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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Is teacher tenure on the way out?

Tenure is on the way out in universities, writes Checker Finn. Seven out of 10 university instructors are contingent employees; most work part time.Is this the end of teacher tenure in K-12 schools? he asks in Education Next. Not yet, he concludes. “It’s still virtually impossible to fire bad tenured teachers.”

“A onetime tenured university professor who cheerfully gave it up for more rewarding pursuits,” Finn doesn’t think anyone — other than appellate judges — should get lifetime tenure in any job.

. . . K–12 tenure as we know it today is mostly a mid-twentieth-century phenomenon. It rests on three pillars: simple job security and longevity, really a form of guaranteed continuing employment (often viewed as a fringe benefit that substitutes for higher pay); protection against diverse forms of discrimination, favoritism and capriciousness on the part of employers; and academic freedom, meaning in essence that instructors can almost never be fired on account of what they say or write.

Many teachers might prefer higher pay and less job security, Finn writes. “Innumerable due process and anti-discrimination protections” have been written into law, he argues, making tenure less important in this regard. As for academic freedom, “sundry court decisions have limited the extent of ‘free speech’ in school classrooms,” he writes. “Just how much difference does ‘academic freedom’ make to a fourth grade teacher?”

At private and charter schools, teachers rarely have tenure, Finn points out.

. . . the leadership team can generally employ (and deploy) the instructors they deem best suited to their pupils and they’re not obligated to retain any who don’t do a satisfactory job. They can be nimble in regrouping, restaffing, and redirecting their schools—and everyone who works there knows that’s how it goes. Nobody has a right to continued employment untethered to their own performance and the school’s needs. . . .  A few states have taken steps to make tenure harder to obtain or even to move toward for its demise. Lawsuits are underway in several more places, and I have no doubt that kindred efforts will continue, via both the voting booth and the courtroom.

Tenure reforms aren’t primarily about “making it easier to fire bad teachers,” Finn writes. “The main point is to make it possible to run the kinds of schools that kids deserve to attend at a cost the taxpayer can afford to pay—and to bring the profession of school-teaching into the twenty-first century.”

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