THE BLOG
10/30/2014 10:54 pm ET Updated Dec 30, 2014

Let's Talk About Teacher Retention, Not Tenure

Surovtseva via Getty Images

To hear some folks talk about tenure, you would think that one of the biggest issues facing education is a glut of teachers, a veritable mountain of wrinkled old classroom geezers blocking the career paths of a million Bright Young Things who are itching to get into the classroom. Oh, if only tenure and FILO didn't allow them to sit there in lumpen uselessness while hot young blood congeals somewhere else, unused potential unrealized.

All the way back to education serial failure Michelle Rhee's Time cover appearance, broom in hand, the prevailing image has been of the need to sweep away the tenure-protected deadwood. It's a compelling image -- it's just not closely related to reality.

The Economic Policy Institute thinks we don't even have enough teaching jobs. By their count, we should have 377,000 more job openings, which I'm pretty sure would take care of every enthusiastic twenty-something who's allegedly languishing somewhere.

On top of that, we are losing somewhere in the neighborhood of a half million teachers each year. Everybody likes to quote the two most striking data points-- fifty percent of new teachers leave within five years, and twenty percent of new teachers leave within the first three years. Recently TFA made the argument that their two-year teachers stay in a classroom longer than most traditional teacher school grads. That may or may not be accurate, but it's certainly close enough to give one pause. Meanwhile, I can report first-hand that many college education programs are shriveling up and, if not outright dying, becoming shambling zombie shadows of their former selves. And a new report from California backs me up.

This report from April highlights some of the trends. The teacher force is very female, and very white. In other words, the teacher population looks less and less like the student population. And there's no good news to report on the effort to fix that imbalance. Black men are entering the profession in huge numbers-- and leaving it in even huger numbers.

And into this picture we have Silicon Valley moguls telling us that the problem with education is that we can't fire people enough.

You will occasionally hear a stat thrown around along the lines of "Last year in North Pennsyltucky, only twelve teachers were fired out of sixty gabbillion employed in the state." This is supposed to alarm us with the slackitude of schools' firing skills, and serve as proof that zillions of terrible teachers are still in the classroom, lazily tenured and blissfully unfired. This is baloney. I will admit that when I entered teaching, it was a field where an occasional lazy person could hide and while away the time until retirement. But that was thirty-some years ago; today teachers have to slog away just to keep their heads above water. The high attrition rate for beginning teachers tells me that many young men and women are saying, "Damn-- this is hard work that I don't think I can do very well. I'm outta here!" I believe a huge number of not-so-awsome proto-teachers are showing themselves the door before anybody else has to.

Why else are we hemorrhaging teachers? In that study linked above, Richard Ingersoll wrote this:

In short, the data suggest that school staffing problems are rooted in the way schools are organized and the way the teaching occupation is treated and that lasting improvements in the quality and quantity of the teaching workforce will require improvements in the quality of the teaching job.

In other words, making teaching jobs crappier and less secure is not likely to get people to stick around.

New York City schools played with the tenure thing, creating a sort of tenure twilight. Some folks thought a study of the system proved that you could get weaker teachers to go away on their own. I'm pretty sure that it proved you could get any teachers to go away if you told them they had no job security in their present location.

Everything-- everything-- tells us that if our goal really is to put a great teacher in every classroom, reformsters, educational thought leaders, and rich unelected amateurs who somehow get to set education policy are going about it exactly backwards. The attacks on tenure are literally the exact opposite of what is needed.

Of course, if the actual goal is to give schools a labor force that is cheaper and more easily controlled, then we are right on track. If we are trying to manufacture a staffing crisis so that we can say that we must issue emergency low-wage teaching credentials to all sentient beings in America, then we are on the right track. If we are trying to chase teachers away from large urban districts so that those districts (and their big beautiful piles of money) can be divided up by charter privateers, we are on the right track.

But if we want to talk about improving the teaching force, about making it better resemble the student population, about putting great teachers in front of all students-- if we want to talk about those things, then we need to stop talking about tenure and start talking about retention. What people actually choose to talk about tells us a great deal about their actual goals.

Originally posted in Curmudgucation