March 2011 Issue
February 18, 2011

Mythbusters: The truth about tenure

Source: NYSUT United
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Tenure is under attack around the nation. Governors in Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Nevada and New Jersey have called for an end to tenure, claiming that's the only way to get rid of "bad" teachers. Responding to tenure critics should not be difficult because tenure is due process. Let's set the record straight on this commonly misunderstood concept.

MYTH: Tenure guarantees a job for life.

Truth: Tenure is about dueprocess, not about guaranteeing jobs for life. In New York, new teachers serve a three-year probationary period, during which school officials have an obligation to evaluate those teachers' job performance. If, after three years, the local school board votes to grant a teacher tenure, it simply means the teacher is entitled to a fair hearing before a neutral third party if there are allegations of incompetence or wrongdoing. During the first three years, teachers and teaching assistants generally can be dismissed at any time for any reason.

MYTH: Administrators' hands are tied: Tenure's automatic.

Truth: Unions don't grant tenure — administrators do. Too many school boards and superintendents attack tenure rather than hold their own managers accountable for hiring and supervising teachers and, if necessary, removing those who don't make the grade. Tenure is granted by the board of education on recommendation of the superintendent — but many schools do a poor job of evaluating and supporting teachers. That's why NYSUT's Innovation Initiative is piloting a comprehensive teacher evaluation system built by five joint labor-management teams. The model is designed to evaluate teachers comprehensively and fairly — and provide support to those who need it.

MYTH: Good teachers don't need tenure.

Truth: Tenure's not about protecting "bad" teachers; it's about protecting good teachers. What would happen to teachers without tenure? They could — and would — be fired for virtually any reason.

It's not hard to imagine teachers being dismissed because they failed the daughter of an influential businessman or because the school board president's nephew needed a job.

In these fiscally troubled times, what would stop a school board from replacing a veteran teacher at the top of the pay scale with a first-year teacher — simply to save money?

Tenure is the first line of defense against attacks on academic freedom. Teachers can engage their students in a free exchange of ideas only if they are protected from arbitrary dismissal for doing so. Tenure prevents school boards from arbitrarily dismissing teachers for holding political, religious or social views with which they disagree.

It protects academic freedom the way the First Amendment protects freedom of the press.

MYTH: No one else gets 'due process.'

Truth: Due process, a right enjoyed by all Americans, includes a presumption of innocence and the right to a fair hearing. Tenure is not unique to teaching. School building administrators have it, too. State and local workers, including police and firefighters, as well as private-sector union members, have due-process protections similar to tenure. And, they earn those protections in less time than teachers.

MYTH: Because of tenure, you can't fire a bad teacher.

Truth: A district can bring charges against a tenured teacher or teaching assistant for insubordination, conduct unbecoming a teacher, inefficiency, incompetence, physical or mental disability, neglect of duty, failure to maintain certification or immoral character, at any time.

What about the cost and length of tenure proceedings? In 1994, working with NYSUT and the state School Boards Association, the state Legislature streamlined the tenure law to provide a fairer, faster process that still protected due-process rights.

The reforms have shortened the length of most cases and encouraged pre-hearing settlements in countless others. While some critics point to lengthy cases that go to full hearings, the real story is how many cases are settled quickly, with little cost to districts, often before charges are even filed.

In 2007, more statewide minimum standards for tenure were enacted for teachers hired on or after July 1, 2008. And, under a new teacher/principal evaluation law approved last year, the tenure process will improve because it will be based on more objective information.

The new law, scheduled to be phased in beginning in the next school year, calls for a new, expedited process if a teacher receives two consecutive annual evaluations of "ineffective."

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