Skip to main content

Teacher tenure: Yes!

Robin Lakoff, professor emerita of linguistics | August 22, 2014

In his New York Times op-ed of August 19, Frank Bruni has become only the latest in a long line of authoritative people to denounce teacher tenure. By so doing, Bruni enters the race to become my least favorite Times columnist, against the stiff competition of Maureen Dowd and David Brooks. If you have been following this discussion, you may wonder what could possibly be said in favor of tenure for teachers (at all levels, K-12 and university). The arguments for ending tenure sound very persuasive. In the first place, we are all in favor of having the best and the brightest teaching our most precious product, our kids. But so many teachers, perhaps even the majority, are bad teachers: incompetent, uncaring, bullying, indoctrinating with evil ideas – and so on. And despite clear evidence of their dreadfulness, after a short probationary period (usually three years), they are guaranteed lifetime employment, and the rules are such that no matter how much evidence is presented about the incompetence or worse of a teacher, it is almost impossible to get rid of her or him. The arguments against tenure always are packed with anecdotes about especially and luridly bad cases, so that after you’ve encountered a few, you are ready to believe that just about all teachers are monsters before whom we, the people, are helpless. But I think there are some strong arguments on the other side. And we should understand why so many Americans want to cut teachers down to size. It may not have all that much to do with their competence or lack of it. Teaching is, and should be understood to be, the most important job a society can offer its members. Education at all levels, but especially at the earliest, is the great civilizing force. What is taught in schools is the glue that binds us together as a nation and as human beings, what we share and what we expect one another to know. Therefore it is of the utmost importance that the people entrusted to transmit this body of knowledge to the next generation should be the best and the brightest. How does a society ensure that the most important jobs will be given to the best and the brightest? By ensuring that those jobs are the most rewarding – whether because they pay the most, are the most enjoyable, or are the most prestigious, whatever members of the culture value most. The bizarre fact, though, is that in contemporary America, teaching – specifically at the K-12 level, the most important of all, none of these criteria are met. And the experts are doing everything in their power to make it worse. There seems to me to be something deeply and frighteningly wrong with a society that pays an investment banker 1,000 times as much as a kindergarten teacher. Or pays a lobbyist 100 times as much. Or a general, or a congressperson, or a neurosurgeon. I am not saying that these jobs are without value, but teaching is more valuable to Homo sapiens than any of them, and yet it pays much less than any of them. Well, you say, money isn’t everything. Some of the B & B’s, surely, are motivated by other rewards. And this is certainly true. But in recent years the well-paid and the influential have been doing everything they can to make sure that teachers cannot derive these intangible rewards either. Everything they do and say makes teaching a less desirable option for anyone who has choices. And what differentiates the best and brightest, above all, is that more than anyone else, they have choices. They can enter the fields that seem most worthwhile, because they have the capacity to do a great many things at the highest level of achievement. So if people really want teachers to be the best and brightest among us, of course they will make teaching as attractive as possible. Since it cannot pay as well as many other occupations, other things about it must be highly desirable, or it will never attract the right people and will be left with the mediocre. That would be a terrible outcome. One reason to enter teaching might be that it has prestige. Everyone had a teacher or two whom they remember admiring and wanting to emulate. Perhaps we can guarantee excellent applicants by ensuring that the profession is prestigious. But most of the public discussions of teaching that we encounter, in government or in the media, devalue teachers and teaching. Arguments against teachers’ unions, against better working conditions, and against tenure all work by making, explicitly and implicitly, the claim that teaching is unskilled and of little worth: “overpaid babysitters,” you sometimes hear. No one with other options will dedicate themselves to a job that society sneers at. Well, then, the job must provide perks! Here we get the old story: the teacher gets off work at 3 p.m. and has a three-month summer vacation. Yes, those would be good perks, especially for women and men who want to spend time with their families. But these perks are steadily being eroded. Teachers are encouraged, or forced, to be in school for an hour or two after working hours (often without pay), if they want to be seen as “good” teachers. And they earn so little that they often have to take jobs during the summer “vacation.” So much for attractive perks. Teachers who enter the profession in part because of them are apt not to remain very long, especially those who have other options. Another perk, of course, is tenure. Many people, including some of the best and brightest, would trade a big chunk of salary for certainty – that if they continue to do their jobs as well as they can, they can count on keeping those jobs for many years and getting a decent pension at the end. But if tenure is taken away, and (as I have heard from many sources) one argument for removing tenure is that then teachers can be fired before their pensions get significantly large, these forms of security vanish. So depriving teachers of tenure would likely have the effect of discouraging precisely the people we want from entering the profession. So doing away with tenure is equivalent to giving up on getting the best people into teaching. That is especially true because teachers are thought of and treated so badly. To want to be a K-12 teacher these days is either to have no other options or to be a saint. We do not want the first, and the second is extremely rare. And this is why, as I have read recently, half of recent Harvard graduating classes have gone into finance – lost to the field that needs them most. The reasons are clear. So why do so many well-informed and intelligent people support the arguments against tenure and better working conditions for teachers, and at the same time fervently want their children to be taught by the best people available? It’s self-contradictory. Surely that’s obvious. There must be some deep reason why people don’t see the illogic. Well, I suppose that maybe in our hearts we secretly hate and fear teachers, remembering Miss Whatzername back in third grade who made us so miserable. Maybe. But at the same time, we might also remember Mrs. Youknowwho and Mr. Whozis who were inspiring and helpful and encouraging and changed our lives for the better. That argument doesn’t make sense. But maybe we have not yet unlearned our history. Once upon a time, less than half a century ago, teachers, like nurses, were in fact the best and the brightest – women, that is. That’s because until the mid-1970s, a well-educated, smart, and ambitious woman had few career options, unless she was prepared to struggle against the tide. Back before then, a woman had to be ten times as smart, and ten times as determined, as a man to achieve anything comparable to his success. And even if she did, she could do so only by being thick-skinned enough to brush off daily harassment and insults. Every woman my age and older in a prestigious job has these stories. Trust me. So before the modern women’s movement, most of the best and brightest women went into K-12 (vs. university level) teaching, just as they entered nursing rather than medicine. And because these jobs were held predominantly by women, it seemed normal and natural to everyone that they be poorly paid, nonprestigious, and generally unrewarded. And because that was the way the world worked and was supposed to work, no one (or almost no one) complained and everything seemed ideal. But, happily, now is not then. Graduate school, law school, and medical school have been opened to women on an essentially equal basis, and the best and the brightest women, like their male counterparts, have taken advantage of this, as is right – and academia, law, and medicine are the better for it. But that means that America can no longer rely on gender oppression to provide its K-12 teachers. Women with other options will no longer choose a profession that provides no rewards. The best and the brightest will go elsewhere. The promise of tenure has been an argument to enter teaching. It is much more important, to secure the services of the best candidates, to entice them into the field in the first place, than to weed out the few who aren’t up to snuff – by destroying tenure. By doing so, we bite off our noses to spite our faces, guaranteeing that the very people we hope will be teaching our children will never go near them.