California and the Loss of Teacher Tenure

On Tuesday of this week, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge struck down the teacher tenure system governing California public schools. As reported by the Los Angeles Times:

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu said that the laws governing job security were unconstitutional because they harmed predominantly low-income, minority students by allowing incompetent instructors to remain in the classroom.
 

The protections "impose a real and appreciable impact on students' fundamental right to equality of education," he wrote. "The evidence is compelling. Indeed, it shocks the conscience."

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The 16-page decision ends the process of laying off teachers based solely on when they were hired. It also strips them of extra job safeguards not enjoyed by other school or state employees. And, lastly, it eliminates the current tenure process, under which instructors are either fired or win strong job security about 18 months after they start teaching.

A lot of people, including U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, welcome this ruling. But of course not everyone approves. Jack Schneider, education professor at the Jesuit-run College of the Holy Cross (Worcester, MA) responded to the decision in the LA Times, challenging the assumptions behind the court's decision. 

"Making it easier to fire teachers -- even if we imagine that such powers will be deployed judiciously by school administrators -- will do little to ensure an effective teacher in every classroom," wrote Schneider. Why? Because of the lack of ongoing training and professional development. Said Schneider: 

American educators teach an average of 25% to 30% more hours than their counterparts in other industrialized nations, leaving little time for anything beyond treading water. They receive little guidance about what they should read or what new techniques are of the greatest value. Professional development is often problematic, delivered too infrequently, too generally and conveying ideas of questionable merit. And standardized accountability testing tends to discourage even the mildest forms of experimentation.
 

In short, the problem isn't that teachers don't care. It's that they work in a field with little support for professional growth.

Schneider's piece is a thoughtful reminder that tenure is not necessarily the culprit people want it to be. Contributing to a blog at the New York Times, Brian Jones (a former New York City public school teacher) notes:

If teacher tenure is an important obstacle to achievement, Mississippi (with no teacher tenure) should have stellar schools and Massachusetts (with teacher tenure) should have failing ones. Instead, it's the other way around. Correlation is not causation, of course, but across the country the states without tenure are at the bottom of performance rankings. States with the highest-achieving public schools have tenure (and teacher unions).
 

At the very least, it's complicated. I am not an expert in education theory, nor have I worked in public schools, so my instinct is to remain cautious and rely on those with more experience in these fields. At the same time, as a lawyer, I need to read the judge's decision to see precisely what concerned him. My guess is that, like most policy issues, there is wisdom to be found in different voices, even those which seem to be opposed. Tenure might help; it also might hurt. Abolishing it might cure some ills while causing others. There are trade-offs no matter the decision. The most important question in all this remains: What is best for the student? 

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Louis Candell
3 years 6 months ago
I strongly suspect that the tenure issue has little or nothing to do with the quality of teachers. There are stellar schools in Massachusetts largely because most of the teachers in Massachusetts are products of a far above average educational system while the far less than stellar quality of teachers in Mississippi is due to that state having mostly teachers who themselves are products of an inferior educational system.
Bob Baker
3 years 6 months ago
Though most (all?) Catholic K-12 school teachers don't have tenure, their longevity is highly subjective to the whims of others. In large part because there are few unions, the pastors, principals and diocesan education officials control a teacher's fate. For the most part, pastors and the diocese listen to the principal's recommendations (especially since they are usually responsible for hiring him/her). As a result, there is no recourse. Even mentioning a union in a Catholic school brings immediate gasps for air and is likely to count as a strike against you, though all the modern popes have consistently affirmed their necessity.

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