A judge in California has ruled that the state’s method of granting tenure to teachers is unconstitutional under California’s guarantee of equal protection. At the heart of the ruling is a finding that between one and three percent of teachers in California are “grossly ineffective.” That amounts to between 3,000 and 9,000 thousand teachers, most of whom are gathered together in many of the poorest and worst school districts in the state. Evidence shows that one year of instruction by a “grossly ineffective” teacher can significantly retard a child’s progress. Multiple years of such teaching is dangerous and patently unfair. Because these teachers cannot be fired and because they end up teaching the poorest Californians, the judge found that tenure “impose[s] a disproportionate burden on poor and minority students.”In The Atlantic, Dana Goldstein argues that the California system of tenure is insensible and in the end indefensible.
Here’s where the judge is right: It is difficult—actually, close to impossible—to argue that California’s teacher-tenure system makes sense. Research shows that most first-year teachers are mediocre at best. But good teachers tend to make huge jumps in effectiveness by the end of their second year on the job, and those improvements are often visible through classroom observation and students’ rising test scores. Yet California evaluates teachers for tenure in March of their second year of work, before two full years of student-teacher data are available.This means that under current California law, principals are forced to make high-stakes decisions about teachers without enough evidence. This disadvantages students, who might get stuck with sub-par instructors, but it also hurts teachers, who aren’t given enough time to prove their skill.
Goldstein points out that California’s tenure laws are outliers. Most states evaluate teachers for tenure after 3 years. And across the country, teachers believe tenure evaluation should come after 5 or more years of teaching. In California, however, the early tenure decision means that teachers are given permanent job security based on the results of one year on the job. It is difficult to defend such a system. And indeed, it is important to note that the judge in the California case did not declare “tenure” to be unconstitutional, as so many headlines have proclaimed. On the contrary, he cited experts who argued that a better system would award tenure after 3-5 years and simply said that “both students and teachers are unfairly, unnecessarily, and for no legally cognizable reason … disadvantaged by the current Permanent Employment Statute.” As Goldstein argues, the Judge has a point.But even as Goldstein concedes that the California tenure rules are problematic, she argues that simply abolishing tenure is not the silver bullet to school reform. The problem, she writes, is that good teachers simply don’t want to teach in decrepit, disorganized, and discontented schools.
The lesson here is that California’s tenure policies may be insensible, but they aren’t the only, or even the primary, driver of the teacher-quality gap between the state’s middle-class and low-income schools. The larger problem is that too few of the best teachers are willing to work long-term in the country’s most racially isolated and poorest neighborhoods. There are lots of reasons why, ranging from plain old racism and classism to the higher principal turnover that turns poor schools into chaotic workplaces that mature teachers avoid. The schools with the most poverty are also more likely to focus on standardized test prep, which teachers dislike. Plus, teachers tend to live in middle-class neighborhoods and may not want a long commute. Educational equality is about more than teacher-seniority rules: It is about making the schools that serve poor children more attractive places for the smartest, most ambitious people to spend their careers.
To buttress her argument, Goldstein cites the results of a federal program that sought to encourage top teachers to move into the most difficult and need schools. The program failed. Here is Goldstein’s account of why:
From 2009 to 2011, the federal government offered 1,500 effective teachers in 10 major cities—including Los Angeles—a $20,000 bonus to transfer to an open job at a higher poverty school with lower test scores. In the world of public education, $20,000 is a major financial incentive. All these teachers were already employed by urban districts with diverse student populations; they weren’t scared of working with poor, non-white children. Yet less than a quarter of the eligible teachers chose to apply for the bonuses. Most did not want to teach in the schools that were the most deeply segregated by race and class and faced major pressure to raise test scores.
Goldstein is clearly correct when she writes that “Educational equality is about more than teacher-seniority rules: It is about making the schools that serve poor children more attractive places for the smartest, most ambitious people to spend their careers. To do that, those schools need excellent, stable principals who inspire confidence in great teachers.” At the same time, it is not obvious that offering tenure is the best way to attract the “smartest” and “most ambitious” people.I write this as a professor with the luxury of tenure. Tenure is a luxury. Unless I do something illegal or patently stupid, I cannot be fired. Tenure means that, if I want, I can insult my bosses; it means that if I so want I can decide to teach courses in Spanish literature, something for which I was not hired and am not qualified. And tenure means that if I never publish another word or if I stop holding extra office hours or if I stop offering detailed comments on student papers, the school has little if any leverage over me.But tenure is also a burden. To get tenure, especially at the university level, means that one must work assiduously not to offend anyone for 5-7 years of graduate school and 7-10 years as an assistant professor. The argument is that after playing by the rules and not taking risks and keeping one’s mouth shut for 12-17 years, newly tenured faculty will suddenly feel empowered to speak their minds and pursue independent research. This beggars belief, and we must ask what the tenure process does to enforce conformity and servility amongst the professoriate. The overwhelming political and intellectual homogeneity of most university professors in this country is, unmistakably, one result of a tenure process that punishes anyone who challenges the status quo.Tenure is not the great evil that some make it out to be. The overwhelming majority of my colleagues do not abuse tenure (even if we all know a few people in every school who do). But what is the advantage of tenure? Ostensibly it is security. It lends peace of mind. But is it true that the smartest and most ambitious people seek out jobs with security and peace of mind? I doubt it.Debates about tenure are hypocritical to say the least. At the university level, tenure is inseparable from the debate about adjunct labor, which is creating a multi-tiered hierarchy of professors where those lucky few with tenure get a full salary and legions of adjuncts labor away for less money and less security. One needs to ask whom tenure is good for and whom it hurts.Goldstein is correct that tenure is not the only or even the main reason that we have bad teachers in primary and secondary schools in California or elsewhere. Those Silicon Valley entrepreneurs now lining up to launch a national war on tenure are misguided. Their money would be far better spent supporting innovative schools and the teachers, principals, and students who populate them. At the same time, we should not shy away from asking, “whom does tenure help?” As a beginning, read Goldstein’s essay. It is a fair account of the debate, at least in primary schools in California. And don’t forget to read the California court decision.