Elite Tenure: Oxymoron, or the Next Big Thing?

By 03/16/2011

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Those of us who work without job protections beyond civil rights laws are often astonished by the system of tenure that emerged in U.S. K-12 education.  We can understand why groups that represent people who have tenure fight so hard to keep it.  But why did states and districts willingly adopt it, except when forced through union contract negotiations?  Today, about 97% of teachers get tenure, most within a few years and in most cases with cursory review.  Unfortunately, the financial costs of easy tenure-for-all combined with steps and lanes pay systems have placed a nearly universal glass ceiling on instructional career opportunities and pay for the best teachers.  And we can all see the consequences.

But is getting rid of tenure the best or only solution? We wondered just that. With support from the Joyce Foundation, my colleagues Julie Kowal, Joe Ableidinger, Bryan Hassel and I at Public Impact explored tenure’s various forms in higher education and the federal and state civil service in a report we released March 15. We also took a step back and asked what we think is the most important question: could redesigned tenure actually help grow the size and power of an elite teaching corps that reaches far more children with high-progress learning? We think the answer is yes. Elite tenure, for the top 10 – 25%, would confer status to the deserving, open doors to paid instructional career opportunities, and give power over future decisions to top teachers who would be motivated to maintain a high standard.

Key components of our elite tenure example are far more career and pay opportunities for great teachers, including the chance to extend their reach to more students. For more about reach extension, see Bryan Hassel’s and my 2009 paper 3X for All: Extending the Reach of Education’s Best.  And for more about why reach extension is an essential addition to bold recruiting and dismissal efforts, see our 2010 paper Opportunity at the Top: How America’s Best Teachers Could Close the Gaps, Raise the Bar, and Keep Our Nation Great.

The tenure report also breaks down tenure into its component parts, and then provides a basic framework for redesigning each element of tenure to achieve better results for children and great teachers. Take a look. See if you can come up with other tenure models that might work better for better teachers and the children they serve. State policymakers need fresh ideas, fast. Too many states are stuck in the “keep it or scrap it” mode of tenure discussion, and laws of inertia indicate that “keep it” will win. That’s a problem for our nation’s best teachers.

– Emily Ayscue Hassel

Comment on this article
  • Corey says:

    It’s not really true that 97% of teachers receive tenure; somewhere around a third don’t teach long enough to reach eligibility.

  • Ken says:

    Thanks for sharing this article. Tenure is a big issue for teachers because it involves job security. If teachers could easily get jobs in other fields and other lines of work, they would not be so fearful of losing tenure.

    Professor Robert Martin has taken the stance that if we can demonstrate the value added by quality professors, we can begin to find skills, abilities and knowledge within college professors that can be applicable to other careers and opportunities creating a simple segue from a reliance on income from higher education. Since a primary driver of college costs today is salaries for faculty, this would be a great boon to all parties involved.

    I wrote an article titled “Taking Control of Spiraling College Costs” when I stumbled across these findings and proposals from Robert Martin. I am happy to see you make similar findings from a different starting point. Here is the article: http://j.mp/fjpyjI

  • EBB says:

    A different way to use tenure reform: instead of reserving tenure to the top 10-25%, withhold it instead from the bottom 10%. There would be a ripple effect.

  • Emily Ayscue Hassel says:

    Thank you for your comments — all helpful.

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