A recent article which appeared in Education Week by Boris Korsunsky caught my eye and kept my attention as he enumerated some very powerful reasons to keep tenure in public schools. Let me summarize his very interesting points.
First, let me tell you a little about the author of this piece. Korsunsky is a physics teacher in a public school in Massachusetts, who happens to also be tenured. He has two master’s degrees from Russia, his native land, as well as a doctorate from Harvard Graduate School of Education. Korsunsky is an educational consultant, a widely published author, and a winner of the 2011 Amgen Award for Excellence in Science Teaching. I tell you all of this in order to establish the wisdom and expertise that this man possesses.
In his article, he first focuses on the current trend to improve the quality of public school teachers by rewarding effective teachers with merit pay while removing the security of tenure. He points out that dangling the promise of merit pay is an empty rhetorical tool in light of the current financial problems which schools face. And removing tenure, which is a central benefit for teachers, to supposedly improve the quality of teaching may actually do just the opposite.
He states that, if the goal is to attract and retain excellent teachers, the tenure system should not only be kept in place, but it should be expanded. He maintains that strengthening tenure systems should be considered a cost-effective way to draw effective teachers into the teaching profession, attracting higher quality candidates and improving the morale of currently employed teachers.
Korsunsky argues that contrary to the belief that tenured teachers don’t have any incentive to work hard because they know they can’t be fired, tenure isn’t a lifetime job guarantee, and unions don’t go out of their way to keep incompetent teachers in their jobs. Unions make sure that teachers’ rights to due process are being protected, and that administrators can’t fire teachers on a whim.
He goes on to explain the importance of due process since it is so difficult to judge the quality of a teacher objectively, and test scores aren’t an accurate measure either. It is sobering but true that, as Korsunsky states, “In reality, any teacher is only as good as his boss thinks he is.”
He brings up the definite possibility that without tenure, teachers who would likely be fired first are those with more experience, who also earn a higher salary and may be considered “troublemakers.” As he points out, these teachers tend to be the most creative, but potentially controversial employees.
“Do you want your children’s teachers to be silent in faculty meetings for fear of displeasing the principal? Do you want your child’s biology and history teachers to be fired each time a different political party wins a local election, or when a principal has a nephew or a girlfriend who needs a job? I have heard plenty of such stories from my colleagues working in the ‘non-tenure’ states,” Korsunsky writes.
Many aspects of the teaching profession have made it an undesirable career for many people, including the inherent stress, the lack of respect teachers receive from the public, the tedious hours spent grading in the evenings and on weekends, and the low salaries with no opportunity for promotion. Korsunsky’s claim is that a stronger tenure system might help teachers overlook these drawbacks, as it would give them both job security and intellectual freedom.
Korsunsky writes, “The main beneficiaries of the tenure system, in the end, are the students and their parents, not the teachers. Without tenure systems, the nation’s public school teachers would be either much less competent or much more expensive—or both. The evidence of the positive effects of tenure can be found, for instance, in the generally higher levels of student achievement in the ‘tenure’ states as well as in the presence of tenure-type systems in some of the best American private schools, such as Phillips Exeter Academy. As a teacher, I am grateful for the tenure system. As a parent, I am glad my children’s teachers have it. As a taxpayer, I know that many of the nation’s best teachers would have left the profession for the private sector if their paltry public-school salaries were not augmented by relative job security.”
At the same time, he acknowledges the need to make the process of granting tenure more rigorous than it is in some districts. But he likens the need for qualified teachers to earn tenure to the need for Supreme Court justices to have it. He concludes, “Without tenure, no president would be able to find decent candidates for a stressful job with no promotion opportunities, no objective quality indicators, plenty of public backlash, and a comparatively low salary. And, as we all know, America needs a lot more than nine good teachers every year, doesn’t it? How do we lure tens of thousands of bright and passionate young people into the classroom every year? Free apples just won’t cut it, I am afraid—but some job security should help.”
I could not agree more. Tighten up the qualifications for earning tenure, but give teachers a perk that makes it worth it to stay in a profession which has virtually no economic advantages.