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What is Tenure?

By The Room 241 Team September 15, 2011

Tenure was conceived with dedicated educators in mind. From the earliest days of tenure, it has been granted to teachers who have committed their professional lives to providing high-quality learning to their students, schools and communities.

What exactly is tenure?

Tenure in education is the designation given to a position at a K-12 school, college or university where the teacher’s job remains secure, barring extreme circumstances. While job security is highly desirable, tenure doesn’t guarantee a job for life. Although each state has different rules regarding tenure, overall, it’s designed to keep teaching attractive to high-quality educators.

When did tenure begin?

As far back as 1886, when tenure was introduced in Massachusetts schools, women could be dismissed from their teaching positions for:

  • Wearing trousers rather than skirts.
  • Holding unpopular political views.
  • Getting married.
  • Having children
  • Staying out too late in the evenings.

In 1887, teachers from across the U.S. met in Chicago for the first National Educator’s Association.  More than 10,000 teachers made tenure the topic of conversation — it led the agenda, making the NEA one of the country’s most influential teachers’ unions, a distinction that survives to this day. By 1910, New Jersey established fair-dismissal privileges to college professors. It was also the first state to pass tenure legislation.

Today, approximately 2.5 million teachers in the U.S. public school system enjoy tenure, which is usually offered to teaching professionals after about seven years in the field. Of course, as we all know, there are good and bad employees in all professions. The pros and cons of educational tenure continue to be debated.

Controversial tenure issues

Critics of tenure contend that:

  • Tenure can protect incompetent teachers from being fired.
  • Motivation can be compromised if teachers have no fear of losing their jobs. 
  • Administrators can be less apt to discipline a teacher with tenure.
  • Letting a tenured teacher go can be extremely expensive if a teacher fights the decision.
  • Tenure in college is not like tenure at the K-12 level, where it is more likely to be given than earned.  Reach tenure at the university level is a more serious challenge because professors must show contributions in their field by publishing research.

Positive aspects of tenure

Supporters of tenure contend that:

  • Tenure eliminates dismissals based on political matters or personal feelings. In most cases, a tenured teacher cannot be fired until charges against that teacher are filed. Then there is a period of evaluations.
  • When districts endure financial difficulties or face lay-offs due to declining enrollment, tenure protects teachers from dismissal.
  • Teachers feel free to take part in long-term planning goals for the school and feel they can commit time to these projects, building firm relationships within the community and school system. 
  • Teachers with tenure are not afraid to try new things because because they have no fear of being fired.
  • Teachers work hard throughout their probationary period to achieve the status of tenure. Knowing that tenure is in their future keeps them from quitting the profession they love despite the high stress and often mediocre pay.

It’s true that because of tenure, administrators must make careful considerations and selections of teachers upon hiring and may choose to terminate under-performing teachers before they reach tenure.

The U.S. House and Senate listened while educational supporters who favor tenure reform made their case for the Students First Act of 2011.  This Act would replace the 2004 law, junking the arbitration system and returning the authority to fire school workers to local boards of education.

Between January and August of 2011, 18 state legislatures modified their teacher tenure laws, according to Education Week. Many states chose to include teacher performance evaluations into their revised tenure legislation, and the Idaho legislature passed SB 1108, which phased out tenure for new teachers.

Tenure is a good, solid concept that has protected educators (to varying degrees) for decades. With faith and determination, tenure will proceed, and will be modified for the better, keeping the cream at the top.

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