Research & Commentary: Loosening Teacher Tenure

Published March 5, 2012

Several states, including Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Nevada, New Jersey, South Dakota, and Virginia, are considering making teacher tenure more difficult to obtain or replacing it with rolling contracts. Teacher unions argue tenure is necessary for K-12 teachers to protect them from being arbitrarily fired. They also suggest without tenure administrators facing budget shortfalls would fire the teachers who earn the most money instead of the least-effective or least-needed teachers. Reformers note due process protection from capricious or arbitrary firings has been enshrined in Western law since the Magna Carta and widely expanded in the U.S. Constitution, federal law, and state law since then. Also, they note, schools would never fire their most-expensive workers if those were their best teachers. Currently, step-and-lane requirements in many state laws ensure the longest-tenured teachers, not the best ones, are paid the most. They also point out the destructive consequences of tenure, such as making it impossibly expensive and time-consuming to remove poor teachers so that it almost never happens, which degrades student learning. Tenure also makes it possible and indeed likely teachers will become lax and complacent after the two or three years typically spent earning it. Research consistently shows nearly every teacher receives tenure, without any attention to teaching quality. The following documents offer more information about teacher tenure. G.O.P. Governors Take Aim at Teacher Tenure Lawmakers in several states are considering limiting or modifying teacher tenure in response to research showing it keeps poor teachers in the classroom, reports the New York Times. Teacher quality has become a prime concern for state and city leaders after years of mediocrity in school systems and research linking teacher quality to economic advancement and student success. Teacher Accountability: The Next Front in the School Reform Wars Choice and accountability are not enough to create a great school system, writes Michael Petrilli in Education Next. Legislators and reformers have to tackle teacher tenure and evaluations because the current restrictions causing teacher complacency and poor teaching are enshrined in state law. The centrality of tenure to teacher union strength is likely to make such changes a difficult, drawn-out fight in many states, he says. The Teacher Unions Strike Back Teacher unions have a vested interest in making removing teachers as obnoxious and expensive as possible, leading them to resist most effective reforms, write Robert Holland and Don Soifer in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Unions have everywhere resisted these reforms, resulting in poorly staffed schools, wasted tax dollars, and lackluster performance. How to Succeed in Teaching Without Lifetime Tenure Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Naomi Schaefer Riley profiles the Olin College of Engineering, which hires professors for five-year contracts instead of lifelong tenure. It has 140 applicants for every position in a highly competitive field, and professors love to work there. The culture of the school aims towards constantly increasing excellence, she reports, because the absence of tenure attracts and retains people who are excited about their field and enjoy teaching. High Cost of Firing Teachers Deters Action by Schools Tenure makes firing a poor teacher so expensive that schools instead keep them in classrooms, reports Scott Reeder in an investigative report by the Small Newspaper Group. This dramatically reduces the quality of public education and increases taxpayer costs. Tenure Frustrates Drive for Teacher Accountability Tenure makes it extremely difficult for superintendents and schools boards to hold teachers accountable for their work, seeking excellence, or even just showing up, reports Scott Reeder in an investigative report by the Small Newspaper Group. It is nearly impossible and extremely expensive to fire a tenured teacher, even if the teacher doesn’t show up for work or screams at students. This is true even when teachers are regularly evaluated, he reports. Despite clear evidence of these realities, teacher unions say such accountability problems don’t exist. Op-Ed: A Higher Bar for Teachers, Finally Because teachers are the most important factor in student success, tenure is a high-stakes decision, writes Timothy Daly in the New York Daily News. This means a teacher should receive tenure only if there is hard evidence he or she is an excellent teacher. Unfortunately, Daly notes, a study he conducted found nearly all teachers now receive tenure regardless of whether they have proved their worth. Three First Steps Toward Effective Teaching The National Council on Teacher Quality has given Virginia a D+ for teacher quality, notes Christian Braunlich in a report for the Virginia-based Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy. The state is poor at identifying which teachers are poor and which are effective, the NCTQ states, and it has a widening achievement gap between rich and poor children and white and minority children, Braunlich notes. Three strategies to address the lack of teaching quality could improve the state’s workforce and economy: matching teachers to student achievement data the state already collects, requiring effectiveness to be the top criteria when evaluating a teacher, and making tenure harder to get and contingent on annual reviews. Nobody Deserves Tenure No one has a right to lifetime employment unrelated to their job performance or to the employer’s continuing need for their skills and particular attributes, writes Chester Finn Jr. in Education Next. Tenure became the norm only around the 1980s, he writes. Due process is a right guaranteed to all by the Constitution and myriad other federal and state laws, and tenure is not necessary to protect teachers from arbitrary firing. Given that tenure creates a host of problems and inequities, it should be abolished. Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this and other topics, visit the School Reform News Web site at, The Heartland Institute’s Web site at, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database, at If you have any questions about this issue or The Heartland Institute, contact Heartland education policy research fellow Joy Pullmann, at 312/377-4000 or [email protected].