Those terrible, no good, very bad tenured teachers have been in the spotlight again. In Vergara v. California, teacher tenure protections have been effectively outlawed in California in the name of education equality. In a far-stretched argument, Silicon Valley millionaire-backed Students Matter claim that teacher tenure protections are to blame for the poor quality public education available to students in low-income areas. Their argument is based on ineffective tenured teachers being overrepresented in low-income areas with poor performing schools. While, yes, this may be true on the whole, their argument misrepresents and misunderstands a lot of the statistics and studies about what makes public education high quality or not.
It’s easy to blame teacher tenure policy for the existence of bad teachers and the perceived downfall of the great American public education project. (Heck, it seems easy for people to blame union-backed workplace protections for all the ills of today’s society.) We can all remember the bad teacher we had in high school. I won’t name names, but there may have been a certain teacher in my high school who was hired as a football coach and somehow ended up teaching a full classload. And by “teaching,” I mean he would lecture at length about the deck he was building and how comfortable it was to drive a Cadillac.
But the fact of the matter is that the myth of these old tenure teachers who have given up on their jobs and, as a result, become ineffective just gets it all wrong. In fact, it’s the opposite. More experienced teachers, who are tenured, are more likely to be better teachers. Surveying the literature in education economics, time and again research shows that huge gains are made to teaching experience in the first 3 to 5 years of teaching. In turns out that experience has a greater impact on teaching effectiveness than things like advanced degrees, scores on teaching licensure tests and class size. Because of this, there are (or should be) be incentives to structuring a labor market that protects long careers for experienced teachers. One would call such a thing tenure policy, which means that ineffective teachers can still be fired but all tenured teachers have a right to due process (that they might not even exercise), so school administrations need to demonstrate ineffectiveness in order to let go of a teacher. Particularly because of poor funding for public education (this should be fixed too), relatively low salaries (15% less than other comparable workers) and the low pay sensitivity of teachers (meaning they may not respond to pay incentives like merit pay in the first place) means that other job benefits, like security through tenure, are especially vital to encouraging long service of effective teachers. So while I, for one, being the unabashed blind supporter of a strong labor movement, may argue that all jobs should get tenure and due process if fired as a basic labor market protection – in this case, because of the importance of experience in teaching, it is all that much more important in this particular occupation.
Furthermore, the notion that young, energetic teachers, like those who enter teaching through programs like Teach For America, will somehow fix our education system ignores the fact that experience matters more than enthusiasm. I’m sympathetic to dedicated teachers who are in their early careers that are not yet tenured and subject to last hire-first fired policies. But these teachers are also the first to be called back when new hiring can take place, so all may not be lost for them. And these dedicated, early career teachers will be more likely to devote themselves to education if they know they will get job security once they reach tenure. I know it’s romantic to imagine Michelle Pfieffer walking into a classroom, inspiring young Lauryn Hills, but these romanticized notions about the teaching skills of early career teachers are the exception and not the rule. The energy and fresh ideas of new teachers are valuable, but alongside the skills gained with experience.
And of course, as is our wont at Lady Economist, let’s not forget the gender implications. Primary and secondary teaching is a predominantly female job. 78% of pre-kindergarten through 12th grade teachers in the U.S. are women. Teaching has historically been a good job for women and a socially acceptable “feminine” career path. In my humble feminist economist opinion, to attack teachers is to attack women’s work, and to say that people who care for a leaving, who are overwhelmingly women, do not deserve job security or respect. It’s a sad state of affairs when we don’t care about those care for a living and we doubt their intentions in their work.
Perhaps the one silver lining of this case is all the media attention being brought to the debate over teacher tenure and shining a light on what it is actually about. On the amazing Belabored podcast, California Teachers Association’s Frank Wells clarifies that tenure is not a job for life. Teachers still get fired when they are tenured. Wells gives some statistics showing that very few tenured teachers actually appeal their terminations. And in schools where ineffective teachers aren’t being fired, is it that teachers fault or perhaps owing to poor school management? Tenure can give teachers the job security in order to call attention to ineffective management, cheating, or problems in a school that they may otherwise keep quiet about without the protection of tenure, as Pedro Nogeuro of NYU’s Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools reminds us in the Wall Street Journal. So let’s cross our fingers and hope the California Teachers Association successfully appeals the Vergara opinion and we can all start having a real discussion about how to make schools better while also protecting teachers labor rights.