Myths vs. Facts

Answers to frequently asked questions on the subject of tenure.

Isn't it impossible to fire a teacher? Isn't tenure a guaranteed job for life?

That's a myth. The only guarantee is that, after succeeding during a three-year probationary period, a tenured teacher is entitled to a fair hearing if she's charged with incompetence or wrongdoing. This protection – known as due process – is a basic right enjoyed by all Americans. Its basis is the same as our judicial system: the presumption of innocence until proven guilty.

How come only teachers get tenure?

Tenure is not unique to the teaching profession. State, county and municipal workers, including police officers and firefighters, as well as many workers in the private sector, also have this type of due process right.

The first tenure statute in New York State was enacted in 1897 - 70 years before public-sector unions had a right to bargain here - in recognition of society's deep interest in safeguarding its teachers from unfair firing and political pressure.

Don't teachers get tenure automatically?

Tenure must be earned. Teachers in New York state must earn tenure over a three-year probationary period, a time in which they can be dismissed for any reason or no reason at all. During this time, probationary teachers are carefully observed by administrators and must show that, in addition to passing certification tests and meeting professional-development requirements, they have the knowledge and skills to succeed over the long term. Many teachers don't earn tenure and leave voluntarily or are counseled out sometime during their first three years. Once probationary teachers earn the support of their principal and the recommendation of their superintendent, their school board also must vote to confer these basic due rights to a teacher.

Why is tenure necessary?

Tenure is a safeguard that lets good teachers speak out for their students without fear of reprisal. It is a safeguard that protects good teachers from unfair firing. Without tenure, teachers could and would be fired for virtually any reason. Just the threat would have a chilling effect, pressuring teachers to "be quiet" and not rock the boat – the goal of those who want to silence unions and the voice of teachers. Tenure safeguards students and good teaching by allowing teachers to be engaged on matters of public importance, such as opposing cuts to school budgets; advocating for students with special needs; or opposing the over-reliance on standardized testing and rush to implement the Common Core.

In a politicized environment, it's not hard to imagine teachers being pressured to pass the star quarterback; be silent in school budget deliberations or be fired because they backed the 'wrong' candidate in school board elections. What would stop a school board from dismissing a veteran teacher at the top of the pay scale simply to save money? It was not too long ago that school boards removed teachers who became pregnant!

Finally, tenure also protects academic freedom and comes from the basic realization that teachers can engage their students in a free exchange of ideas only if they are protected from arbitrary dismissal for doing so.

Whoopi Goldberg says students are at risk because tenure protects bad teachers. How do you respond to that?

First, let's be clear: Teachers and teachers' unions have zero tolerance for anyone who hurts children or who tarnishes the profession. If a teacher violates the public trust or simply can't teach, they should be shown the door – quickly. 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.

To fire a tenured teacher, districts must provide evidence at a fair hearing. Those simple steps are what stop districts from firing good teachers based on a whim, a mere accusation or for arbitrary or discriminatory reasons. Students are safeguarded and so are good teachers.

I know a teacher who's a burn-out. Are you telling me that tenure doesn't protect that teacher from being fired?

Your question illustrates how important it is for teachers to have the right to a fair hearing if their career is on the line - and by the way, that's all that tenure means. Basic fairness requires that a teacher's career cannot be ended because of a label that may or may not be correct, such as "burn-out." How many students have complained about a teacher they see as too strict or "boring" - only to realize later in life that this teacher made a profound difference in their lives? Research shows that there is no one style that equates to effective teaching - which underscores why a fair hearing is needed before the imposition of a serious consequence such as firing a teacher who has demonstrated years of effective teaching. In some instances, an administrator is simply unwilling or unable to take the time to address an employee's performance issues. That doesn't mean the system is broken. It's just not being used as intended.

Why does former journalist Campbell Brown and others claim their lawsuits against tenure and other employment rights are "pro-teacher" and "pro-student"?

These lawsuits are not pro-child. The cases do not address (or even mention) the real issues facing public schools in New York: inequitable and inadequate funding for poor districts; loss of over 30,000 teaching and school-related professional jobs since 2008; cuts to music, art, sports and extracurricular programs; increasing class sizes and lack of pre-K.

These lawsuits are not pro-teacher. Contrary to the Campbell Brown and David Boies spin, taking away basic employment rights from teachers is not pro-teacher and it is not pro-child. Neither lawsuit raises any demand that would raise the pay, benefits or professional standing of teachers.

Doesn't it take years and cost a fortune to fire a teacher?

That's a myth. In 2008, 2010 and 2012, NYSUT worked with the Legislature and governor to reform the disciplinary process. The streamlined tenure law provides for a fairer, faster and less-expensive process that still strongly protects teachers' due-process rights. The reforms have been successful, shortening the length of most cases to about five months. And, many more cases are settled well within
that time frame – before there are full-blown hearings. Critics who point to lengthy cases are ignoring the facts: The real story is that cases that go to full hearings are being resolved quickly; most cases are being settled within a shorter time frame, and many other teachers leave the profession, resigning or retiring at little or no cost to school districts, before cases even get under way.

Those trying to remove the safeguards of tenure ignore the reality that it is just one of the many rigorous standards and safeguards in New York state that ensure a quality teaching force. At every step along the way, most teachers who cannot make the grade - by succeeding in student teaching, passing state tests and certification requirements, passing probation, and succeeding on Annual Professional Performance Reviews, among many requirements - exit voluntarily or are counseled out of the profession. This a demanding and difficult career, and typically one in four do not make it to their fifth year.

Those who have met or exceeded these rigorous standards, demonstrated effective teaching, earned tenure and dedicated years of service to a district are entitled under tenure to a fair hearing if they face career-ending charges. That is a safeguard for good teachers and a safeguard for students, as well.