The History of Teacher Tenure

The History of Teacher Tenure

Photo by David Silver

What is teacher tenure?
Teacher tenure is a policy that prevents teachers from being fired without just cause. It is a contract that ensures a teacher’s employment. In most cases, a tenured teacher cannot be fired for reasons other than severe misconduct or incompetence. Even in some cases of blatant irresponsibility, misbehavior or lack of performance, it is very difficult to dismiss a tenured teacher, and the process can be expensive and time consuming. In most states, tenure is awarded to public school teachers who have served for a certain period of time, usually 3 to 5 years.

The History of Teacher Tenure
The history of teacher tenure dates back to the 19th century, when there were little to no policies in place to protect teachers from being fired. Without job protection, teachers could be fired for literally any reason. Race, creed, gender and favoritism were some of the most common reasons for firing teachers before 1885, as was a their political affiliation. Women could even be fired for becoming pregnant.

In 1885, the National Education Association issued a report calling for political action to protect teachers, and in 1886 Massachusetts became the first state to pass a pre-college tenure law. New Jersey followed suit in 1909 with the first comprehensive tenure law that protected all K-12 teachers. In the wake of the Great Depression, the prominent teachers unions were formed to fight for job protection and benefits, and by the mid 1950s, 80 percent of all K-12 teachers were tenured.

Teacher Tenure Today
As of 2008, 2.3 million teachers in America are tenured, and this does not include those in higher education. Each state implements its own regulations for awarding tenure, but in general, the probationary period ranges from 1 to 7 years. During this time, teachers must demonstrate exemplary performance and behavior.

Several states nowadays have modified their tenure laws. New York, for instance, holds teachers accountable for the quality of their teaching, and emphasizes merit and performance instead of years of experience. Many such efforts came as a response to President Obama’s 2009 Race to the Top program, which offered over $4 billion in grants to states who require schools to take student achievement into account when considering teachers for tenure.

The Pros and Cons of Teacher Tenure
The pros and cons of teacher tenure are the subject of much debate nowadays. Under tenure laws, teachers are protected from being fired for a variety of reasons that would have endangered them in the past. Teachers can no longer be fired for discriminatory purposes nor for personal grudges or favoritism. It is also impossible nowadays for a school to fire a tenured teacher in order to hire a less expensive teacher. Moreover, tenured teachers cannot be fired for teaching new or controversial ideas.

There is also a negative side to teacher tenure. Cases in which a tenured teacher cannot be fired except for misconduct lack accountability for student achievement. Because most states give tenure to all teachers after a certain period of time, there is no guarantee that all protected teachers are great educators. Also, the costs of firing tenured teachers can be staggering, and efforts can end with schools simply paying teachers to quit.

Controversies Facing Teacher Tenure
Opponents of tenure argue that it perpetuates mediocrity in schools and lowers accountability. A recent study by The New Teacher Project reports that 81 percent of schools admit to having a low-performing tenured teacher, but over half of those schools will not act because of tenure laws.

However, those in favor of teacher tenure fear that abolishing such laws will make teachers vulnerable to being fired without just cause. As a result, efforts to reform tenure policies are met with resistance. In 2002, Georgia Governor Roy Barnes lost the election because teachers refused to support him after a 2000 law to eliminate teacher tenure. Arnold Schwarzenegger, while Governor of California, failed to ratify Proposition 74, which would extend the probationary period for tenure. Currently, the New Jersey Education Association is battling Governor Chris Christie on a law to eliminate tenure.

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