The Future of Teacher Tenure
Proponents must galvanize public opinion to continue the practice.
When many hear the term “tenure,” they immediately think of college and university professors. However, tenure also exists for teachers in primary, elementary, and secondary schools. Introduced in Massachusetts in 1886 and adopted widely in the 20th century,1 American pre-college tenure has continually evolved since. Today, 46 states offer teacher tenure, and an estimated 2.3 million teachers currently hold tenure status.2
What is tenure? Succinctly, it’s an employment status a teacher attains that protects him or her from termination. Protection from firing isn’t absolute; however, a tenured teacher enjoys significantly more job security than a teacher without it. Tenure ensures school districts exercise due process in any dismissal decisions and teachers cannot be fired without “just cause.”3, 4 In addition to job security, tenured teachers may earn higher pay than their non-tenured counterparts.5
As the teacher tenure track currently stands, a teacher becomes eligible after completing a probationary period in the workforce. Varying from state to state, the probationary period can be between one and seven years,1 but is frequently in the two-to-four year range.6 In addition to finishing a minimum probationary period, a teacher typically must pass an evaluation process, which may include performance criteria or educational requirements, like graduate coursework, continuing education credits, or a master’s degree in education.4
What is the current state of teacher tenure in the U.S.? Teacher tenure is still attainable in many areas, though many states are working toward preventing it. North Carolina, Florida and Kansas are phasing out tenure, repealing the status, or removing the due process protections associated with it. In seven states, local districts are required to demote teachers to probationary status if they haven’t achieved satisfactory performance benchmarks. Eleven states mandate that layoff decisions be based on teaching performance, not tenure status.6
Of course, some are for teacher tenure and others are against it. Though undoubtedly alluring for teachers, teacher tenure is a contentious subject today. Opponents dislike the idea of guaranteeing the continued employment for teachers when their career paths don’t offer similar protections. Many feel tenure encourages laziness and incompetence, since the incentives for teachers to perform well have already been attained.7 Opponents argue that tenured teachers are uninspired and unmotivated, impacting student achievement and learning experience.
Proponents argue that teacher tenure not only offers job security, but encourages the protection necessary for teachers to be creative in their teaching. Tenure prevents teachers from becoming victim to petty rivalries, favoritism or politics of administration. They say it also gives them the academic freedom to work toward student success without fear of unfair dismissal.8
What does the future hold? If teachers and their advocates believe teacher tenure is worth protecting, it’s their duty to shape the narrative and campaign to defend it. Each side offers valid arguments and reasoning, however, public sentiment is increasingly siding with ending the practice. It will take enormous, lengthy and painstaking effort by teachers to change the minds of the public and policymakers to revive K–12 teacher tenure and help it to endure into the distant future.6
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