with that? Still, it's currently the case.

And yes, private school teachers are usually still given tenure while being paid less than public school teachers. I believe private schools are technically non-profits.

Anonymous said...

And yes, private school teachers are usually still given tenure while being paid less than public school teachers.

My understanding is that tenure is very rare at private K-12 schools: it may exist at some places, but it is far from the norm.

In that context, it makes sense that teachers would have the possibility of tenure just as professors do.

As I see it, there's an enormous difference between being a professor and being a teacher. For comparison, let's think about a law firm. Becoming a partner is the legal world's equivalent of tenure: you reach a privileged state in which you won't lose your job except for some dire reason. However, few outsiders object to this, since it seems like a reasonable arrangement. The partners aren't employees immune from being fired (and therefore with bad incentives). Instead, they are the owners of the partnership. The business may not do well under their stewardship, but there's nobody in charge of them who could fire them.

Professors are not in quite the same position, but it is similar. Technically they may be employees reporting to the administration, but in practice they are more like partners in a law firm, in the sense that they are the university. From this perspective, the administration is hired to help the faculty deal with the administrivia, rather than the faculty being hired to help the administration deal with the research and teaching.

The same can't be said of school teachers. They have much less power and autonomy, for example in deciding what and how to teach, and they are much closer to ordinary employees hired to teach standard curricula than professors are. Maybe we would be better off if this were different, and occasionally it is different (I've met some remarkable teachers), but right now most teachers really aren't very much like professors. This doesn't mean they don't deserve tenure, but if they do, at least some of the reasons will be different.