Virtually all employees within the job market today are employed 'at will' -- in other words, they can be fired at any time. This principle of the capitalist economy is supposed to increase the pressure upon employees to perform to a high standard. However, one profession is exempt from such pressures -- public school teachers. "Teacher tenure, which is sometimes called career status, provides job security for teachers who have successfully completed a probationary period. The purpose is to protect good teachers from being fired for non-educational issues including personal beliefs, personality conflicts with administrators or school board members, etc." (Meador 2012). However, critics of tenure frame the issue differently, asking: "if you were the C.E.O. Of a company" and wanted it to perform to a high standard, "would you offer anybody a contract with these terms: lifetime employment, no possibility of dismissal, regardless of performance? If you did, your company would fail and you would be looking for a new job. Why should academia be any different from every other profession?" (Taylor 2010).
Teacher tenure was originally instituted to protect teachers from being fired for exercising their First Amendment rights. Also, without the ability to freely express one's ideas, it was feared that academic scholarship would suffer. On an elementary, middle school, and secondary level: "tenured teachers are entitled to due process when they are threatened with dismissal or nonrenewal of contract. This process is very tedious for administrators, because just like in a trial case, the administrator must show evidence that the teacher is ineffective and failed to meet district standards, in a hearing before the school board" (Meador 2012). The tenure system acts as a disincentive to fire all but the least competent teachers, given the arduous nature of the process.
However, the idea that tenure protects teachers' academic freedom raises the question: what teachers does it really protect? Teachers without tenure, who are still on probation, can be fired at will. Because tenured teachers are more difficult to fire, this creates a caste system in academia: "consider what the academic job market now looks like. You have a small elite on top who have lifetime employment regardless of how little work they do. This lifetime employment commences somewhere between 35 and 40. For the ten-to-fifteen years before that, they spend their lives in pursuit of the brass ring. They live in poverty, [and] suck up to professors" (McArdle 2010). Although this may sound crude, tenured professors are more likely to grant tenure to young professors who share their ideals and ideas. This can create a culture of complacency or 'groupthink' rather than academic ferment within departments. Even in public secondary and elementary schools, because of the permanent nature of tenure, there is a strong incentive to extend tenure to teachers who look, think, and act like the rest of 'us.' "Many ideologically driven tenured professors use their job security to aggressively thwart efforts to increase alternative viewpoints being taught" (Vedder 2010).
Tenure also makes it difficult for young people to enter the profession. When a tenured teacher has a position it can be many years before a student teacher can aspire to that 'slot.' In the recent recession, many school districts were forced to consolidate class sizes and let teachers 'go.' Unable to fire the least effective teachers, they were often forced to fire new candidates without tenure, regardless of the candidate's level of competence. At the university level, "most scholars in their sixties are not producing path-breaking new research, but they are precisely the people that tenure protects. Scholars in their twenties and thirties, on the other hand, have no academic freedom at all. Indeed, because tenure raises the stakes so high, the vetting of future employees is much more careful -- and the candidates, who know this, are almost certainly more careful than they would be if they were on more ordinary employment contracts" (McArdle 2010). Teachers on a probationary period or teachers in untenured university positions such as adjuncts are also more likely to be disciplined, given the risks of challenging a tenured teacher, which can create injustice in terms of how different classes of employees are treated, regardless of their level of job performance (Meador 2012).
Tenure is ironically one of the reasons that it is so difficult for young graduates of PhD programs and teaching programs alike to find jobs: the available slots cannot be 'cleared' given that they are full of people who cannot be fired. "The slow economy, along with a new state funding model, is causing a cash crunch for school districts, and some are slashing positions. Also, fewer teachers want to leave the profession....because they can't afford to" due to the depletion of their retirement savings (Ayala & Agee 2008). On the PhD level, "the number of jobs university math departments were trying to fill in 2009 declined 40% from 2008, according to the American Mathematical Society. There were about 1,000 positions advertised from October 2009 to February 2010 in the Modern Language Assn.'s Job Information List, a 27.5% decline from the year before" (Semuels 2010). This means that graduate students that have devoted years of their lives to advanced academic study, eschewing paying employment and often remaining in debt may have to take jobs as untenured adjunct professors, in positions that offer no benefits and very low pay. Tenure serves the interests of a very small group of professionals, while shutting other potentially gifted candidates out.
Even for the teaching profession as a whole, tenure is not necessarily beneficial. And for students, the consequences can be even worse. Tenure encourages keeping older teachers in their positions, regardless of competency, just at the time when there is a demand for a new, invigorating approach to education. Although, theoretically, bad teachers can be removed from their positions, due process is lengthy -- and expensive (Meador 2012). There is also less of an incentive to 'push one's self' as a teacher, after tenure -- although theoretically teachers are internally as well as externally motivated, just like students are less likely to perform to standard without the positive and negative incentives of grades, teachers also can benefit from a similar rewards system.
This is not to say that there is currently no risk of being punished for fairly disciplining a student or for publishing unpopular academic views for teachers. The teaching profession's job security can encourage talented graduates to become teachers. However, one of the problems with the current tenure debate is that it is often framed as an either/or proposition -- either one must be 'for' tenure in its current format, or one is against it. It is still possible to incentivize going into the teaching profession. One suggestion is that "after a trial period of three to five years, faculty members who merit promotion should be given seven-year renewable contracts" (Taylor 2010). Seniority can still be a factor in considering whether someone will retain his or her teaching job -- the problem is, with tenure, tenure status becomes the primary consideration, rather than one among many.
Given state budget cuts and increasing concern that students are not performing up to the standards required to pass state exams, teacher tenure is under increasing attack across the nation. Nearly eighteen state legislatures have "modified some element of their teacher tenure or continuing contract policies. One of the most notable was Idaho, where legislators enacted a bill banning tenure for new teachers and other certified employees" (Holland 2012). Although tenure has not been successfully abolished in most states, the incentives extended to teachers are under increasingly scrutiny. The movement to abolish tenure "could partly be attributed to the Race to the Top initiative by the administration of President Barack Obama. The initiative challenged states to compete for grants to support education reform and innovation in classrooms. Race to the Top arguably has spurred more aggressive scrutiny of teachers and a push for greater accountability in the classroom" (Holland 2012). Accountability means rating teachers, and when teachers are given a 'grade' based upon test performance, the question inevitably arises as to whether performance vs. seniority should hold sway when making decisions about teaching jobs. Even while state budgets are contracting, more people are also entering the teaching profession because of the perceived security it offers, and there is record enrollment in nontraditional certification programs for career-changing professions, which, many argue, might bring some much-needed new blood into many school districts, depending on how many new positions open up (Ayala & Agee 2008).
Given the current political and economic climate, the time seems to be right to end tenure. "Across the country, people recognize that the current education structure is not working and that having the sole basis for retaining teachers being that they've been there the longest is probably not a way to make sure we have the best teachers in the classroom" (Holland 2012). Eliminating tenure does not…