Students Need Teachers With Tenure

A safe prediction for the 2011-2012 academic year is that there will continue to be attacks on tenure at all levels of education. Why should teachers keep their jobs, it will be asked, if they are not doing their jobs well? Don't students have a right to competent teachers?

Indeed they do. Not only that, they have a right to competent teachers who are free to do their jobs. That means teachers who have the academic freedom to make academic decisions about their teaching.

In principle, all teachers should have academic freedom regardless of tenure status. But in the real world of education, the exercise of such freedom depends in large part on tenure. Thus students need teachers with tenure.

But wait. How does it help students to be taught by teachers who cannot be fired regardless of their performance? The answer is that it doesn't. But the question shows a common misunderstanding about tenure, which does not guarantee anyone a job.

On the contrary, tenure is a system that connects continued employment to job performance. Employees without tenure know that their jobs may be discontinued for any reason or for no reason at all. Employees with tenure, on the other hand, can expect continued employment for as long as their work is needed and meets established standards.

To fire a tenured employee, except in rare cases of genuine financial exigency or program elimination, the employer must demonstrate inadequate job performance. This entails a decision-making process that respects the right of the employee to respond.

Untenured employees, in contrast, can be fired at will or simply not rehired at the end of the current contract. There is no need to tell an untenured teacher she lost her job for teaching politically or religiously objectionable ideas about, say, history or biology. She can simply be informed of the nonrenewal of her contract without being given any reason at all.

And the victims are not just teachers. Students have a right to a curriculum devised on academic grounds and a classroom directed toward academic goals by a teacher free to teach on the basis of his or her academic and professional judgment. When teachers are fired for promoting and protecting education in their classrooms, students lose.

These are not just theoretical concerns. Teachers are subject to a variety of administrative, political, religious, and other pressures that often run counter to legitimate academic considerations. By insulating teachers from such pressures, tenure enables them to teach an academically justified curriculum in a manner that respects the academic freedom of students to question, argue, and reach their own conclusions.

The academic freedom protected by tenure, it should be clear, is not the freedom to do as one pleases. Teachers must teach what students need to learn. They must guide and enhance learning without indoctrinating students. They must protect the academic environment from nonacademic intrusions of all sorts. Academic freedom assumes and entails academic and ethical responsibilities.

And of course faculty at all levels of education, like all employees, should be systematically evaluated on a regular basis. If their performance is not satisfactory they should be informed of how it is deficient and given a reasonable opportunity to improve. If they are unable or unwilling to improve they should be fired.

But all of this is fully consistent with a strong system of tenure. After some period of meeting high standards of performance, teachers should attain the recognition and protection of tenure, which provides an expectation of continuing employment contingent on continuing to meet appropriate standards of performance.

Such a system is not just fair to teachers. It maximizes the likelihood that students will be taught by teachers who have met high standards and are free to teach on the basis of their best academic and professional judgment. That's what students need.