The teacher tenure court decision this week is sure to reverberate across the state and perhaps even the nation.
The landmark decision essentially stated that tenure is unconstitutional because it harms students stuck with underperforming teachers who cannot be fired. Because California has approximately 400,000 teachers, many of whom receive tenure within two years, the decision could have a ripple effect across the nation as other states also decide to eliminate tenure and other teacher protections.
The fact of the matter is that it is extremely difficult and time-consuming to get rid of a bad teacher and oftentimes, a district will move a teacher and suggest that they move out of the profession rather than go through the arduous process of removal. Needing to remove a teacher is usually an isolated incident and, for the most part, teachers who are employed in our public schools do an extremely tough job in ever-increasing difficult circumstances. This decision taints the entire bunch because of the difficulty in removing a few bad apples.
The point of tenure is to protect teachers from retaliation from administrators with thin skin who may not like what they have to say. It also allows teachers to teach in whatever way they think is best without the fear of retribution. That philosophy is geared toward the collegiate level, where professors are often outspoken and use life examples, within reason, to teach a larger point. Tenure is also a protection for the average workaday teachers who commit to a profession with rewards that are not necessarily monetary. There are also difficult-to-pinpoint benchmarks to success — is a teacher in a financially challenged school doing a bad job if test scores are not high? Not necessarily. But there are limited ways in which a teacher’s success can be measured. Did they reach a hard-to-reach student? Is a student who did not want to participate in class discussion now participating? How are we to know? Test scores appear to be a main indicator of success but, as many know, just one indication. Tenure protects teachers who may not be meeting test score benchmarks but are succeeding in other ways, sometimes in difficult situations.
The difficulty in removing bad teachers is a practical reality, however, and this case, brought forth by nine students, illustrates the damage made by those teachers. The judge received much attention for his dramatic language in his decision, however, that should not distract from the important content of it and its impact.
And nowhere in this discussion has been the role of school district administrators and elected boards of trustees. They too have a hand in determining solutions.
So just what are those solutions? One could be a change to tenure requirements from two years to something longer. Tenure should be something earned over time. Another could be a shift from the policy that when teachers must be cut, that the last ones hired are the first to go. This policy does little to protect new teachers who often put their heart and soul into their work. But these changes would require legislative action, and that is not something that has been palatable to any of our legislators who seek support from powerful and well-funded teachers’ unions.
The decision will be appealed, and it will likely be strung out for quite a while. However, this is an opportune time to have an earnest discussion about teacher protections and their ultimate value while also determining how we, as a collective society, can do a better job in both protecting teachers and the students with whom they are charged.
Jon Mays is the editor in chief of the Daily Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Jon on Twitter @jonmays.