Surprisingly, Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama pointed to controversial D.C. School Chancellor Michelle Rhee as a model education reformer. This is the latest illustration of the importance of Mrs. Rhee’s reforms not only for the District but for school systems across the nation. In her boldest move yet, Mrs. Rhee has taken on the Holy Grail of the teacher-union contract - tenure. It’s worth taking a moment to understand just what this fight is about and why it’s worth winning.
Mrs. Rhee proposed a new contract whereby individual teachers could give up their tenure protection in exchange for the opportunity to earn salaries as high as $130,000 per year. Teachers could instead opt to stay with their current contract and would also have received a substantial pay bump. Teachers turned down the free money instead of even opening the door to tenure reform.
But the story isn’t over. Done with playing nice, Mrs. Rhee is going nuclear. She is taking advantage of previously ignored laws that allow her to fire tenured teachers if their performance does not improve. Mrs. Rhee is determined to eliminate tenure because she believes that it would go a long way to improve teacher quality. Most teachers are effective, but the ones who aren’t do not belong in the classroom. Tenure is the most powerful tool stopping us from removing such bad teachers.
In K-12, tenure is just as protective as it is in colleges, but it is more easily obtained and lacks as strong a justification. To earn tenure, university professors must demonstrate that their teaching, research and service contributions warrant the privilege. In the three years before they receive tenure, K-12 teachers are evaluated on a variety of dimensions, but in practice nearly all teachers who stick around long enough are granted tenure. Using measures such as standardized test scores to assess whether a teacher deserves tenure, as Mrs. Rhee proposes to do, is taboo.
It is very difficult to remove a tenured public school teacher. Teacher contracts set out a process through which a tenured teacher can be fired, but these processes are so burdensome that school systems don’t bother. For example, in Illinois, reporter Scott Reeder found it costs districts more than $219,000 in legal fees to fire a tenured teacher. The result is that 94 percent of Illinois school districts had not even attempted to fire a tenured teacher in the 18 years preceding the start of his research. On average, Illinois fires about two tenured teachers per year. Does anyone honesty believe there are so few poorly performing tenured teachers in Illinois, which operates the infamously bad Chicago public school system? But no one defends tenure as a way of protecting bad teachers. Rather, the unions and others argue that this is the price we pay to ensure academic freedom and protect good teachers from irrational administrators. Neither of these arguments holds an ounce of water.
Protecting academic freedom is desirable in higher education. College professors may be involved in research that is controversial or that challenges the views of other members of their departments. Further, a professor’s possession of a terminal degree suggests that she is expert enough to be granted substantial leeway in the courses she teaches. Still, such protections have their price. Professors who have stopped contributing to their field or who are no longer effective in the classroom can remain in their positions. But the freedoms being protected are so fundamental to higher education that society is willing to bear their cost.
The situation is markedly different in K-12. Employment in a K-12 classroom does not require engagement in meaningful research. Furthermore, the academic standards to be met in public primary and secondary schools are determined not by teachers but by the state and by the school district. Public school teachers do not require, nor do they warrant, insulation from evaluation of their performance.
And even though vindictive administrators do occasionally pick on competent teachers, defenders of K-12 tenure would have to argue that protecting such teachers was more important than replacing the many incompetent teachers an irrational system now protects. Besides, dismissed teachers have little difficulty finding schools eager to have them. Indeed, there would be more such schools if they were allowed to cut their own bad teachers.
What, then, is the purpose of tenure in K-12? It is difficult to see any use for the practice other than to protect the jobs of teachers whose performance is too poor to assure continued employment on its own. Unfortunately, what is an unintended consequence of tenure at the university level is in fact its only purpose in elementary and secondary schools.
Until Mrs. Rhee, few in a real position of power have dared to challenge tenure. The nation is watching her D.C. experiment.
Marcus Winters is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.