I understand why tenure is such a sore point when it comes to discussing educational reform. In what sensible system would a dysfunctional cog be not only preserved but guaranteed repeated raises and benefits? How does anyone, no matter the system, advocate for the oiling and reoiling of outdated, ill-fitted pieces? How could one possibly argue for tenure, especially with so many “bad teachers” ruining our kids and the future of America as we know it?
The problem with overhauling tenure is not that teachers deserve or have earned this occupational bonus, but that education depends upon it; a system doesn’t need to be perfect to be necessary — there’s no human institution that isn’t plagued with problems, and yet many of these are routinely endorsed, venerated, and, more recently, bailed-out. Marriage, with a success rate of about 60%, for example, isn’t being dismantled by politicians but is frequently defended from the “intrusion” of homosexual couples. American national bank and real estate flaws spurred a global economic crisis, and yet, rather than being torn limb from institutional limb, these mechanisms have been sutured and reinstated with massive amounts of money. Why, in the educational debate, is the allocation of money to failing people or systems suddenly a problem and not a solution?
This is not to say that tenure and education don’t need reform–I think there’s plenty in need of repair–but scrapping tenure wouldn’t effectively fix public education because the problem isn’t tenure; schools’ poor performance is part of a much larger societal issue, requiring not a reform for one symptom of the problem, but for the cause. Teachers receiving tenure doesn’t explain the United States’ perturbing global ranking in educational performance, placing well below Japan, Finland, South Korea, Canada, Switzerland, New Zealand, and China.
While some would tout the importance of minor reforms in effecting a larger change, as one may argue Obamacare attempts to do, discontinuing tenure, rather than allowing education to move forward, would throw the whole system into an overly-bureaucratic, inorganic nightmare. Ridding school systems of tenure would allow for greater turnover rates, which would enable schools to save money simply by terminating teaching contracts that cost more. High turnover rates, while theoretically beneficial for school and state budgets, however, would increase the presence of inexperienced teachers. And as if this detriment to students’ progress wasn’t enough to preserve tenure’s place in schools, eradicating it would also rob teachers of one of the few safeguards that ensure their judgements and opinions aren’t gagged for job preservation.
What people removed from the realities of education don’t often realize is how utterly political schools are. Not just in the sense that politicians make promises about and bolster their platforms with reform agendas for schools and education, but internally, schools operate under extreme political systems–the divisive nature of which affords schools a tenuous equilibrium. Teachers are under constant pressure from administrators and parents to conform to certain curricula, classroom management strategies, and assessment standards; this pressure, though far from being evil, should not be left unchecked. It is the teachers–not the parents or the administrators or the board of education–who interact with children in their educational element daily. Unless a person feels no qualms about stripping teachers of all credibility and all the confidence that comes with a particular expertise, no one would argue that teachers are unqualified to judge what is right for a particular student or class. However, what isn’t often understood is that teachers’ ability to implement these nuanced judgement calls is inherently dependent on the support tenure provides.
Teachers, parents, administrators, and board members are very rarely in agreement about what should be taught and how it should be taught, and one of the few reasons schools haven’t yet degenerated into a series of computerized lesson plans and a complementing series of tests is because teachers, rather than trying to fit some grand scheme of student growth based on multiple-choice questions and state-mandated standards, are constantly adjusting their strategies and curricula to fit the needs of their students–often (though not always) in discordance with state and board expectations. These disagreements between teachers and administrators or teachers and parents would not be possible without tenure because the threat of dismissal would stifle any divergence from political and administrative interests.
What’s wrong, you may ask, with state and local standards?
Because education is a human system, nearly any attempt by states or local school districts to quantify and calculate ‘growth’ will fall short or, at best, any attempt to comply with systematic standards will result in the loss of what makes humans human: innovation, imagination, critical-thinking skills. If public schools attempt only to fulfill these basic and broad, yet inflexible standards, humans will be reduced to mere machines, designed, more or less, to crank the handle of capitalism and the so-called free market, effectually making compliance and ignorant complacence fiscally advantageous qualities. To get rid of tenure would be to destroy the primary check against the conversion of people to data and to construct a system that is, at its core, inhuman.
I don’t mean to over-exaggerate the transformative power of education (we aren’t actually being turned into robots), but when it comes to the question of educational reform, we have to consider who these reforms are really benefiting (students? politicians? test-makers?) and how these reforms would either push the boundaries of society and lead to progress or reinforce and calcify our problems. Though I am the first to advocate for reason and empirical evidence, to treat students and teachers as a series of data points is to grossly simplify both cognitive development and human nature. To terminate an institution that allows teachers to make education human-friendly in order to hold those teachers to a standard that no societal structure achieves, is to ignore the real issues that prevent schools from performing well. We cannot afford to blame systematic short-comings on individuals’ malfunctions any longer; scape-goating teachers or unions simply isn’t going to solve systematic problems.