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Teacher Tenure Debate: Pros & Cons

Meghan Mathis


Teacher TenureTenure seems to be a topic on the tip of many tongues lately.  Teachers, politicians, your brother-in-law, strangers at the restaurant table next to yours, everyone seems to have an opinion about this controversial subject.  It can be difficult to know what to say when you encounter someone with a strongly held opinion one way or the other. 


With that in mind, I’ve prepared a list of pro’s and con’s in the teacher tenure debate.  Hopefully after reading through it you’ll feel a bit more comfortable discussing this complex issue with others.

PRO #1:  Tenure prevents teachers from being fired for inappropriate reasons.

Although anti-tenure supporters will state that this is no longer applicable, the fact is that prior to tenure teachers were often fired for personal, political, or other non-teaching related reasons.  Female educators were let go for getting pregnant, wearing pants, or being seen at the wrong establishments too late at night.  Other educators were fired for teaching controversial subjects such as evolution or for disagreeing with the school board or administration. 

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Today, tenure provides educators with the protection needed to take risks with new materials or learning methods, question decisions made by administration, or speak out about problems facing their district without fear of reprisal.

CON #1:  Tenured teachers are often extremely difficult to dismiss.

This is probably the most commonly heard complaint about tenure.  Often, we hear, “It is impossible to fire lousy teachers once they have tenure.” This is untrue.  Tenure does not grant teachers immunity from being dismissed from their positions, but it does make it very difficult. 


A New Teacher Project study completed in 2009 found that 86% of administrators surveyed did not pursue termination of teachers they knew to be underperforming or acting improperly because of fear of the time and money the process would take.  Supporters of teacher tenure point to administration as the chief reason for this, citing lack of appropriate evaluations as the reason why terminations are so difficult. 


Regardless of reason, very few tenured teachers are fired each year.  In Illinois, for example, only 39 tenured teachers were dismissed from their positions from 1989 to 2003.

PRO #2:  Tenure protects teachers from false accusations.

Although we can wish it wasn’t so, by working so closely with young people, teachers place themselves in situations that can be abused by students and parents with their own agendas.  Although rare, examples of students manipulating teachers to get them fired (or reprimanded) do exist. 


Additionally, parents trying to protect their children often blame teachers for perceived wrongs before they hear both sides of the situation.  Tenure offers teachers protection from a situation where a district might be tempted to fire a teacher facing an expensive legal battle rather than investigate the matter and work with them through the lengthy legal process.

CON #2:  Dismissing tenured teachers is often extremely expensive.

This goes hand-in-hand with the #1 Con for teacher tenure, but it deserves its own discussion given how important budgets have become in recent education debates.  New York faced intense scrutiny and criticism in 2009 when it came to light that it had been paying full salaries to nearly 700 tenured teachers who had been accused of poor performance or wrongdoing. These teachers were paid not to teach, but rather to sit in a guarded room from start to finish of each school day. 


The Department of Education stated that it was more cost effective to pay them to sit and do nothing then go through the process of terminating their employment.  The teachers did crafts and played guitar, never interacting with students…all on the tax-payers dime.  This practice was stopped in 2009, but the public hasn’t gotten over its outrage.  It can cost upwards of $250,000 to go through the legal labyrinth required to fire a tenured teacher. 

PRO #3:  Teacher tenure allows teachers to become even better educators.

The concern of being fired if the principal decides to observe you on a day when a lesson goes poorly or the students decide to act up causes a lot of anxiety for new teachers.  With no idea when the principal or department supervisor might be popping in to watch your class, teachers working toward tenure often fall back on lessons that the know work at least moderately well rather than branching out and trying something new. 


By giving qualified educators the knowledge that their job is secure as long as they continue to do it well, it removes that anxiety and allows them to focus on providing excellent educational experiences for their students.

CON #3:  Almost every K-12 teacher receives tenure – whether they’ve earned it or not.

Unlike tenure awarded to college-level educators who have to demonstrate their importance to their college or university by publishing research papers, K-12 educators are only required to receive satisfactory evaluations for a number of years (42 out of 50 states require three years or less) before qualifying for tenure. 


From 2002 to 2009, New York City Public Schools denied tenure to only 3% of the teachers who had been teaching for three years.  And this was after reforms had been put in place to make earning tenure more difficult.  Considering that we know teachers are most ineffective during their first years as educators, many people in the public believe that it strains credulity to state that 97% of new teachers deserved and had earned a life-time of job protections after only three years or less on the job.

PRO #4:  Properly used, tenure creates an environment where teachers are encouraged to improve.

One of the biggest complaints supporters of tenure make is that the problems facing tenure are often due to administrators not using their evaluation system appropriately.  Currently, almost 99% of tenured teachers evaluated receive “satisfactory” ratings.  This means that when a district wants to dismiss an under-performing education, it has to explain how the poorly performing teacher received “satisfactory” ratings for so long.  This is one of the main causes for the expensive and lengthy legal battles. 


Tenure supporters state that if principals and administrators would evaluate all educators more reasonably, then teachers who are not doing their job would have the opportunity to improve (and would have more feedback on what exactly they needed to do to improve) and, if they did not, it would be far easier to dismiss them.


CON #4:  Teacher tenure leads to complacency.

This Con is difficult to prove, but since all of us can probably think of at least one teacher in our past whom seemed to be “phoning it in,” it is an oft repeated assertion among those who are against teacher tenure.  Why would teachers continue to work diligently to create thorough, interesting, evolving lessons if the teacher feels that their job is just as secure with them doing the same old thing over and over again


By offering someone what could basically amounts to a job for life, have you taken away the concern most people have in their jobs - that if they perform poorly, they might be let go? 


Could we motivate educators to continue to grow and seek the best methods for educating our young people by letting them know that their job is not assured just by doing the bare minimum of their job requirement?

PRO #5:  Tenure protects good teachers from being fired for being too expensive

Education budgets are big news in many states.  Many state governments are slashing funding drastically as money for education becomes increasingly difficult to find.  With this in mind, schools around the country are being forced to make tough choices about what they will cut from their budgets to stay “in the black.” 


Without tenure, suddenly a 20-year veteran teacher at the top of the pay scale becomes a luxury that some districts might choose to do away with.  When you can hire two teachers at the lowest salary for less than one teacher at the highest salary, many school districts might be forced to choose quantity over quality. 


Tenure protects teachers who have honed their skills over the years and truly are master-level educators worth every penny of their salaries.

CON #5:  Teacher tenure can lead to dangerous secrecy.

The final con is a problem that has spawned from several of the other problems discussed above.  Due to the difficulty and high costs associated with firing a tenured educator, many districts have turned to “secret buyouts” to get underperforming or misbehaving teachers out of their districts. 


Teachers accused of everything from laziness to inappropriate sexual relationships with students have been paid high amounts of money by districts to simply “resign,” from their positions without lengthy, expensive, and potentially embarrassing legal proceedings. Often the public has no real idea as to why this teacher resigned, the agreements often include agreements not to discuss the actual reason(s) behind the district’s paying the teacher to retire. 


While some tenure supporters say that this practice is not common, tenure opponents point out that while it doesn’t happen frequently, it happens more frequently than a tenured teacher being fired.  This angers tax-payers who believe that they have the right to know how their taxes are being used.



This list of pro’s and con’s is in no way a complete list of all of the benefits and drawbacks of this controversial subject, but hopefully, you’ve read something in the list that has made you think.


As an educator, I find myself agreeing with both sides of the argument for different reasons.  This says to me that the idea of teacher tenure continues to have merit, but it definitely needs adjustments and improvements.


Where do you stand on the issue of teacher tenure? Share in the comments section!

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