Sunday, June 15, 2014

Tenure- Private vs. Public

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 every one 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-Presdent 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 good answer for what "Are you doing a good job" means for a teacher.

An elementary teacher may have, say twenty five 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 several hundred masters. And on any given day, many of those masters 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 masters to serve. But at the end of the day, these conflicts are all resolved the same way-- what best serves the interests of the company.

Reformsters 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-- if anyone believed for ten minutes that generating good test scores really was the main interest of a school.

Nobody does, so we're right back where we're started, with a teacher who has a mandate to serve a thousand masters, any one of whom may get angry that some other master was served first and so, let's fire that terrible teacher! Private employees stand and face the same master-- the good of the company-- and while there is certainly jockeying for position and jostling and not a small amount of kicking and gouging, in the end, they all still face the good of the company. But teachers stand in the middle of a circle of masters, always turning their back to one of them. Without tenure, the master they've turned their back on has the power to jump forward and lop off their heads.

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.

[Edit- It's becoming obvious that we need to rethink the use of the word tenure, which many people associate with "job for life" when what we mean is "guarantee of due process." I'm not going to rewrite this piece at this point, but you should feel free to make the mental substitution.]


  1. Because it is in their own interests, many, if not most, employers have a quasi-due process procedure for termination. Most employers pay people based on their years of service. The concepts of tenure and salary scales for public school teachers were instituted because they were the norms elsewhere, not the exceptions.

  2. I appreciate this explanation of the need for 'tenure'.

  3. There are few other professions where one's career can be staked to the whims and impulsiveness of young adolescents, some of whom exhibit rather disturbing behaviors. Eliminating tenure combined with tying teacher evaluations to student test scores will compel many teachers to appease students rather than challenge them.

    1. So true! This is already a problem in high school with discipline issues. No one wants to anger a student for fear of test retribution.

    2. Behavior shouldn’t be plural

  4. Part of the problem lies in the name itself. Too many people in the general populace have come to believe or have been taught that tenure for K-12 teachers means the same as the lifetime rights to a job that tenure on the university level means. Well-meaning teachers like myself have for years tried to make many people understand that it (at least for those of us in the right-to-work states in the south; I would not speak on how it works in unionized states) that it entitles us to a due process hearing to show there was a legitimate reason for our dismissal. Even with tenure, some state laws (like NC) list reasons for automatic dismissal without hearings, even with tenure.

    I would carry your analogy of the "good of the company" to another level, Peter. In the everyday working world of the private enterprise, there is general motivation among employees to get the job done because, well, the company wants it done, yes, but for me there is (probably) food to be bought, a mortgage to be paid, and kids to take care of. Herein lies the problem in education: my employees (students in my classroom) may very well lack the motivation to do well on the Big Test because in what way does it hurt their bottom line do not perform up to expectations? Sure we can hold their feet to the fire over grades and try to motivate them that way, but...yeah, that's about it. In the business world, Johnny wants a paycheck. In school, Johnny might could care less, especially in schools where some modicum of job protections might be the only thing to entice some capable, willing teachers to try in the first place with Johnny.

    I've also come to use your line from a previous post Peter about tenure and those that wish to destroy it: perhaps we need to ask ourselves not why teachers have tenure, but why members of the general populace don't. (Feel free to correct my paraphrasing). I think it says a lot about human nature sometimes when we want to take something from others that have earned it when we don't have it ourselves. Perhaps I'm very different from most people, but I tend not to want to "take away" what other lines of work have that I don't. I don't envy most professionals ability to leave their jobs for lunch for example, nor am I jealous of OT that can be gained in other professions when I can easily put in 50-55 hours a week without extra compensation.

    Finally, since those that want to destroy tenure like to break out the straw men of rubber rooms and the like, let me use an example myself. You alluded to many of these examples in this post, Peter. A teacher that I knew who was a dedicated, well-respected teacher who did her job well came down on the wrong end of a school board member and his wife when she refused to let their daughter start on the softball team at school. Mind you, the wife of this member already had a reputation as a "vile, hateful woman" (that came, by the way, from the mouth of the associate superintendent to my ears...not heard through the grapevine) who made it her god-given mission to destroy this teacher's career. Again, this was in no way related to her actual job performance...and because of that, her job was never in danger because, hey, you shouldn't be able to fire someone because of that! Please tell me, in a system where we become at-will employees and serve the whim of many masters, where that wonderful teacher keeps her job?

  5. I really wonder why it took a major setback in the courts for someone to articulate this. Is it the fear of offending some of the many interests they serve that makes teachers hold their tongue? Somehow, we must shout this from the rooftops until it is recognized as the truth.

  6. So what's the solution to removing tenured teachers who are poor performers, don't care and are riding out their tenure to retirement?

    1. Document their deficiencies and fire them. School districts do it all the time. All. the. Time. The myth that tenured teachers are unfireable is just that-- a myth. My own tiny little rural district has gotten rid of teachers several times over the years I've taught there.