Nobody Deserves Tenure

By 02/04/2011

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Nobody deserves tenure, with the possible exception of federal judges. University professors don’t deserve tenure; civil servants don’t deserve tenure; police and firefighters don’t deserve tenure; school teachers don’t deserve tenure. With the solitary exception noted above—and you might be able to talk me out of that one, too—nobody has a right to lifetime employment unrelated either to their on-the-job performance or to their employer’s continuing need for the skills and attributes of that particular person.

Tenure didn’t come down from Mt. Sinai or over on the Mayflower. Though people occasionally refer to its origins in medieval universities, on these shores, at least, it’s a twentieth-century creation. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) began pushing for it around 1915, but tenuring professors didn’t become the norm on U.S. campuses until after World War II (when the presumption of a 7-year decision timeframe also gained traction) and it wasn’t truly formalized until the 1970’s when a couple of Supreme Court decisions made formalization unavoidable.

In some states, public-school teachers began to gain forms of job protection that resembled tenure as early as the 1920s, but these largely went into abeyance during the Great Depression and were not formally reinstated until states—pressed hard by teacher unions—enacted “tenure laws” between World War II and about 1980.

The original rationale for tenure at the university-level, articulately set forth by the AAUP, was to safeguard academic freedom by ensuring that professors wouldn’t lose their jobs because they wrote or said something that somebody didn’t like—including, on occasion, donors who paid for their endowed chairs. This justification gained plausibility during the post-war “Red Scare” and McCarthy era.

The corresponding rationale for school teachers was that they might lose their jobs for arbitrary and capricious reasons, such as not doing personal favors for the principals or irking some influential parents or board members. The civil-service version of tenure had more to do with establishing a “merit” system and keeping politics and patronage at bay in government employment. As for federal judges, lifetime tenure is enshrined in Article III of the Constitution. Hamilton termed it “an excellent barrier to the despotism of the prince.”

Speaking of the Constitution, however, various job protections for all manner of public employees, including most teachers and professors, can also be found in that document. Check out the clauses protecting individuals from actions by government (at first federal, then also state) that would “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

The “due process” concept has authentically ancient roots—a version of it appears in Magna Carta—and has developed dozens of statutory and courtroom precedents, protections, and procedures to safeguard individuals from arbitrary dismissal from their jobs.

Adding “tenure” on top of that is a bit like wearing both a belt and suspenders.

As for the alleged kinship between K-12 and higher-ed tenure, two points are noteworthy. First, on college campuses, it typically takes about seven years to “win” tenure—and by no means does everyone get it then. University faculties and administrators go through elaborate procedures to determine which instructors will be “awarded” tenure. It is in no sense a right. In public education, however, it’s pretty nearly automatic and usually comes after just two or three years of employment.

Second, the proportion of “tenure track” positions in higher education has been steadily declining. NCES data show that, across a post-secondary teaching-faculty universe of 1.3 million individuals in 2009, fewer than one in four were tenured and about two-thirds weren’t even employed in tenure-track positions.

In public education, on the other hand, essentially everyone with a teaching certificate is automatically a candidate for tenure as soon as he or she is hired by a school system. (Only if these instructors are really dreadful in the classroom or change their minds as to their career do they—maybe—not make it to the second- or third-consecutive contract that typically yields tenure.)

Federal judges aside, public-school teachers now appear to be the most heavily tenured segment of the U.S. workforce.

Which gives rise to all manner of problems, of which the most conspicuous and offensive, though maybe not the gravest, is the difficulty of dismissing that relatively tiny fraction of classroom instructors who are truly incompetent—and the cost, both in dollars and in pupil achievement, of keeping them on the payroll. (If they’re in class, the kids suffer. If they’re in “rubber rooms” or other non-teaching duties, the taxpayers suffer, along with the reputation of the teaching profession.)

Tenure brings other troubles, too. Because it is nested within a set of HR practices and protections that include seniority-based job placements and reductions in force, tenure contributes to principals’ inability to determine who teaches in their schools and superintendents’ inability to let the least qualified or least needed (or most expensive) teachers go during a time of cutbacks. Because tenure—job security in general—is a valuable employment benefit that substitutes in part for salary, it tends to hold down teacher pay, which in turn affects who does and doesn’t seek to enter this line of work and who does and doesn’t stay there. Because tenure pretty much guarantees one a job regardless of performance, it reduces teachers’ incentive to see that their pupils really learn—and their incentive to cooperate in sundry reforms that might be good for their schools and their students.

No wonder a bunch of folks, including the new crop of GOP governors, want to eliminate or radically overhaul teacher tenure.

And so they should. To repeat, it didn’t come down from Mount Sinai—and there are plenty of other ways to safeguard public employees from wrongful dismissal besides guaranteeing them lifetime jobs.

-Chester E. Finn, Jr

Comment on this article
  • Sheri Kuykendall says:

    It is clear Mr. Flinn does not know what tenure is. Tenure, at least for public school teachers, means the administration has to be able to prove you are not teaching children to be able to fire you. Until we reach tenure status, we can be fired for NO REASON at all. The principal does not even have to give the reason.
    Also, and most importantly, teaching is the ONLY, I repeat the ONLY, job where there are circumstances beyond our control that directly affect the results of our job performance.
    If a child goes without eating or sleeping, and goes to the doctor for a cut, the performance of how that doctor treats that cut is not affected. But if a child goes without eating and sleeping (and many do) there attention and performance in the classroom IS affected. It is not the teacher’s fault that the child comes to class full and rested.

    I am tired of being blamed for bad parenting and threatened by people who have NO NO NO idea what it is like in public classrooms. All of the kids on the streets that we hear of committing crimes goes to school somewhere and we are blamed for what they do and do not do. I have made this challenge over and over and I will again: Before judging go into a class ONE complete day as a regular teacher, not a political official or news reporter, or researcher, who always gets special treatment, and walk the walk before talking the talk. NO one has ever taken me up on this. Every just wants someone to blame instead of caring about the kids. We are overworked, over-blamed, and totally underpaid……………..

  • Jeanette says:

    Wow -alot has been said here. The point everyone is making concerns our children and teachers. No one on this blog is wron, we are all simply expressing what we hold close to our heart…. -it’s our passion, our belief, our good moral character. Our children are important. They should be taught by teachers who a qualified to do the job. Our teachers are also important. Their jobs should be protected especially when they have worked as a teacher for years. It is an advancement to know that our teachers can keep up with education by constantly improving their skills. If we all keep focus on what’s important I can say that we are well on our way to better education.

  • Greg V says:

    I agree there are some problems with tenure but there are actually worse problems with bonuses for scamming investors out of their life savings and retirement funds, golden parachutes for running your company directly over a cliff as was the case with Lehman Brothers (350-500 million golden parachute) and incredible salaries having nothing whatsoever to do with accountability or productivity. Tell you what, when the terrible inequity of income distribution ends in America (1-2% owning 34% of the country’s total wealth; 10% owning 73% of that wealth; and the rest of us 90% owning a whopping 90%, come back to me and I’ll be more than willing to listen to arguments about tenure for teachers who average 35 thousand dollar starting salaries and, as I did, end a dedicated career of 36 years of teaching still making less than 50 thousand a year. I was our school’s teacher of the year in ’96, Southwest Minnesota Teacher of the Year in ’97 and among the finalists for Teacher of the Year in Minnesota in ’96. I was honored by being selected to my school’s Hall of Honor for outstanding educators in 2004, four years after I retired.
    You know at what I was never at all good? Kissing butt and I saw teachers who were that were atrocious in the classroom and NEVER were fired because mickey mouse administrators didn’t do a tenth of the job at their work that I did teaching kids.

  • Greg V. says:

    Excuse me, I meant the rest of us 90% owning a whopping 27%. My bad.

  • Mitch says:


  • […] finally, here is an interesting analysis about what tenure means across the employment spectrum, and some consideration about whether it is […]

  • Paul Schickler says:

    It is possible (and unverifiable) that you actually had a straight face when you wrote that tenure is unneeded because of the Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment. I’d be eager to hear just one example of a teacher recovering their job with a Fourteenth Amendment defense after a principal got the teacher fired because she simply didn’t like the teacher, or the teacher wouldn’t do her personal favors, or for some other unfair but not unconstitutional reason.

    As far as the decrease in the granting of tenure in higher education, that is easily explained, as I’m sure you must know, by economics. Non-tenured faculty are paid less, and adjunct instructors – part-time hires – are paid even less and accrue fewer benefits. So the decrease in tenure-granting is a convenient point for you to make, but if the situation were reversed and tenure was on the increase in higher ed, would you then argue for tenure in public schools?

    Next, if tenure is granted too easily, whose fault is that? Let the school districts be more deliberate in granting it. Better yet, have them be more circumspect in their hiring in the first place.

    Lastly, you and every other “reformer” deliberately ignore the simple fact that tenure is due process. If the due process system does not work because it is poorly implemented by the school districts that administer them, again, blame them, not the teachers, and have the districts do better. If the process itself needs tweaking, tweak it. Don’t eliminate it. If you thought too many guilty criminal suspects were being exonerated, would you seek to fix the process or eliminate trial by jury?

    Oh, one more thing. You must imagine a virtual plague of incompetence among teachers to seek such radical remedies. Yet principals you would free from all restrictions in hiring and firing. You must consider them a uniquely superior breed of human being. Why?

  • Rick Martinez says:

    There’s an age-old adage that goes: “When Peter talks about Paul, one can learn a lot about PETER.” The article by Finn on Tenure and the comments that followed speak not only to a great chasm but to a fractured relationship between teachers and policy thinkers. If this is happening on a macro-level, it’s perhaps even more prevalent as gossip and rumor in teacher lounges–and exhibited as poor
    teacher performance and severed principal efforts.

    Tenure is not an issue. We all know if we are enjoying our “contributions” and finding “fulfillment” in our outcomes–tenure and compensation is a non-issue. Everyone always wins. Period!

    If on the other hand, we are not feeling good about ourselves, internal and external disaster almost always begins with a person’s philosophy of doing less and wanting more. Everyone suffers. Blames raises its ugly head. And no one looks inwardly to accept accountability and come up with “people” answers rather than policy solutions.

    Just like “a poor man shames us all,” a poor student shames us all! We need no longer hear about how our students fare against other students, or even amid our own standards here in America. The fact is, if the student hasn’t learned, the teacher hasn’t taught. Yet, principals, educational administrators, and policy makers must ask the same question we expect our teachers to ask themselves when their students aren’t learning or doing well, “Why?” Our teachers need “differentiated intervention” much like our students.

    Instead of battering our educators for more and better, it’s time we invest as much “care” and “maintenance” into our teachers as we do into our copying machines.

    And, instead of filling our teachers with more “continuing education” on how and what to teach, perhaps it’s time we use the age-old dictum of education to explore and solve the classroom crisis: “The purpose of an education is to replace an empty mind with an “open one.”

    Our teachers need our help, our care and concern. They need personal and professional “fulfillment” intervention. They need to know about themselves, and how much they are needed and wanted. They need us to pull out from them all they feel and experience in the classroom so we can address “their reality”–to empty them of their concerns and open them to not only accomplishment but fulfillment.

    If research claims Friday is the happiest day of the week, and thus TGIF–then we must make everyday be FRIDAY! No, not a Monday morning meeting as usual, rather a meeting full of introspection of what teachers did over the weekend and what made them happy, what gave them peace, and what brought them joy. So, instead of Monday morning BLUES, it’s Monday morning DO’s!

    Teachers (and students alike) rarely succeed unless they have fun in what they are doing.

    We also know relationships with our teachers are vital and essential not only for accomplishment, but for fulfillment. Relationship is more powerful than method. Relationship is more powerful than delivery. Relationship is more powerful than quality. Relationship is more powerful than lesson. And, the more students know, the more they relate; The more students trust, the more they relate; The more students relate, the more they learn!

    Teacher “fulfillment” must be the focus of our education solution. Heck, we’ve continued to talk about, write about, and discuss everything else, and nothing else has worked.

    It’s time to educate ourselves on teacher “fulfillment.”
    —Rick Martinez

  • FM says:

    “Until we reach tenure status, we can be fired for NO REASON at all. The principal does not even have to give the reason.”

    Welcome to the world of at-will employment. Believe or not, the rest of us have to cope with this…drum roll please…FOREVER. Yes, it’s very hard but we all put on our grown-up underpants every morning and then roll with what life hands us. And the unpredictable nature of bosses is why being fired in the US is not an automatic black mark forever.

    *sigh* Most teachers are very good. Some of the most vocal ones, unfortunately, are so out of touch with the “real” job market that I’m quite convinced the only job they could actually do is teach.

  • Steven says:

    I agree that there are problems with the tenure system. It is hard to like a system that protects the worst the most. On the other hand, I do wonder what would become of teacher quality if we removed the “accept a lower salary for increased security” idea that makes tenure attractive. I have reservations about tenure as a taxpayer and parent, but I also know that I wouldn’t have become a teacher, and a well-regarded one at that, if it hadn’t been for the aforementioned trade off.

  • socalmike says:

    the author is correct – we don’t need tenure. Why? Because of due process. If we teachers do something wrong, there is a process that we must go through to either be vindicated or fired.

    @SheriK – that’s not true. Talk to your admin – if a teacher is a non-reelect, there must be proper documentation as to why the teacher won’t be re-hired. Again, due process.

    I contend that we have so many crappy teachers because it’s so hard to fire teachers with tenure. Ask an admin how hard it is to fire a teacher. Then, thank the union.

    I also contend that we have gone to “standardized education” because of this. Since you can’t fire bad teachers, at least make sure you know what they’re teaching so you can hold them accountable. Thank the union.

  • Alf Tupper says:

    Sheri K wrote: “…if a child goes without eating and sleeping (and many do) there attention and performance in the classroom IS affected.”

    If Sheri is a teacher, then I find it disturbing that she doesn’t know the difference between “there” and “their.”

  • The Ref says:

    I am finishing my 15th year teaching, and I would vote to eliminate tenure as long as due process is still involved in removing a teacher from the classroom. There are a few great teachers that for whatever reason get on the wrong side of a student and trumped up allegations against that teacher would be terrible. By that same logic, there are some pretty bad teachers that get to keep showing Disney videos every Friday because that’s what they do, and their students love them because they have little work to do. They should be easier to remove when there is evidence pointing to them being inadequate in their job.

  • Robert Duvall says:

    I have been teaching in a California public High School for 22 years. My views on the evils of tenure:

    1. It is too easy to get. Do your job and don’t make waves and you got it in usually two years.

    2. It is practically impossible to get rid of bad, tenured teachers. The “due process” component is broke.

    3. Tenure does little to promote good teaching.

    My views on the need for tenure:

    1. In the private sector you work for the owner of the business who is motivated primarily by profit and the smooth running of their business. If you are a good worker you essentially have tenure. In the public sector you work for the taxpayer but are held accountable by an “administrator” who, unfortunately, is of dubious value.

    2. Because of the many “interested parties” in the public sector there must be some form of due process to protect public servants.

    The essential problem is that neither policy makers or teacher unions want to come to a common sense decision about the sticky issue of tenure.

  • Brad says:

    @SheriK Yes, you can be let go for any reason (which they do not have to state) during your probationary period. Why? BECAUSE OF THE TENURE SYSTEM! If there wasn’t tenure, then there wouldn’t be a “probationary period,” when a teacher can fake it for two years, get tenure, then rear his/her ugly head as a horrible teacher. Happened in my school at least once.

    And as @FM pointed out, that’s what the private sector employees deal with everyday. Geez, we government/unionized workers develop such a disconnect with real life at times.

    Speaking of the union, we have them to thank for this worthless system called tenure and the salary ladder. We are only talking about this broken tenure system because of the union. The union’s job is job security, mostly job security for the most incompetent teachers who are nearly impossible to fire. (Like one of our teachers, caught multiple times with alcohol in her desk and guilty of “questionable” behavior and/or soberness. That was three years ago. Yes, she’s still teaching at that school.)

    Everything related to teachers’ jobs and salaries is because of the union. I HATE the salary ladder. That alone means that I can never be paid FOR WHAT I’M WORTH. An engineer is courted by a corporation and offered perks, bonuses, and a higher salary to leave his present job. Me? I’m now locked in to the salary ladder which says that if I go to another district, at best I’ll only be recognized for 7, sometimes only 3, years of my 16 years in teaching–IOW a pay cut. A drastic cut. Thanks, union contracts. And it doesn’t matter if I am one of the best in my field, the bozo who has the same job description as I with the same number of years gets the same pay. Do I want merit pay? YES! Do I want to be recognized for my skills and the quality of education I have given my students? YES! Does tenure do that? NO! Simple math: tenure = longevity; merit = productivity.

    @Rick Martinez is correct, too. I for one, have never cared about tenure and never asked in interviews how long until tenured, and often never knew when I was tenured. Why? I knew I was good at what I do and could care less to work for a district that would arbitrarily dismiss me. I figured if that happened, then it was not worth working for them.

    Bottom line: tenure protects bad teachers and does not help good teachers. There are ways to make things work without it.

  • ST says:

    So, I pose the question, what is the ideal solution if tenure is eradicated? There is a difference between working as a teacher compared to other occupations, but what stands as the dividing line? I am not a teacher, so forgive my naivety concerning educators’ circumstances, but as a student who would like to pursue teaching as a profession, I would like to know where, if anywhere, tenure reform might lead. What would be the ideal circumstances under which to teach?

  • Andrew says:

    As a young teacher that was a victim 2 years ago of this idiotic process, I resoundingly agree. I was let go from a major district in the Kansas City, MO area due to budget cuts. This was my first teaching position. I took over at the end of the 1st quarter for a tenured NEA bum who had quit teaching 5 years prior to her final demise. The district couldn’t get rid of her because of her TENURE, she was teaching absolutely nothing, coworkers hated working with her, she even suffered from mild dementia at times. After taking over the class, instituting structure and struggling through my first year I received three highly effective reviews, was told by both my principal and the superintendent of HR that they hated to lose me because of my abilities of a teacher but “that’s just the way things are” and I had no seniority. Tenure is lunacy and penalizes young teachers in bad economic climates. It promotes mediocrity and incompetence and needs to be ended!

  • […] Nobody Deserves Tenure by Chester E. Finn, Jr. from Education Next Share this:ShareFacebookStumbleUponTwitterEmailPrintDiggRedditLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

  • Guiermo says:

    Most of you have no idea what “tenure” means. ” Tenure” for teachers is “seniority” for other civil service workers….it means that before a competent 20 yr. veteran is laid off, a competent 15 year veteran goes first. ….very fair.

    As well, it means a supervisor needs proof of incompetence before the lay off decision is made.

    Tenure is not a guarantee of a job for life.

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