University Tenure, RIP

From The Chronicle of Higher Education:

What does vanishing tenure mean for higher education? For starters, some observers say that college faculties are being filled with people who may be less willing to speak their minds: contingent instructors, usually working on short-term contracts. Indeed, the American Association of University Professors says instructors need tenure to guarantee that they can say controversial things inside and outside the classroom without being fired.

But others argue that the disappearance of tenure is actually not the worst thing that could happen in academe. The competition to secure a tenure-track job and then earn tenure has become so fierce in some disciplines that academe may actually be turning away highly qualified people who don’t want the hassle. A system without tenure, but one that still gave professors reasonable pay and job security, might draw that talent back.

Ultimately, though, the future of tenure may hinge on a different calculation: Does its absence hurt students enough in the classroom—something research has shown—that the cost savings to institutions are no longer worthwhile?

via Tenure, RIP – Labor & Work-Life Issues – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

(1) I’m not certain if there is any broad danger to free speech in academia. A few high profile cases exist, but they seem much more rare than we might speculate.

(2) I do believe competition will improve all levels of education in the United States. However, other institutional changes must accompany any major change in faculty hiring. Administrators must implement a stable, non-controversial method of evaluating teachers before attempting to reduce tenured faculty. Administrators must bite the bullet too; there ought to be an equivalent evaluation standard for non-instructional staff. Furthermore, schools need to implement broad incentives, making sure successes come with immediate and commensurate rewards.

(3) I don’t believe, prima facie, that reducing tenured faculty harms student achievement. In my personal experience, some of the best teachers I’ve had were not tenured and some of the worse still are. It should be easy to find many instances where a stable tenured faculty harmed student progress – in fact, we know many instances within urban school districts and less-than-Ivy-calibre colleges.

So should tenure die? I don’t think all tenured positions should vanish overnight, and I don’t think any tenured position in a college, primary, or secondary school should get the ax without a careful consideration of other institutional changes (a la (2) above). But neither do I consider tenure indispensable to the educational system.

End Teacher Tenure, says Tim Knowles

Tim Knowles, director of the Urban Education Institute at The University of Chicago, points out in the Wall Street Journal that tenure in K12 institutions fails to improve the public school system.

An award-winning study of Illinois school districts over an 18-year period found an average of two tenured teachers out of 95,000 were dismissed for underperformance each year. Nationally, between 0.1% and 1% of tenured teachers are dismissed annually, according to the Center for American Progress.

It’s not news that students suffer when very low-performing teachers are allowed to remain in the classroom. But teachers suffer too. In a forthcoming article, my colleague Sara Ray Stoelinga of the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute illustrates how teacher tenure creates perverse practices in schools across Chicago. In interviews with 40 principals, 37 admitted to using some type of harassing supervision—cajoling, pressuring or threatening—to get teachers to leave in order to circumvent the byzantine removal process mandated by the union contract. One principal plotted to remove a teacher who had trouble climbing stairs by assigning her to a fourth-floor classroom. Another reassigned a teacher who had been teaching eighth-graders for 14 years to a first-grade classroom.

Our public school system relies on a perverse collection of counter-incentives and unaccountability to improve their school, their students, and their community.