Over at Education Next and also at The Education Gadfly, Chester Finn writes that nobody deserves tenure–except maybe federal judges. Okay, so let’s agree that no one “deserves” tenure and move on to ask whether tenure for K-12 teachers should be abandoned.
First, tenure surely has one big negative; it causes a public relations problem of the first-order. Everyone who doesn’t have tenure (essentially everyone but teachers and a minority of us college professors) worries about job security and understandably resents folks who can’t be fired. Of course, very few people who’ve held a job for several years are at much risk of being fired, but the promise that you can’t be fired is highly valued. Mind you, tenured public school teachers can be laid off during economic downturns; that’s no different than it is for the public at large.
Finn points out two big differences between public school tenure and tenure in colleges. K-12 teachers earn tenure after two or three years on the job, while at the college level it generally takes seven years. What’s more the college tenure decision is very carefully considered, while in many public school districts tenure is almost automatic. So I see a reasonable argument for later evaluation and tougher standards for tenure. By the way, at research universities a vital piece of the tenure process is evaluation of the candidate by outside experts who have no personal stake in the decision. Something like that ought to be thought about in K-12 as well.
Now the economic argument. Whether you think tenure is good or bad, you probably agree that it’s an attractive job perk. If you kill-off an attractive job perk, you have to replace it with something else–cash comes to mind. (Economists call this a “compensating wage differential.”) I don’t know of any estimates of how much we’d have to raise teacher salaries to make up for eliminating tenure. We shouldn’t be seriously discussing eliminating tenure without a credible estimate of what it’s going to cost.