Sept - Nov Issue
September 23, 2014

What do you say when the talk turns to tenure?

Source: NYSUT United


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We've all been there.

You're standing in the grocery line, on the sidelines at the soccer game or seated next to an opinionated brother-in-law at a family dinner and the conversation turns to tenure.

"Tenure guarantees a job for life," they'll grumble. Or, a colleague in the faculty room says "good teachers don't need tenure."

Don't suffer silently: Consider it a teachable moment and use some of these answers to help set the record straight.

You say: 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. When they say: "Tenure's automatic."

You say: New York's teaching force is among the best credentialed in the nation. Teachers must complete numerous educational and mentoring requirements, pass licensing exams and earn a master's degree to obtain a professional certificate. After obtaining a professional certificate, teachers must complete 175 hours of professional development every five years and undergo annual professional performance reviews. When they say: "Tenure determines the quality of teachers."

You say: Tenure is about due process, not about guaranteeing jobs for life. In New York, teachers serve a three-year probationary period, when 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 that a teacher has the right to a fair hearing on charges that could end a career. When they say: "Tenure guarantees a job for life."

You say: Tenure's not about protecting "bad" teachers; it's about safeguarding good teachers. Tenure ensures good teachers can speak up for what students need. Because tenure exists, teachers can speak out freely about overtesting, cuts in academic programs, elimination of art, music and language and inappropriate placements for students with disablities. Because of tenure, teachers can engage their students in a free exchange of ideas. It 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. 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. When they say: "Good teachers don't need tenure."

You say: A district can bring charges at any time 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. Many checkpoints are in place to allow teachers who can't make the grade to voluntarily exit or be counseled out of the profession. NYSUT conservatively estimates that almost one-quarter of New York state teachers exit the profession in the first five years - many because of the rigorous requirements and challenging workload. When they say: "Because of tenure, you can't fire a bad teacher."

You say: Attacking tenure is a smokescreen for failing to tackle the real reason why students struggle: poverty. Students in poorer districts have the greatest educational needs, yet receive the fewest resources. The richest districts spend 180 percent as much on education as poorer districts do. If the wealthy elite truly cared about advancing student achevement, they would partner with parents and teachers to focus on what really helps students the most: recruiting and retaining quality teachers and providing equitable funding for all schools. When they say: "Tenure is the cause of low student achievement.

You say: Due process, a right enjoyed by all Americans under the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, calls for 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. When they say: "No one else gets 'due process.'"

You say: Student safety is paramount and it is safeguarded under the state's tenure laws. Teacher-supported changes to the law in 2008 mean that any teacher, tenured or not, will automatically lose both job and teaching license if guilty of certain sexual offenses - without recourse to a hearing. When they say: "Tenure protects sex predators."

You say: The process has been reformed to be faster and more cost efficient, with most cases now resolved within five months. When they say: "It takes more than 800 days to fire a teacher.