Taking on teacher tenure

Students study with their laptop computers.

Kai Ryssdal: There's a reason the Chicago teachers strike got so much press.

It's because (in part, anyway) the strike was about a whole lot more than just Chicago... or Chicago teachers. It was about how to fix really troubled schools, about how long a school day should be and about how to evaluate good teachers and keep them -- and not keep the ones who aren't so good.

In Chicago, tenure protections survived the new contract. But around the country states are trying to make it easier to fire ineffective teachers.

Which gets us to this: what is tenure at the K - 12 level anyway? And why do teachers have it? 

From the Marketplace Education Desk at WYPR, Amy Scott reports.


Jeff Mirel taught junior high in a Cleveland suburb in the 70's. After three years on the job, he showed up at the school board meeting to hear his name ring out among the newly-tenured teachers. The union president laughed at him.

Jeff Mirel: And he said, “What do you think tenure is?” And I said, “Well, I have job security for the rest of my life." And he said, "No. What tenure does is it guarantees you have an orderly dismissal.”

That is, Mirel couldn’t be fired without a reason -- and a hearing. Now, he has the “lifetime guarantee” kind of tenure as a professor of educational studies at the University of Michigan. He says first grade teachers have tenure for the same reason academics do. It started in the early 1900's to protect teachers from being fired to make room for the superintendent’s nephew. Or, say, for teaching evolution in biology class.

Mirel: You know, it gave teachers some job security in a world in which political allegiances mattered more than what you knew how to teach and your ability to teach it.

But those protections have made it hard -- and expensive -- to fire ineffective teachers. Sandi Jacobs is Vice President of the National Council on Teacher Quality. She says it can cost $200,000 in legal fees to fire one teacher. Often, she says, school bosses don’t bother.

Jacobs: That’s why we hear tenure so frequently equated with lifetime employment. That’s not technically what it means, but that’s become the reality in a lot of places.

Jacobs says several states have passed or are working on laws to make tenure tougher to get, and easier to lose. Former teacher Robb Cooper is now a lawyer in Chicago. He’s helped districts get rid of dozens of ineffective teachers.

Cooper: You do it precisely, do it carefully, make certain that teacher's rights are regarded. It’s not a difficult process.

Cooper says weak teachers show their weaknesses early, and the best way to avoid expensive battles is not to give them tenure in the first place.

I’m Amy Scott for Marketplace.

About the author

Amy Scott is Marketplace’s education correspondent covering the K-12 and higher education beats, as well as general business and economic stories.

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