Reimagining Education

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How Teacher Tenure Hurts Students

By Peter Franzen, Director of Development

The difference between really great teachers and really poor teachers makes a tremendous impact on the life of a student.

A really poor teacher may only cover 50% of the required curriculum in a school year while a really great teacher can cover as much as 150% of the same curriculum.  A student who is unfortunate enough to be in classrooms with poor performing teachers two years in a row will be on an entirely different academic trajectory than his or her peers.

The idea of reforming or eliminating teacher tenure has naturally become a rallying point for teachers’ unions who depend on their membership for survival.  Teachers’ unions’ leadership claims that efforts to put power back in the hands of principals will be a bad thing.  The truth is that it will only be a bad thing for poor teachers and the argument fails to address the really critical question of whether or not it is bad for students.

I have witnessed some great teachers in my time.  I have watched caring adults who have a passion for imparting knowledge and always seem to find ways to engage students.  They are the teachers who often end up with some of the most challenging students because their peers are unable to handle those difficult students.  They are committed to helping students learn and they do whatever it takes.

However, in my many years of working with children in St. Louis I have also heard repeated stories about teachers who are marking time in the classroom with an attitude that approaches indifference toward students whom they see as uncooperative or unwilling to learn.  My work has taken me into the classroom where on at least two occasions I heard teachers tell their students, “I get paid whether you learn or not.”  And that same sentiment was shared more frequently in my presence among adults in private conversations.  Frustrated, burnt out, tired; teachers with that attitude are unhappy and unproductive in their classrooms and they are unable to educate their students.

The only other people who have permanent contracts are tenured university professors, the people for whom tenure was first developed.  At the university level, tenure is meant to protect professors from being unfairly terminated for their views.  At the public schools, though, it has become a force field that protects all teachers without distinctions for the quality of service they provide to students.

High quality teachers who are effective in the classroom do not need to fear tenure reform efforts.  They are needed by schools to effectively educate children which, in turn, produces higher performance measures which, in turn, helps secure funding and helps schools maintain their autonomy.  It is highly unlikely that a principal of a successful school will begin firing valuable, successful teachers over personal differences as some may argue.

All of us who work understand that our ability to do our jobs well is the fundamental measure of whether or not we keep them.  I understand that job protections for teachers were needed in the last century to protect the then predominately female teaching workforce from unfair treatment by men who only grudgingly even gave women the right to vote.  But, that’s not where we are anymore.   There are laws that protect all workers from discrimination and the idea that teachers need special agreements to do what everyone else does every day is not reasonable and not in the best interest of children.

Tenure reform is one of many things that needs to happen as we re-imagine what education in the United States will look like in the 21st century.

Read more about tenure reform efforts in Missouri in this Post Dispatch article published Friday, January 20, 2012.


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