Monday, December 20, 2010

What is Tenure?

In this country, most of us can be fired from our jobs for virtually any reason – however dumb, inane or counterproductive. We can be fired because of our taste in music, because we made a bad joke, because we are too good at our jobs, or because someone just doesn’t like us. If you do not have a contract, you can even be fired for no reason at all. You boss can fire you simply because s/he feels like it.

If you do not have a contract, there is a short list of reasons why you cannot be fired (e.g., gender, race, age, disability and in some places sexual orientation) but an infinitely long list of reasons why you can be fired.

It makes some sense that private employers should be able to set their own standards for employment, and that such organization’s supervisors be empowered to make all kind of decisions. That is kind of what it means to be a private business.

However, public organizations have a different moral calculus. They operate for the public good and serve as a sort of trust on behalf of the public. We empower their management to make decisions in the furtherance of those public goals, but those managers do not own the organizations, divisions, departments or work groups. There are any number of reasons that might be acceptable for a private organization to fire someone that are inappropriate for a public organization.

The only acceptable reason for a public organization to fire someone is that they are unable in some way to serve the public goals of the organization. Obviously, such inability could take many forms, but fundamentally that’s it. (A chairman of the EEOC in Washington DC who does not believe that that law should be used to combat discrimination against minorities is one such (purely) hypothetical example. A meat inspector for the USDA who is both color blind and has a poor sense of small probably could not support the USDA’s mission. And school workers who cannot handle children or fulfill their roles in supporting the educational process also should be removed.)

Tenure for K-12 public school teachers is not a guarantee of lifetime employment, despite what many would have you believe. Rather, it is a right to contest termination in some kind of formal and binding way (i.e. due process). It is certainly not as complicated as a death penalty trial, but it is more detailed than merely begging your boss to reconsider his/her decision.

Tenure means that if a principal or a district wants to terminate a teacher, the teacher gets to challenge them on the reasons. It forces the district to make the case – to present evidence and make the argument – that this teacher cannot do the job. Because tenure is only granted after multiple years of positive job reviews, there is a certain level of presumption in favor of the teacher. After all, the district is claiming that something has changed, something that their own managers and records said was fine in the past.

That is all tenure is. It is an earned right for experienced teachers to say, “If I have years of good evaluations, why are they firing me now?” and to have an impartial judge (i.e. a mutually agreed upon arbiter) weigh the evidence.

Does that seem unfair to you? Or does it seem like something that every worker should be able to earn?


  1. I can only hope that the knuckleheads out there who think we should do away with teacher tenure have the patience and the understanding to actually READ what you wrote. Very nicely put.

  2. I've long thought it insane that working Americans would vilify teachers for having job protections, or health insurance. I wonder why they don't storm state houses with torches and pitchforks and demand the same for themselves, rather than deeper tax cuts for zillionaires.

    Great post.

  3. In response to your post on A&J, I was going to suggest that you look at CIDU, but then noticed that Boise Ed had beaten me to it. His comment follows:
    Ceolaf: Take a look at . If the comic you don’t “get” isn’t there, send in the URL and your wish might be granted.