Elite Tenure: Oxymoron, or the Next Big Thing?

Those of us who work without job protections beyond civil rights laws are often astonished by the system of tenure that emerged in U.S. K-12 education.  We can understand why groups that represent people who have tenure fight so hard to keep it.  But why did states and districts willingly adopt it, except when forced through union contract negotiations?  Today, about 97% of teachers get tenure, most within a few years and in most cases with cursory review.  Unfortunately, the financial costs of easy tenure-for-all combined with steps and lanes pay systems have placed a nearly universal glass ceiling on instructional career opportunities and pay for the best teachers.  And we can all see the consequences.

But is getting rid of tenure the best or only solution? We wondered just that. With support from the Joyce Foundation, my colleagues Julie Kowal, Joe Ableidinger, Bryan Hassel and I at Public Impact explored tenure’s various forms in higher education and the federal and state civil service in a report we released March 15. We also took a step back and asked what we think is the most important question: could redesigned tenure actually help grow the size and power of an elite teaching corps that reaches far more children with high-progress learning? We think the answer is yes. Elite tenure, for the top 10 – 25%, would confer status to the deserving, open doors to paid instructional career opportunities, and give power over future decisions to top teachers who would be motivated to maintain a high standard.

Key components of our elite tenure example are far more career and pay opportunities for great teachers, including the chance to extend their reach to more students. For more about reach extension, see Bryan Hassel’s and my 2009 paper 3X for All: Extending the Reach of Education’s Best.  And for more about why reach extension is an essential addition to bold recruiting and dismissal efforts, see our 2010 paper Opportunity at the Top: How America’s Best Teachers Could Close the Gaps, Raise the Bar, and Keep Our Nation Great.

The tenure report also breaks down tenure into its component parts, and then provides a basic framework for redesigning each element of tenure to achieve better results for children and great teachers. Take a look. See if you can come up with other tenure models that might work better for better teachers and the children they serve. State policymakers need fresh ideas, fast. Too many states are stuck in the “keep it or scrap it” mode of tenure discussion, and laws of inertia indicate that “keep it” will win. That’s a problem for our nation’s best teachers.

– Emily Ayscue Hassel

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