Sunday Sermon: The Teacher Tenure Edition

I’ve always thought that the primary reason for tenure at the collegiate level was economic. Intellectual freedom notwithstanding, without academic tenure, universities would either have to pay more for their faculty or wind up with worse faculty. Consider an undergraduate who might have loans to pay off. Then add five to eight years during which, if he is lucky, he doesn’t accumulate debt, but certainly isn’t saving any money. Then add the post-doc (at least one) where, again, there’s low wages and little savings. Follow that with five to nine years of running like hell, at which point you can receive tenure. If tenure weren’t available, few people would put up with that career trajectory, unless the pay were higher (an aside: I don’t have tenure security; my position is much more like working at a non-profit biotech company–and I get paid like it).
So I think it’s worth noting how Ed from Gin and Tacos describes, in response to Governor Crist’s education ‘reform’ veto, the economic incentives for K-12 teachers (italics mine):

First, regarding compensation, let’s be honest: nobody gets into teaching to get rich. Very few of us are make big bucks by private sector standards even at the post-secondary level. So the salaries aren’t too big of a deal even though Florida’s are already $5000 below the national average. Florida teachers are doing better than a lot of people these days. That said, people teach for the same reason one becomes a civil servant – job security.
We already have a teacher shortage in this country, and people simply aren’t going to do this job without the possibility of tenure. The reasons are not complex. The job kinda sucks. It’s rewarding at times but often it’s just hard and time consuming. Granted, it’s not “hard” compared to jobs that subject one to hazardous conditions or manual labor, but it’s not easy. It takes over our lives. When we’re not in front of a classroom we’re at home grading and formulating lesson plans. In my case, it requires most of my time to handle three classes, and K-12 teachers teach a hell of a lot more than I do. And they are also burdened with surrogate parenting some or all of their students, depending on the location of the school. So teachers accept the 12 hour days and the salaries that range from good to “meh” to pretty bad in exchange for some job security. I can’t imagine who’s going to line up for 12 hour days, “meh” salaries, and at-will employment. If that’s going to be your job description, why would anyone choose to deal with 150 asshole kids every day to get it?
Don’t misunderstand me, I don’t believe that there would suddenly be no teachers without tenure. The job would be considerably less appealing, though, and only the current Recession-era lack of alternatives would keep talented people from pursuing other opportunities.

Until we start treating teaching as a profession, and not as a calling (or something for “the wife of” to keep herself busy), we need to have economic incentives to teach. If we’re not going to pay them well, then we will have to use other incentives. And tenure is, from a budgetary perspective, cheap.

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8 Responses to Sunday Sermon: The Teacher Tenure Edition

  1. BaldApe says:

    There’s a big difference between tenure for university professors and tenure for public school teachers. At the university it does what you suggest– allowing academic freedom and giving young academics something to strive for, but in the public schools, it’s more like getting past a probationary period.
    Contrary to common belief, it’s not impossible to fire tenured public school teachers, ant more than it’s impossible to fire union employees. But the employer has to show cause.
    The problem ISTM is that most managers want to be able to do the Donald Trump “You’re fired” thing, and that’s just not right. They are too lazy themselves to do their job and document deficiencies, so they whine that it’s impossible to fire anybody.
    I’d love to see incentives for very much brighter people to become teachers. I am continually amazed at just how dumb some of the people who presume to become teachers can be. Higher pay and higher academic standards for entering teachers would help, along with a recognition that knowing the subject matter is important. You’d be amazed to see how many school administrators think that a teacher certified in one area should be able to teach a completely unrelated subject.

  2. Childermass says:

    “You’d be amazed to see how many school administrators think that a teacher certified in one area should be able to teach a completely unrelated subject.”
    True. But do they really have a choice but to push qualifications? To remedy the problem would mean that they would have to hire another teacher. Even the lowest paid teacher costs money in salary and benefits. And quite a few districts don’t have the money for it. So the urge to have a teacher already on staff take up the task must be enormous.
    Though certainly there is some overlap. I would hope that any science teacher knows enough math to teach algebra. But then again, putting “Coach” into some random subject is certainly not a good idea.

  3. joemac53 says:

    I am a 34 year veteran teacher in a public high school in Massachusetts, where the term “tenure” has been replaced with “professional status” for quite a while. Several years ago I had the opportunity to switch schools. I told the principal I would be willing to make the move if I were given “professional status” right away. Job security was important. Without professional status you could get canned for absolutely no reason. You would just be told you were not being rehired.
    The principal said that he wouldn’t bring me in and then get rid of me (I believed him), but I told him that he might be moving on in a short time, and that would leave me with a new boss.
    I didn’t make the move, and that principal moved on to a new job a year later.
    I know I have had a recession-proof job teaching math and science, but I haven’t been raking in the bucks, and my children wanted to go to those fancy private colleges. My next vacation will be my first since 1979.
    Not complainin’, just ‘splainin.

  4. Jim Thomerson says:

    I have, more than once, heard faulty in a School of Education pronounce that if one knows how to teach, knowledge of the subject matter is unimportant. First thing to do is abolish schools of education.
    In thinking about university tenure, I have come to the conclusion that, because universities are one of the longest lived human institutions, the ideal Professor is thinking about long term development and action, helping guide the university into an indefinite future. No reason someone on a terminable year-to-year contract should think such thoughts.

  5. cass_m says:

    That comment about learning to teach only counts if you have the knowledge in the first place. A specific undergraduate degree with teaching certificate would make it more likely that teachers know the material. Nice to have an Education department that doesn’t seem to believe in education.

  6. Bob Calder says:

    @Jim – Studies putting Teach for America (crash course pedagogy) against people trained in pedagogy shows that it does make a difference. However, not knowing the subject is fairly deadly when you look at countries that require a science degree against the U.S. where about half of 8th grade science teachers have a degree in science. Subject knowledge is probably the main cause for our TIMSS results and PISA rankings aside from the curriculum narrowing.
    @Mike – Thanks, from Broward County.
    Education research needs to have underpinnings like science or we can’t stave off ideology based measurement. Teaching is somewhat complex and our students are complex, so that measuring with one metric is silly. We don’t have a form of peer review and to the extent we exercise creativity, it is probably needed.

  7. BaldApe says:

    My daughter’s 7th grade math teacher was the band director. Whichever field he was trained in is most likely poor training for the other.
    And I would never claim that learning to plan and implement lessons is irrelevant. In that area, I found an emphasis on students with special needs to be enormously helpful in dealing with all students, because it got me to consider how students acquire content knowledge. But the VP who told me “Anyone can teach Earth Science; I could teach Earth Science” would almost certainly give the wrong answer when a student asks why astronauts float around in the space shuttle.

  8. Afterthought says:

    One thing that goes overlooked is that all this discussion is about activities that don’t make anything.
    If anything, the farmers, construction, and engineers should be making bank while everyone else lives off mac n cheese.

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