Teacher Tenure

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All of a sudden, teacher job tenure, typically the third rail of education politics, is a heightened topic for discussion. Is it Barak Obama’s rumored openness to meaningful school reform? Is it the auto industry’s nosedive largely due to fiscally unsustainable retirement benefits? Is it D.C. Superintendent Michelle Rhee’s loud determination to overturn historical tenure models? Is it that teacher salary increases leave cost-of-living adjustments in the dust? Is it NCLB, with its hard-nosed emphasis on student assessment and, its logical correlative, teacher performance?

Whatever it is, we’re having like-minded debates in New Jersey where there’s an active attempt to untangle the strands that conflate job protection for teachers with an anachronistic assembly-line model more suited to, say, the auto industry. A recent piece in North Jersey sets up the argument nicely, juxtaposing the NJSBA and the NJEA.

NJSBA:
“It does nothing to ensure the quality of teachers,” said Mike Yaple, New Jersey School Boards Association spokesman.

“It can do just the opposite. Because it’s so extremely expensive and takes so long to remove tenured teachers, only the worst of the worst offenders are removed.”

NJEA:
Steve Baker, spokesman for the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said that without tenure “You would be creating potential for a massive patronage system.”

“Tenure takes politics and whims of the administration out of the process,” Baker said. “It’s not a job for life: It’s a fair process for dismissal.”

So let’s unpack this a bit. We give teachers lifelong tenure after three years of employment. Ideally, administrators (local school boards just rubberstamp the administrators’ recommendations) ensure the quality of teachers through early due diligence. But NJEA’s stance — that without tenure teachers would be haplessly subject to a school board’s political predilections and wanton whimsy is — well, flimsy.

First of all, according to the recently mandated Fiscal Accountability, Efficiency, and Budgeting Procedures, every school board in NJ is required to have a strict anti-nepotism policy. (See 6A, Chapter 23, Part 6.2). In addition, the School Board Code of Ethics clearly establishes that board members must recuse themselves from any personnel decision that might compromise their judgment. (“I will refuse to surrender my independent judgment to special interest or partisan political groups or to use the schools for personal gain or for the gain of friends.”)

The bottom line is that, contrary to the NJEA spokesman, there is no risk of a “massive patronage system.” It doesn’t happen. It can’t. In fact, school boards know that any attempt to dismiss a teacher, short of proof of physical abuse of students, is a no-win. It’s cheaper to pay the teacher for doing nothing for years than to fight the NJEA. The patronage argument is a straw man, and insulting to professional educators.

Teacher tenure is a dusty relic of an industrial mindset that equated public school employees with interchangeable factory workers, much like our 180-day school year is an artifact of an agricultural economy. How about seven-year renewable contracts? How about differentiated pay tied to performance and area of expertise? How about a new model reflective of the professionalism of teachers, individual talents, and performance? Our teachers are not assembly-line workers, and NJEA needs to have a little respect for its members.

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