What Teacher Tenure Is — And What It’s Not

By Kevin Hart

A recent Time magazine poll asked members of the public how they felt about teacher tenure. And, in the course of a 26-word question, Time managed to perpetuate three myths that educators say are contributing to the public’s misunderstanding over what tenure is — and what it’s not.

Specifically, Time asked, “Do you support or oppose tenure for teachers, the practice of guaranteeing teachers lifetime job security after they have worked for a certain amount of time?”

Educators say the September 20 issue of Time magazine perpetuated myths about tenure and other education issues.

The problem is, tenure does not guarantee teachers a job, does not offer any lifetime employment security, and, regardless of the implication of Time’s question, does not just happen after a “certain amount of time.”

Educators participating in a recent discussion on NEA Today’s Facebook page said that these three tenure myths are prevalent among the media and the general public, and are distractions in the debate on how to improve America’s public schools.

The notion that tenure is a guaranteed job for life must have come as a shock for Lancaster, Calif., teacher Carolyn Heia Brown, who said that she received tenure and was laid off in the same month.

If you thought tenured teachers couldn’t lose their jobs, you’re not alone — it’s a common misunderstanding, but that doesn’t make it accurate. Tenure does not guarantee teachers a job, but instead mandates that due process be followed before tenured teachers are dismissed.

The reason is simple enough, said Alabama educator Shannon Keith Ginn, who calls tenure a “measure of protection against personal vendettas and personality conflicts.”

After all, qualified, effective educators who are benefiting students and raising student achievement should not be removed from the classroom because of political disagreements with an administrator — or because the sibling of a local, influential figure wants a job.

And teachers who receive tenure often endure a marathon process before it is granted. At most jobs outside the field of education, a newly hired employee may be considered probationary for six months, or even a year.

When teachers are hired, it is common for them to serve as untenured, probationary employees for three or four years. At this point they can be — and often are — dismissed for any reason whatsoever. That time period also gives school administrators an extended opportunity to evaluate a teacher before determining whether or not the school district, at its discretion, should grant the teacher tenure.

“When explaining tenure, I first make sure to emphasize that tenure is earned, not just handed out to every teacher who walks through the door,” said Illinois teacher Chris Janotta. “Where I work, for instance, a teacher becomes tenured after four probationary years. I explain that the administration has the power to let a teacher go for any reason during these four years. Period.”

Much of the public debate over tenure has focused on whether it is possible to fire tenured teachers who are no longer making the grade. The fact is, contracts between unions and school districts in no way forbid the firing of tenured teachers.

Janotta said he has personally seen two tenured teachers with 20 years of experience let go because of performance issues.

“Did proper steps need to be taken before these teachers were terminated? Of course,” he said. “Were these steps so overwhelming that administration decided it wasn’t worth proceeding with them? Obviously not, or those teachers would still have their jobs.”

Tenure is about due process — not about guaranteeing jobs for life. And it’s not about protecting “bad” teachers — it’s about protecting good teachers.

The typical tenure agreement lays out steps and documentation necessary for dismissing a tenured teacher. Many private corporations also have termination processes and documentation requirements that managers must follow before firing an employee.

Determining which teachers are making the grade depends on a thorough and rigorous evaluation process, and many teachers complain that the evaluation systems at their schools are not functioning. Teachers say they are not evaluated enough, the criteria are murky, and sometimes they receive conflicting evaluations from different administrators.

So why is there so much attention being paid to issues like tenure? Meg Gruber, a teacher from Virginia, believes the issue is largely being driven and pitched to the media by anti-union individuals and organizations. Kelle Stewart, an elementary school teacher from Tennessee, said the heavy focus on tenure keeps the education debate from focusing on real issues that significantly affect public schools.

“Tenure is a red herring that really has nothing at all to do with the problems our schools are facing,“ she said. “I think all the attention paid to tenure should be refocused on NCLB which is hurting us far more.”