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Tenure Problem

March 31, 2011

The United States is known for containing some of the most prestigious universities world wide. Thousands of international students flock here to attend schools throughout the nation. You could say the United States has bragging rights when it comes to college education. We have some of the best educators in the world teaching at our universities. Unfortunately the same can’t be said for the education that is supposed to prep us for college. Why? Because of a “little” thing called teacher tenure.

Unless you had the opportunity to attend private high school, or you lived in an affluent area where the public school outranked even the best private schools, you know what I am talking about. I attended a local public high school in my hometown back in California, where the budget was slim, and the rate of firing teachers that should be fired, even slimmer. With the cuts in California’s education budget, there is literally no money left to fire incompetent teachers. You might be asking, well it shouldn’t cost that much to fire a teacher who obviously needs to be fired, right? Wrong.

After two years of a probationary period, teachers receive tenure. After that, it is nearly impossible to fire them even with evidence that proves them guilty. Why? In a survey by the Center for Union Facts, there is only a 2.03% experienced teacher-firing rate (California). When I say experienced, I mean two years or more. The California Teachers Association, or CTA, and the California Federation of Teachers, or CTF, maintain firm grips on legislature that protect these “experienced” teachers. These union organizations staunchly back the teacher tenure law, which can turn firing a teacher into a politically impossible process. Why? Because the most powerful unions in California stand up to protect them, making it costly and time consuming for schools districts to fire teachers. In 2009, the Los Angeles Times did a review of every recorded, successful firing, of a teacher with tenure in the last 15 years, and found that only 159 lost their jobs. Their investigations found that “Building a case for dismissal is so time-consuming, costly and draining for principals and administrators that many say they don’t make the effort except in the most egregious cases. The vast majority of firings stem from blatant misconduct, including sexual abuse, other immoral or illegal behavior, insubordination or repeated violation of rules such as showing up on time.”

Notice incompetency didn’t fall into that category “vast majority of firings.”

To begin with, it is very difficult to prove some of these cases. Oftentimes teachers are called in and give excuses for their behavior, saying “I had an off day,” or “that student deserved that punishment” because of x, y, and z. Meetings end with the teacher receiving a warning, but nothing more. When administrators attend classes, by law they must give advanced warning before they give a review. This defeats the purpose of a teacher review however, since teachers can be on their best behavior when forewarned, instead of being caught off guard with a sporadic evaluation. Even when students and parents constantly complain, sometimes their evidence isn’t enough, especially when the cost to fire a teacher can begin at around $50,000 and go upwards to $100,000 and above.

I know this isn’t just a problem in California. Fellow classmates have expressed their concerns with some of the teachers they had in high school as well. Here’s my feeling. Protecting teachers rights is important, because teachers shouldn’t be fired on a whim because of capricious administrations. However, the current laws, especially in my home state, protect teachers who do an inadequate job of teaching. I do not believe the two year probationary period in California is enough time to determine the quality of a teacher, and the protection they receive after those two years is just too much. High School educators need to be held accountable for their actions, and currently, those teachers who show obvious incompetence are able to hide behind their tenure. Our generation is supposed to be the leaders of tomorrow, but how can we be those leaders, if incompetent teachers are teaching us?



  1. Pierre Gerondeau permalink
    March 31, 2011 7:09 PM

    I thought this was a really interesting and thought-provoking post. Teacher tenure is a tricky subject to discuss. I believe that teacher unions are necessary, and should protect teachers from getting fired for no reason at all, but like you I will base my comment on my high school experience. I came from a really small high school in Massachusetts. As a whole we probably weren’t rated that highly, but we did have some really good teachers who put a lot of time in to help students with whatever they needed (this included both new teachers and teachers with long tenure). However, there were a few teachers that I won’t mention by name who had long tenure who did and/or said some things to undermine authority, etc, that at other places might have been cause for termination. However, I do not want to generalize and say that all teachers with tenure don’t do anything useful for students, because I don’t believe that is the case. In terms of teacher tenure, I would say that yes, teachers should be able to have tenure and job security, because like you said they are teaching the next generation of students, but there should be a better system in place to test/watch teachers to make sure they are doing their job. Maybe it was just my high school, but there were not many days when the principal or superintendent observed the classroom, and if it is like this at lots of other schools the system of observing teachers fully should lead to different laws about teacher tenure.

  2. apnash permalink
    March 31, 2011 7:28 PM

    I don’t believe that your post successfully captures the problems of public education in America. You blatantly admit that teachers can actually be fired, that tenure does not make it impossible. This to me raises the question as to whether the blame for incompetent teachers not being fired is the fault of incompetent administration. Every high school in Ann Arbor is staffed with 5 principles who are, among other duties, to oversee the teachers. This is more than enough staffing to eradicate any sub-par teachers; there is no excuse for these teachers still being employed with this level of oversight.

    I am also confused by your statement: ‘Oftentimes teachers are called in and give excuses for their behavior, saying “I had an off day,” or “that student deserved that punishment” because of x, y, and z.’ What is the source of your information that horrible offenses are dismissed so callously? The difficulty of firing a teacher should be acknowledged by everyone, but doesn’t everyone who is a professional deserve not to be fired on a whim, as your post claims?

    If their incompetence as teachers is obvious, it is not obvious that it is their tenure (which is simply the admittance to their union, nothing more) that is to blame. If administration follows the procedures outlined in their contract, which the district signed with full foreknowledge of its contents, the teacher will be fired, end of story. Teachers are a popular target these days, but it is not clear to me that the problem is not actually one of incompetent administration; a scenario that actually seems more likely to me.

    • Anna Gwiazdowski permalink
      March 31, 2011 8:46 PM

      ap nash,

      It’s not that simple, and as I mentioned in my post, unless your high school was in an affluent area, you would be affected by this. The high schools you mentioned are in Ann Arbor, an affluent college town.

      You also mention how high schools should be able to get rid of teachers if they are incompetent, but you must not have read my post clearly enough. Incompetence is very difficult to judge, which makes it very costly when attempting to fire a teacher. I also talked about how incompetence is judged; not on whims but on constant parent/student complaints. You must not be that familiar with the school district then, or the school districts you are familiar with have quite an easy time firing teachers. You should look back in your districts files to see how many teachers were fired in the last 5 to 10 years and what they were fired for. Again if you look at my post you will see the review done by the Los Angeles Times in 2009. There are very few instances of firing because administrations cannot afford to fire teachers, even if they are deemed incompetent. It doesn’t matter what the administration does in California; once you have teacher tenure, it is EXTREMELY DIFFICULT to get rid of a teacher.

      Also my source was a school administrator/former teacher in my hometown. My apologies for not citing it as such.

    • michaelambler permalink
      March 31, 2011 8:55 PM

      Ap nash, there is nothing ‘blatant’ about admitting a teacher can be fired. It’s obvious that if they, say, were to dangle a fourth grader out a window by their ankles, they would probably lose their jobs. What Anna was pointing out was the DIFFICULTY thereof. Your argument reduces the entire spectrum of difficulty to either “impossible to be fired” or “fire-able, thus not a concern.” Put in those terms, we can probably agree that there is more complexity to the matter than that. The fact of the matter is that though it is possible to fire a teacher with tenure as a result of criminal behavior or gross negligence, it’s so difficult as to be almost impossible.

      Take a look at this:

      • michaelambler permalink
        March 31, 2011 8:58 PM

        Or this:

  3. Justin Kucera permalink
    April 4, 2011 4:36 PM

    The Education system is messed up and the unions are at the core of the problem. Unions, not just in the education system are holding back the productivity of workers and industries. Unions are the reason that it is almost impossible to fire a tenured teacher. It is the reason that we are falling behind in education. Teachers have no incentive to work harder. They are on a pay scale based off of the amount of time they have been there and the education they have. A teacher that has students performing well on tests should be paid more than the teachers who aren’t that good. It’s the same in every other industry. It is just like professional sports. The best players get the most money. Let the teachers try to sell their skills to the highest bidder. Teachers would then become better and our education system won’t fall behind.

  4. mstranseth permalink
    April 12, 2011 2:30 AM

    Justin, your comment brings up conflicting feelings in me. I like unions and what they do for workers, especially considering the history of them, but my belief is that unions are only good so long as they do not impede progress. When it comes to the education system, they have started to impede progress and its time for them to change.

    I’m basing my experience from my high school. I came from your basic public school. We excelled in some areas and failed horribly in others. We had some amazing teachers that were able to teach and earn the respect of even the worst students and some teachers who needed to be fired or encouraged into retirement. Education is one of the most important responsibilities a nation, let alone a high developed industrialized super power, has and is not the place to focus more so on politics than education. The system needs to be changed so that teachers are still protected in some ways but tenure needs to be eliminated. Completely.

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