Teachers Like Tenure But Admit Its Flaws

Published July 1, 2003

Most of America’s public school teachers (58 percent) believe tenure protects teachers from district politics, favoritism, and the threat of losing their jobs to newcomers who would earn less, according to a new survey, titled Stand By Me, from Public Agenda, a national nonpartisan, nonprofit public opinion research organization.

Yet a majority (58 percent) of teachers also admit that being awarded tenure does not necessarily mean such teachers have worked hard and proved themselves to be very good at what they do. One union official admitted to defending tenured teachers “who shouldn’t even be pumping gas.”

Teachers freely acknowledge that some teachers shouldn’t be teaching, with nearly three out of five (59 percent) admitting there are a few teachers in their building who “fail to do a good job and are simply going through the motions.” Another 17 percent say there are “more than a few,” and only 19 percent say there are none.

Impossible to Get Them Out

Teachers also acknowledge it is extremely difficult to fire a tenured teacher. Only 14 percent say there’s “rarely a problem weeding out bad teachers,” but more than a third (36 percent) agree that “between tenure and the documentation requirements, it’s too hard for administrators to remove any but the very worst teachers.”

“It gives the profession a bad name” when truly incompetent teachers stay in the system for a long time, a New Jersey teacher told Public Agenda in one of several focus group sessions. “It creates arguments and in the end it hurts our children.”

Although many teachers blame incompetent administrators for not weeding out incompetent teachers, the Public Agenda report suggests another factor may be much more important: union representatives who function much like criminal defense attorneys and defend their clients to the end, regardless of their competence as teachers.

“I’ve gone in and defended teachers who shouldn’t even be pumping gas,” one New Jersey union representative admitted to Public Agenda.

“If I’m defending them, it’s impossible to get them out … [u]nless they commit a lewd act,” said another matter-of-fact union representative in Los Angeles. “I will give it my absolute best defense, and I will save the job.”

Poor Distribution of Talent

Besides helping incompetent teachers keep their jobs, tenure also helps all teachers build up seniority, a very important consideration in teaching. Teacher pay is linked directly to years of service, and increased seniority gives teachers more say over where they will teach and who they will teach. This leads to “a distribution of talent that is flawed and inequitable,” notes Public Agenda President Deborah Wadsworth.

“It is indisputable that the present system lures the most able and experienced teachers to the most supportive and resource-rich environments–and why not?” Wadsworth writes. “With no countervailing incentives in place, teachers who have put in their time and performed well would understandably choose environments with better pay, more accomplishment, and less day-to-day frustration.”

The net result is that the most experienced and talented teachers tend to end up working with students who are relatively easy to teach. Only 20 percent of teachers say this is reasonable because veteran teachers have earned this benefit by putting in their time. More than three out of five (61 percent) say, “This is wrong because it leaves inexperienced teachers with the hardest-to-reach students.”

Given what the focus group sessions reveal about how new teachers tend to be treated–assigned multiple preps and the lowest level classes–some of the survey’s findings are not altogether surprising. For example, four in 10 teachers in the survey say “quite a large number” of new teachers they come across need a lot more training in effective ways to help struggling students (42 percent) and to handle discipline problems (45 percent). Few (9 percent) see new teachers in need of more exposure to pedagogy.

Merit Pay: No, Combat Pay: Yes

Although teachers in the Public Agenda survey were generally cool to the idea of merit pay–paying more to teachers who routinely get their students to learn more–seven out of 10 (70 percent) were receptive to the idea of “combat pay” for colleagues who agree to work in tough neighborhoods with low-performing schools.

While two in three teachers (67 percent) agree with paying more to teachers “who consistently work harder, putting in more time and effort,” only 38 percent favor merit pay for teachers whose students “routinely score higher than similar students on standardized tests.” By a 63:22 ratio, they see merit pay not as a motivator but as something that would foster “unhealthy competition and jealousy.”

Other Findings

According to the survey, the most difficult thing about being a teacher in America today is “unreasonable pressure to raise student achievement,” cited by 36 percent of teachers. Runners-up were “lack of support from parents” (21 percent), “lack of effort from students” (19 percent), and “low pay and lack of opportunity for advancement” (16 percent).

Despite concerns about pressures to raise student achievement, the vast majority of teachers (89 percent) say they are confident most of their students will learn the skills and knowledge they are supposed to know by the end of the year. A majority of teachers (61 percent) also are confident they can turn around their hardest-to-reach students by the end of the year.

However, teachers are divided on which is the more important mark of student success:

  • 53 percent of teachers say it is when students master the skills and knowledge they should learn;
  • 45 percent of teachers say it is when students try hard and feel good about their work.

Among new teachers, a majority (55 percent) say the more important mark of success is when students try hard and feel good about their work.

An earlier Public Agenda survey found the vast majority of teachers (87 percent) say students should pass a standardized test to be promoted to the next grade. However, in this new survey, a majority of teachers (53 percent) say standardized tests “are a seriously flawed measure of student achievement.”

Only 4 percent of teachers considered it appropriate for elected officials to set academic standards, with 93 percent saying, “It’s an area best left to educational professionals.”

Stand by Me was funded by The Broad Foundation, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, The William & Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the Sidney J. Weinberg, Jr. Foundation. The study is based on a national random sample mail survey of 1,345 K-12 public school teachers conducted in Spring 2003. The margin of error is plus or minus three percentage points.

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].

For more information …

The Public Agenda study, Stand by Me: What Teachers Really Think about Unions, Merit Pay and Other Professional Matters, is available in PDF format at http://www.publicagenda.org, as are PDF versions of earlier studies.