BY MAGGIE OLSON
Nine high school students in California have brought a lawsuit (Vergara v. California) to abolish the tenure system from their state.
The case is being closely watched across the nation because it could set a historic precedent that leads to the national elimination of tenure. This case is symptomatic of Americans questioning why teachers deserve tenure. How can tenure possibly be good for education?
A teacher who is tenured is protected against summary dismissal from an employer for an indefinite period of time. Basically, they can’t be fired at random without cause and without due process.
Without job security, teachers can end up adjusting their curriculum to the lowest common denominator. They teach the safest, most boring, to-the-textbook material that often doesn’t challenge their students enough.
When an employee can be fired suddenly, at any time and without being given an explanation, employees are quiet, submissive and afraid.
The academic freedom of tenure provides benefits to teachers and students alike. With the security of tenure, teachers can spend more time advocating for their students. Tenured teachers can fight to be able to teach “banned” books or to get resources for their students without fear of dismissal.
They can use new teaching methods and ground-breaking materials. At universities they can pursue potentially controversial research without fear of losing their jobs.
Tenured teachers are primarily responsible to their students, not the administration, because sometimes the interests of students and administration are different.
Occasionally in primary, secondary and university settings, the goal of administration is not student learning, but the appearance of student learning. They do what they need to do to get funding, whether or not it’s in the best academic interest of students.
However, without enough money there is no education system, so many administrators are left with little choice. If there was enough funding in education, administrators could focus less on money and more on students. In the meantime, tenured teachers are there to help balance the scales. And this is just one of the many good things tenure does.
Of course, there are “bad eggs” in any profession, and teaching is certainly not immune. I truly believe the number of tenured teachers who use their positions for academic freedom vastly outweighs the number of teachers who use tenure as a way to sit around and get paid.
Tenure is not unbreakable. It can be a lengthy and uncomfortable process to fire a tenured teacher, but it does happen.
In the case of Vergara v. California, the students correctly assert that low-income students and students of color are disproportionately affected by lazy, tenured teachers. It is a fact that low-performing teachers – with tenure and without – end up in already low performing districts, and again, it boils down to money.
The nation-wide inequality of education among whites and people of color, the affluent and the indigent, is not caused by tenured teachers. It is not caused by tenure itself.
Eliminating the institution of tenure will not fix the systemic racism in our country, and it will harm our entire educational system.
The academic freedom tenure protects is too precious to lose while quibbling over individual teachers.