An educational balancing act

The legal definition of tenure is simple: status granted to an employee, usually after a probationary period, indicating that the position or employment is permanent. However, students mostly think of tenure as a way for old, lazy teachers to keep their jobs without actually teaching their students.

Though there are regulations governing the loss of tenure, it happens rarely. It’s an intricate, delicate process that is designed to be difficult to implement due to its nature. The intent of tenure is to protect academic freedom in the face of administrative and cultural biases, and the difficulty of dismissing a professor based on academic work can be illustrated by the case of the Scopes trial in the 1920s, which highlighted the need to protect the ability of teachers to cover controversial material in the face of opposition from cultural attitudes and biases. It grants assurances to educators that they need not censor or modify their curriculum in order to appease either their employers or the educational administration. This ensures the continued progress of the arts and sciences.

Tenure significantly strengthens legal protections embodied in civil service, civil rights and labor laws by shifting to the employer the burden to prove the termination is justified. Moshe Marvit, a labor and civil rights attorney notes, “Civil rights laws may protect teachers from being fired because of race or sex, but under a civil rights frame it is still incumbent upon the teacher to prove that the employer acted the way it did because of race or sex.”

Under a tenure archetype, the employer must prove it has justified reason to fire the teacher. Flipping that burden is huge, both in terms of consumption and output of resources and variabilities of success. Thus, tenure is incredibly important in protecting the civil rights and liberties of the instructors.

Tenure laws, which protected teachers from favoritism and nepotism, were originally created for students to receive an education subject to neither political whims nor arbitrary administrative decisions. It did so by allowing a teacher to stop worrying about his or her job security and office politics and instead focus on providing the best education possible to students.

Tenure protections are necessary given the current fixation on high-stakes testing and the possible linking of students’ test scores to teacher evaluations. Using state test scores as the most important factor in evaluating teacher performance is of limited efficacy, but in today’s test-centric educational culture, such has become the norm. The pervasiveness of this attitude has only underscored the need for tenure protection, as many teachers feel that they are teaching students to take a test instead of learning about material that they will carry for a lifetime.

American public school teachers are typically awarded tenure after a probation period of three years. This privilege guarantees that teachers must be given reason, documentation and a hearing prior to being fired. There are some cases of the tenured teacher who has slacked in his or her educational responsibilities and is “leeching” off the system, and many critics of tenure have taken this as a problem of widespread abuse. However, I disagree with this rather pervasive attitude; it’s always easy to make a great minority of offenders the face of an entire system, especially one as controversial as tenure, but to do so would be entirely lacking in nuance and substance. The effort expended on focusing on the few tenured instructors who have abused the system as indicative of the main failure of the educational system is gravely misguided and misinformed.

The “issue” of teacher tenure as a supposedly broken and corrupted system is a mere boogeyman for the many institutional problems that the educational system faces. Tenure has been instrumental in promoting and fostering an environment of academic freedom and the pursuit of knowledge, but its small minority of abusers has been enlarged to represent the problems of the educational system as a whole. To do so is to ignore the large, scary problems that the educational institution faces. Fixing them is a herculean task but it is a task that we must hold ourselves to, for the future generations of young students demands it of us.

Yes, perhaps dismissal procedures could be mended to strike the right balance between providing fairness to good teachers and facilitating the removal of incompetent ones. However, in the larger discussion of the great problems facing the educational system in America, teacher tenure should not be the focus of the discussion. Instead, if we ought to focus our energy on problems such as: the way public schools systems are funded, the test-centric educational culture and the lack of teachers entering the workforce.

By Sophia Ding, Opinion editor

Photo by Jeffrey Tran