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Should Teachers Stop Fighting for Tenure?

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One of the most contested points of teacher contracts is the issue of tenure. Hardline education reformers argue that tenure protects underperforming teachers, which ends up punishing the students. Teachers unions challenge (among other reasons) that with the ever-changing landscape of K-12 education, including evaluation systems, tenure is necessary to protect the jobs of excellent teachers who could otherwise be ousted unfairly. It can often be a sticking point - and one that can lead to costly time out of classrooms, as recently seen in large school systems like New York City and Chicago.

For its part, tenure for teachers has done a lot to elevate job protection in other industries too. The fights that teachers wage when it comes to fairness in the workplace have had a positive impact on workers' rights and treatment outside classrooms and off school grounds. Tenure, as a piece of the larger teacher contract puzzle, has been an important stand in the history of the education industry. Based on the contemporary K-12 landscape, however, it seems that the fight for tenure could be becoming an irrelevant one.

As such, I wonder if for the sake of really reforming K-12 learning, teachers should stop fighting the tenure battle?

Take the city of New Haven, Connecticut. Starting in 2010, the American Federation of Teachers sent national representatives to work with local union reps and the city's reforming mayor John DeStefano to come to an agreement that worked best for students and schools. At the start of talks, DeStefano was launching an aggressive campaign to completely get rid of teacher tenure in the city's public schools and to open up the area for charter schools. Local union representative David Cicarella knew he needed to push back against DeStefano's demands - but he also knew that the schools needed big changes in order to improve.

After much debate and compromise, it appears (at least publicly) that all sides emerged smiling with a plan in December that takes a middle ground. Among the concessions made by the union was to let go of some of its tight grasp on tenure. While it still exists for New Haven teachers, there are now tenure rules in place that can more easily oust under-performing teachers. This appeased Mayor DeStefano enough to stop seeking complete elimination of the union-backed job perk. For his part, DeStefano stopped his aggressive push for charter school introduction when the public school system developed a "turnaround" program for schools in the district with consistently low performing scores.

This is just one example of a time that budging the union hard line on tenure seems appropriate. With all of the so-called school competition now on the market - from charter schools to magnet schools to voucher-funded private schools - I think that tenure will increasingly become a harder thing to argue for when it comes to contracts. This is not to say that it is becoming less important; tenure is just becoming a much harder sale than it ever was in the past and perhaps teachers should shift their focus to more realistic "gets" when it comes to contracts, like:

  • Limited tenure protections
  • Improvement programs/plans for under-performing teacher
  • Improvement input from local elected officials that is specific to district schools

I'm not exactly suggesting that teachers just "give up" but I would support adjusting the expectations for tenure. It seems an appropriate step in the right direction for teachers in all types of schools. That energy then can be redirected towards realistic and helpful stipulations in teachers' contracts that benefit the entire industry.

What do you think a fair stance on tenure is when it comes to teacher contracts?