Asking whether teacher tenure should be abolished in public schools is like asking whether the Tampa Bay Rays (18 games below .500) should sack their shortstop. Sure, that might be a good start, but that’s not going to be enough to turn things around.
First, the argument for eliminating tenure: As Judge Rolf M. Treu of Los Angeles Superior Court ruled on Tuesday, any benefit that tenure provides to teachers is far outweighed by its costs to children and society by keeping grossly ineffective instructors in the classroom. Defenders often say that tenure is all that limits principals and school boards from terminating teachers for innumerable bogus motives. Yet in the decades since legislatures put tenure laws on the books, legal protections for all employees have grown dramatically, particularly in the public sector. Dismissal under tenure requires a far more onerous due process procedure. But even without it, anyone who believes that he or she has been discriminated against or fired for “arbitrary and capricious” reasons can sue, and will often win. That goes for teachers, too.
Tenure reform is no education game-changer. Tenure is just one part of a dysfunctional approach to human resource management in U.S. schools that needs a complete overhaul. Our public education system is among the only institutions in the land still pretending that professionals will spend their whole careers in a single job. The teacher compensation structure heavily favors lifers, what with its mix of low pay with generous, back-loaded retirement benefits. This is an unattractive package for millennials, few of whom picture staying in any position for more than five or ten years.
In fact, these pensions are an important hidden factor in the tenure debate. It’s one thing for a teacher to lose her job; it’s quite another thing for her to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars of pension wealth. Because of the way pension systems are designed, that’s exactly what can happen to a burned-out veteran who is just a few years from retirement. Thus their passion for the protection that tenure provides.
Policymakers may find that the only politically practical way to eliminate tenure is to phase it out over time, grandfathering in long-time veterans and starting with a “new deal” for new teachers. That deal wouldn’t include tenure but could feature higher starting salaries, faster salary growth, opportunities for career advancement, rewards for exceptional effectiveness and portable pensions.
Finally, as the American Enterprise Institute’s Rick Hess has argued, advocates will need to pay attention to the “missing half” of education reform: Changing the way that leaders in the system behave. It’s undeniable that many principals today don’t take advantage of the flexibility they already have to remove ineffective teachers before they earn tenure. Whether this is because of a lack of will or a lack of better candidates, this chronic mismanagement isn’t something that policy change — even tenure reform — alone can fix.
So yes, abolish tenure. But don’t expect championship performance from our schools as a result of that one fix alone.
Michael J. Petrilli is executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
This first appeared on the New York Times’ Room for Debate page.