An End to Teacher Tenure?

Should teachers be eligible for tenure based on time alone?

Posted May 11, 2012

As an election year, 2012 will inevitably bring rigorous discussion of education—and education reform—into the limelight. 

Within these discussions, an especially hot issue has become the question of teacher tenure. In North Carolina, Phil Berger (Senate leader) has even recently announced a plan to remove traditional teacher tenure and move to merit-based pay. The announcement mirrors conversations for many other similar plans around the nation.

Division 15 of the American Psychological Association (Educational Psychology) recently polled its members for thoughts on the subject. The returned responses were as varied as they were passionate.

On the one side, tenure advocate Professor David Moshman protested that “tenure is crucial to education at all levels...students need teachers with academic freedom and thus they need teachers with tenure.” Tenure, he argues, liberates educators to properly prepare and execute curriculums for varying student bodies.

Still others from Division 15 noted a common concern: that removing tenure may become the grounds by which “expensive” teachers are released from duty in pursuit of cheaper (and almost exclusively younger) alternatives.

Nearly all, however, noted the difficulty of establishing unbiased and worthwhile criteria for judging merit. Standardized tests appear, at the surface, to be an intuitive choice. However, many educational psychologists note a disparity between student “performance” and student “improvement” (and the obvious need to slant toward the latter for any teacher’s merit-based evaluation). Likewise, they argue, evaluations of this type may leave educators liable for low scores as the result of their students’ test anxiety—despite a full year’s successful instruction.

Says Professor Andy Biemiller, “talking about ‘all children reaching grade level’ is as unreasonable as demanding that all children reach average height each year.” Concerns such as these—that merit systems may put additional, undue stress on teaching loads—were also commonplace.

Thus, while tenure-based systems may run the risk of producing lackadaisical methods from underachieving teachers, merit-based systems may run the risk of discouraging effective educators. In the end, there seemed to be a unanimous agreement on at least one thing, however: that something must be done to attract and retain effective educators. 

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