Why should teachers have tenure? What, for that matter, is “tenure” anyway?

The issue has become a big topic of conversation because of the recent verdict in the “Vergara trial,”  in which a Los Angeles judge tossed out California statutes giving job protections to teachers. The decision didn’t exactly come out of nowhere; school “reformers” have been moving for several years to weaken or eliminate tenure for teachers and other job protections through legislation. The lawsuit — funded by a multimillionaire from Silicon Valley — was a new weapon in the anti-union arsenal and is sure to be replicated in other states, even if Vergara is overturned by an appellate court.

If you asked most people what “tenure” is, they would probably say it is a guarantee of a lifelong job for teachers. Actually, it isn’t. Here’s how Perry Zirkel, a professor of education and law at Lehigh University’s College of Education, described it in this post:

Tenure is no more than a legal commitment (set by the state and negotiated union contracts) to procedural due process, ensuring notice and providing a hearing for generally accepted reasons for termination, such as incompetence, insubordination, and immorality. Tenure’s primary purpose is economic job security, tied to the otherwise uncompetitive pay in comparison to other professions; however, tenure is not a lifetime guarantee.

It is certainly true that in some places it is too hard for a school system to fire a teacher who shouldn’t be in the profession. That would speak not inherently to the notion of providing teachers job protections but in the way they are negotiated between union and government officials and how well school administrators do their jobs in following the dismissal rules. But that doesn’t get to the point of why K-12 teachers should have tenure at all. In the following post, a teacher explains why he thinks tenure is not only appropriate but necessary for teachers. He is veteran teacher Peter Greene, and a version of this appeared on his on his Curmudgucation blog. Greene wants readers to know that when he speaks of tenure, he is speaking about job protections for teachers in general.

By Peter Greene
Nobody else has tenure. Why should teachers get it?
So what if you could be fired for any reason? That’s how employment works for everyone else. Most people are “at-will employees.”
You’ve heard these arguments (and if you haven’t, gird your loins and go strolling through the trolling in the comments section of any article about Vergara and/or tenure). And I believe it’s a sincere, honest objection for some folks. So, for those folks, let me try another approach to explaining tenure, and why teaching is different from working in the private sector.
In the private sector, employees serve the interests of the company. “Are you doing a good job,” has a clear definition — “Are you helping the company become better and more profitable?”
This provides everybody with a straightforward measure for job performance. From Vice-President of Widget Development down to Welder on Widget Assembly Line, everyone knows what interests they are supposed to serve. That’s not always an easy call — competition between different segments of the company, different visions of what the company needs to succeed, and setting priorities can all create some real dissension and disconnect between the various silos within the corporate structure.
But even those various issues will be solved by that same metric: Does it serve the company’s interests?
That single focus on one set of interests — the company’s — provides its own sort of hedge against bad management choices and capricious firings. If I start firing everyone in my department because I don’t like the way they do their hair, and I start firing people who could really serve the company’s interests, I am going to have to answer to my own boss.
And because that focus on the company’s interests is incorporated into the hiring process, much of the weeding is already done. I’m not going to get fired from a GOP Think Tank for being a raging liberal because I’m not going to get hired in the first place.
But while a private corporation has a relatively simple focus on its own interests, a public school is quite another matter.
A public school teacher exists at a place where hundreds of different interests intersect. It is one of the reasons that we don’t have a single good answer for what the question “Are you doing a good job” means for a teacher.
An elementary school teacher may have, for example, 25 students in the room. Each of them has their own interests to be served, plus the interests of their parents (which may not match, either). Chris may want his child taught to be a killer mathematician with strict focus on academics, while Pat might want her child to be nurtured and made to feel happy and whole. But the elementary teacher also has to serve the interests of the building administration and the district administration and whatever other supervisors she may have. And on top of that she must serve the interests of the state and federal government, who have imposed their own set of expectations. Let’s also throw in the school board members, who bring their own many and varied interests to the table.
If our hypothetical teacher takes on other duties, she now serves more sets of interests. Does she coach? Every player and parent bring their own set of interests to the game. Is she a union rep? There are more interests to be served. And on top of all of these, the one interest a teacher is never supposed to serve is her own. “Enlightened self-interest” is a virtue in business, but nobody touts it for teachers.
A private employee serves one master — the company.
A public school teacher serves many “bosses”. And on any given day, many of those bosses will fight for ascendency. A teacher cannot serve all of those interests — and yet that is the teacher’s mandate. Tenure is meant to shield the teacher from the political fallout of these battles:  to give the teacher the freedom to balance all these interests as she sees best.
Yes, of course, private corporations are rife with internal struggles and employees who have to decide which corporate bosses to serve. But at the end of the day, these conflicts are all reserved the same way — what best serves the interests of the company.
School reformers have tried to make education that simple. “Okay, here it is,” they proclaimed proudly, Gordian knot-cutters in hand. “The purpose of schools is to get good test scores. You are doing a good job when students get good scores on The Big Standardized Test! See? Simple!!” And that would make things simple — but only for those who believe that generating good test scores really is the main interest of a school.
Teachers often frame the need for tenure as the need for protection from one bad boss. But in truth as public employees we have thousands of bosses; all it takes is just one out of a thousand to be bad for our career to be in danger. That’s why we need tenure.