Teacher tenure detrimental to student learning

Aaron Halford

In a country that claims to provide equal opportunity and promote the general welfare for citizens of all socioeconomic classes, our education system does quite the opposite. In America, the socioeconomic divide between the lower and upper classes stems almost exclusively from the many flaws in our public education system.

“As it stands now, more affluent children get better public schooling, which is against everything the country is supposed to stand for,” said economics teacher Paul Ippolito. “We don’t have equal opportunity if we don’t have equal access to education.”

The growing gap between social classes results from our American public school system, in which progress is very slow and impactful change is nearly impossible.

In the current, inflexible system, there are too many checks and balances. Schedules are difficult to change, bad teachers are difficult to get rid of, and teachers obtain tenure too easily. Within the system, ineffective schools generally continue to be failing schools for decades.

Halford Tenure 2
%no-caption% (leave this alone if you don’t want a caption)

Part of the issue schools face is that after teachers obtain tenure, much of their incentive to teach to the best of their ability goes out the window.

In the free market, if a business or a restaurant does not earn sufficient profit, the owner is forced to close it, and the “invisible hand” of the economy will guide customers to competing businesses. In this sense, businesses have a natural check and balance. In the public school system, however, competition like this is unseen.

“What is going to force a school to do better? There isn’t a lot because most employees in a school can’t really be fired. Most people don’t get bonuses if kids learn more. You’re not forced to improve,” Ippolito said.  

In California, teachers can obtain tenure in just 18 months, or two school years. Two years is not enough time for teachers to prove that they are capable of properly educating students.

“It shouldn’t be that you work somewhere for two years, and you have a job for life. That’s not really true in any other industry,” Ippolito said. “It’s extremely hard to get rid of teachers who aren’t effective.”

Last year, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge proposed laws declaring teacher job security unconstitutional, as well as detrimental to student learning. His attempt, however, was appealed by Governor Jerry Brown, as well as teacher unions that are extremely influential, as the National Education Association is the largest, and arguably most powerful union in the United States.

One of the keys to success and improvement in life is evaluation, which is something public schools do not do extensively enough. In order to progress, teachers need to have someone informing them about ways that they can improve their teaching, as does a football team with post-game tapes.

In addition to the lack of thorough evaluation of teachers, the effect an evaluation has on a teacher’s job is extremely minimal. Regardless of whether a teacher’s evaluation shows that their students are not learning the course material properly, their job security is practically unaffected.

Substantial teacher evaluations should not depend on quantitative measurements like test scores, but on qualitative measurements such as student and additional peer feedback. Principals should have more flexibility in their ability to fire teachers with job security, and there needs to be a more free-flowing, creative system in the way teachers are evaluated.

Furthermore, schools can’t be one-size-fits-all. The way Redwood can effectively teach its students to learn the course material successfully should not be the same way a school in a small town in the Midwest or a school in the inner-city should be managed. Schools need more flexibility, more local control, and a more supple workforce.

During my three-plus years at Redwood, I’ve had at least one tenured teacher each year who is completely uninvested in their students. A few of my teachers have shown up late to class regularly, and some don’t even know my name by the end of a year of taking their class. Some won’t stay before or after class to help their students, and it seems as though the best teachers are those who make themselves constantly available to ensure their students’ understanding of the course material. Generally, it seems that the teachers without tenure are trying to prove themselves as worthy of obtaining job security. As a result, they are the ones willing to stay before and after class to ensure the success and learning of their students.

With tenure comes a lack of incentive for teachers to do their job well. While I understand many teachers believe tenure is necessary to sustain a suitable lifestyle and have peace of mind that the next paycheck is coming, tenure has been detrimental to the quality of students’ education. Change is slow, and if a tenured teacher’s students are not learning, not much can be done in the current system.

The country’s education system has veered away from the goal of student understanding and learning and instead has shifted toward job security for teachers. In order to close the current socioeconomic divide that exists, and create equal opportunity for the country’s youth, we need to remove tenure in California public high schools.