The attacks on tenure today have nothing to do with improving teaching and learning. They are designed to undermine teachers’ unions with the goal of silencing educators’ voices. We firmly believe that in order for public education to succeed, teachers must have tenure, a protection that allows educators to stand with parents, for children.
Tenure is nothing more than due process, fair hearings with an independent arbitrator where evidence can be presented in order to protect oneself from false accusations. This ensures experienced educators have job security and encourages academic freedom. These are protections all workers should have. Tenure not only empowers teachers to advocate for children and public education, but also prevents educators from becoming “at will” employees and therefore positively impacts retention of experienced educators, which research shows is a significant factor for improving student achievement and adult outcomes. Tenure also unapologetically protects teachers not only from arbitrary firing, but from being replaced by less experienced and therefore less expensive teachers as well as potential cronyism.
We must only look to history for compelling examples of the importance of tenure. Tenure was first established for city teachers back in 1917 to stop political patronage. Reform mayor John P Mitchell wanted to stop Tammany Hall from giving city-paid jobs to supporters who helped get politicians elected. This ended the political machine cronyism that was rampant. It was later extended to teachers across the state as a way of attracting qualified professionals to the profession. There was a historic teacher shortage in 1945, brought on by the war, when governor Thomas E. Dewey and the 165th New York State Legislature decided to extend the opportunity for tenure to teachers all across the state.
At the heart of the attacks on tenure is an attempt to silence educators from speaking out against so called “reform” policies that more often privilege data and profits rather than children. Far too many public education decisions are made in corporate boardrooms and political backrooms, without the input of public school stakeholders. We, along with countless others, have worked to expose and change these policies and have become pro-union and pro-public education activists in the process. Our efforts are possible because of tenure. Any erosion of tenure will silence a great many of our voices. This will surely quicken the damage that is being done to our public schools.
Attacks on tenure are cloaked in civil rights language and claim to defend children from incompetent educators. The reality is there is no evidence tenure harms children and in fact while states that afford teachers tenure have some of the highest student achievement levels in the country, states without tenure have the lowest.
The Movement of Rank and File Educators, the social justice caucus of UFT, a group of working public educators and parents, stands firmly for tenure and independently arbitrated due process rights, including seniority rights, for all educators.
Tenure allows teachers:
- to remain in this profession, despite making substantially less money than professionals in the private sector.
- to work without fear of being fired simply because they are older or earn more than less experienced educators. In districts or schools without tenure administrators are incentivised to fire experienced educators whose retirement plans and benefits cost more than those of less experienced educators.
- to be protected from unfair or arbitrary attacks by administrators simply because they disagree with them or advocate for children’s and/or worker’ rights.
- to advocate for the academic freedom to meet and see all children where they are, for who they are rather than follow narrow, scripted curriculum and ‘check box rubrics’.
For activists, tenure secures the basic right of free speech and allows us to speak truth to power, within our schools, our union, and more broadly without fear of retribution from those in positions of power who may disagree with us. Tenure allows us to:
- speak out against high stakes testing, test based evaluation schemes, and developmentally inappropriate common core standards, all of which deprive our children of a good education.
- take to the streets, courts, internet, and the airwaves to advocate for social justice, economic, racial, and social equality in our schools and society, without fear of reprisals.
- blow the whistle on violations that harm our children including those committed against children with special needs who have been deprived of proper services.
Tenure allowed eight city teachers, including Sandra Adickles, to go down south on a voluntary transfer and teach at a ‘freedom school’ during the Civil Rights Movement. Ms. Adickles’ bravery later led to a US Supreme Court decision making it more difficult for southerners to deny rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the US Constitution. Her trip, which was financed by the United Federation of Teachers, helped make America a more equitable and better nation -and it was made possible because Ms. Adickles enjoyed the protection of tenure which guaranteed that she would not be arbitrarily fired while she was gone.
Tenure is essential in protecting the best of our profession: advocacy and basic freedoms, both of which benefit not only teachers but children as well. Critics who claim, ‘tenure is a job for life’ or ‘tenure protects incompetent teachers’ are misrepresenting the facts:
- It takes several years to earn tenure in New York State
- It provides only two job protections: 1) The school district must have cause for terminating a teacher and 2) an independent agent ultimately decides whether or not the teacher is fired.
- Every single teacher in this state who has tenure earned it by having it approved by a site supervisor with the agreement of the school district.
Tenure has been under attack nationally and in New York City in recent years. The number of teachers successfully completing probation has dropped to only 53%, with many having their probationary period extended to 4, 5 or even 6 years. Our union leadership has done little to oppose this shift. We in fact do not have a “tenure problem”, but we do have a teacher retention problem. In 2013, 43% of teachers with 6-15 years of experience left NYC schools, in no small part due to the tidal wave of attacks on our profession, our children and our schools. real reforms we know will benefit our children including the need to advocate for solutions that strengthen the teaching profession and seek to support and retain experienced educators. Abolishing or weakening tenure will serve to do the opposite.
|The % of teachers denied tenure each year, 2006-2013 (chalkbeatny.org)|
James Baldwin once said “The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and try to change it and to fight it – at no matter what risk.” We agree, but we also acknowledge that tenure, more than anything else, allows us to work for that change.