A Solution for Curbing Teacher Turnover in Secondary Schools, Whilst Strengthening the Profession and Making Tenure More Defensible – Part II

In Part I of this blog post, I proposed a new policy for secondary schools in Oklahoma City: new teachers should only teach one course during their first year of employment. As they improve, additional courses may be added to their schedule.

I’ve worked in Tulsa, Oklahoma and Oklahoma City, and from my experience in both places, I’ve seen that new teachers are often allotted the heaviest burden when administrators create schedules. New teachers are given the courses others don’t want to teach, and new recruits may receive as many as three or four courses for which to prep. Conversely, more experienced teachers may only receive one or two courses to prep for, despite their accrued expertise and rapport among students and families.

As these practices unfold on a local level, nationally, teachers are in very real danger of losing their hard-earned job protection.

Critics in the U.S. have all but indicted teachers for the public schools’ low performance, and many have demanded that tenure-rights be abolished. In an amicus brief submitted to the California Supreme Court, signatories recently opined about the tenure case, Vergara v. California:

The statutes at issue impair the fundamental right to education. They categorically prioritize the job security of teachers—regardless of their competence—over the educational needs, interests, and rights of California school children. They do so despite the existence of other ways, more consistent with the educational rights of the State’s schoolchildren, to protect legitimate interests in teacher job security. The upshot of handicapping the ability to efficiently identify and remove grossly ineffective teachers, and providing institutional bias in favor of incompetent teachers, is to contract the marketplace of ideas within public schools by institutionalizing educational mediocrity. The California Constitution, however, establishes public schools for the benefit of children, not teachers, and the Education Clause talks about the right to public education as “essential to the preservation of the rights and liberties of the people,” not as a right essential to the economic security of the teachers selected by the State to make that right a reality.

I could write several pages in defense of tenure, but to keep this as short as possible, I’ll refer to NYU education historian, Diane Ravitch. She writes in her book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools:

It is important to bear in mind that tenure in K-12 education does not mean the same thing as it does in higher education. A professor in higher education who has tenure can seldom, if ever, be fired…Tenure in higher education is close to ironclad. In the public schools, however, tenure means due process [emphasis mine]. There is no ironclad tenure for teachers. A teacher who has tenure is entitled to a hearing before an impartial arbitrator, where the teacher has the right to see the evidence and the grounds for the charges against him or her and to offer a defense.

For many, many reasons I will not cover in this post, tenure is necessary to ensure that teachers will only be fired fairly. However, in a system that grants tenure, seniority shouldn’t determine an administrator’s schedule. Using seniority to assign schedules is harmful to students and teachers. Whereas tenure plays an essential role in education, seniority simply does not.

If we are going to improve the rate of burnout for new teachers, we must change the way we treat them. We should continue to award tenure, but also be confident to give tenured teachers the more difficult assignments. This way, more newcomers may eventually join the prestigious ranks of the tenured, master-teachers. As instruction improves, the public’s perception of tenure should become fairer, and perceptions of the profession should rise.

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