Making Whoopi: Missing the Point in the Tenure Debate

Whoopi Goldberg Tenure Controversy

Whoopi Goldberg

Talk show host Whoopi Goldberg’s impromptu rant this week regarding teacher tenure reveals a great deal about the public misunderstanding of tenure in America. Faced with a significant backlash from teachers from across the nation, her unfortunate invective nevertheless provides an important teachable moment. To be fair to Ms. Goldberg, in the groundswell of disinformation that currently clouds the public discussion on this issue, her remarks are not unlike those of many who remain woefully misinformed about tenure and its function in K-12 education.

Like Ms. Goldberg, many persist in holding the belief that a grant of tenure means that teachers have jobs for life. This, however, is neither the scope nor purpose of tenure. Part of the problem derives from the word itself. The varied use of the term in different segments of education has fueled some of the misunderstanding. At the university level, for instance, an awarding of tenure results in the grant of a perpetual contract earned by the professor for demonstrating excellence in teaching, research, and service. It is a rigorous process, involving both internal and external examiners. Once tenure is granted at the college level, it is difficult but not impossible to revoke. It exists, however, less to insure job security as much as to promote academic freedom and a culture of critical exchange in which scholars are free to pursue complex and controversial issues without fear of arbitrary termination.

Tenure at the K-12 level, however, does not carry the same weight or function. Contrary to popular perception, it merely extends to teachers facing termination the assurance of due process—a function essential to fairness and democratic practice. It requires that administrators provide a clear record and follow a well-prescribed course of action that ensures that a teacher facing termination will receive procedural due process.

Due to the erroneous understanding of tenure at the K-12 level and its conflation with what university professor earn—many persons such as Whoopi Goldberg have accepted the fallacious argument that tenure protects “bad teachers.” Professional educators rightfully challenged a recent Supreme Court decision in California that sought to end teacher tenure for this purpose.

Tenure does not protect bad teachers; it merely establishes their professional status. To earn tenure, teachers must undergo a long probationary period lasting several years in which they enjoy no such protection. During this period, they undergo significant evaluation. During this stage, administrators in most communities can also terminate for cause. On average, this probationary period lasts from three to four years, providing administrators abundant time to screen, evaluate, and ultimately dismiss any teacher whom they feel is not suited to the profession.

Opponents of tenure however have used the “bad teacher” argument as a thinly veiled effort to attack teacher unions, claiming that they represent the interests of underperforming teachers over students. In reality, when empowered by state law to do so, teacher unions are often the loudest voices in favor of critical reforms that benefit students. By advocating for small class sizes, increased opportunities for professional development, safe and secure instructional spaces, and much needed resources for student instruction, teacher unions are generally the first and strongest advocates for interventions on issues such as poverty and the inadequate distribution of resources that most contribute to low-performing schools.

yohuru williamsUnions, of course, have the legal obligation to represent the rights and interests of all covered by union contracts, including untenured teachers. When they do, by making districts abide by rules to which both parties have agreed and then are castigated for protecting “bad teachers,” it undermines the vital role they play in ensuring that teachers will at least be guaranteed one of the cornerstones of democratic practice—due process. Everything else is just misguided whoopee—no pun intended.

Yohuru Williams


  1. Steve Wallace says

    Due process is a vague term. “Due Process” in New York means it takes over 800 days on the average
    to fire an incompetent teacher.

    • Jared says

      Under the new rules try 155, DUE PROCESS = the right to defend one’s self against charges. So if we get rid of due process and only allow wrongful termination lawsuits it’s the same as saying all criminal defendants are guilty and have to prove their innocence. A teacher is a licensed professional. What process do we want to question STATE ISSUED licenses?

  2. STeve says

    My teacher friend in LA told me the only way an incompetent teacher could be fired is if he was caught molesting children. And even then they’d get paid leave.

  3. says

    I’d like to point out one thing about the article which could use some correction. This “conflation” you speak of regarding a university professor’s salary — I assume you mean to indicate that such a salary is a high one? If you are not aware of this, you should be: over 75% over America’s university professors are hired as “adjuncts” — which means they are offered low-paying, short-term jobs (often for one semester at a time) with no job security whatsoever, no benefits, no healthcare. The battle that our K-12 colleagues are waging is one which should be joined with the battle we are fighting in higher education to return our professors’ professional stature and wages. There is a widespread war against education, both K-12 and in higher education, that is aimed at ruining the reputations and professional respect of educators, and at privatizing and corporatizing education.

  4. -Nate says

    GREAT article and comments ! .

    I see where Ms. Goldberg has listened and learned , retracted her initial negative comments .

    Teaching is perhaps the single most important job in any Society , it is mind bogglingly difficult .

    More so because so many Parents are both working and have no idea how to prepare their Children for the life they’re heading into much less school .

    Agreed , keeping the Students interest is paramount ~ when I was young , history was boring beyond belief then I was incarcerated and met a wise young man who began showing me how fascinating history really is and more importantly , how history and understanding it, affects daily life .

    Whew ~ I’m on a rant here , guess I should stop .

    I’m *very* poorly educated but only because I couldn’t be bothered to pay attention when I bothered to even show up to school ~ no one’s fault but mine .


    • Pasean81 says

      Whoopi is not correcting; she is correct. Who is protecting my children? I AM! I have made a point to go to my childs school on points of bullying, lack of homework and subject understanding and I am not alone! I have fought to have a tenured teacher ousted (and she was only moved) from my sons class as she was drinking and passing out! How dare anyone defend that as a working system.

  5. Lisa Cooley says

    You are correct Lisa, as I am reading the comments, I see a box to leave a reply.
    It says your email address will not be published. It says Required Fields are marked*
    The box for me to type my name already has your name and the box for my email address has yours in it already – published for me to see…..

  6. Huckleberry says

    “I’ve come to the frightening conclusioin that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or de-humanized.”

    by Dr. Haim Ginott

    In my experience as an extremely involved parent in over 25 years of dealing with teachers, I believe most teachers have good intentions, but only a few execute their good intentions. And, I agree with Whoopi and others who say tenure protects bad teachers. I include bad guidance counselors in that.

  7. Paul W says

    Another issue: When they say “We’re not bashing teachers, we’re bashing the teacher unions.” Well who do you think makes up the teacher unions? Who LEADS the teacher unions? The head of the NEA is a 6th Grade ELA teacher. From UTAH. You attack the unions, you attack teachers.

  8. Luis L. says

    Don’t throw Whoopie out with the bathwater just yet. She may be wrong about this but she has consistently been open-minded and locked in to her positions on most issues. She can be educated and informed about this. Remember she is a celebrity and like most politicians she gets information that is readily available and spoon fed to her from her advisors. What she is repeating here is the same old mainstream media position that informs most of our politicians unfortunately.

    • says

      Lisa: I don’t know what’s going on with the comment in question. It’s listed under your name and email address. To my knowledge, we have not had problems with comments appearing under the wrong person’s name. But if you confirm that you did not post the comment, we’ll take it donw.

  9. suz says

    Professor Williams – I think we’re on the same page.
    As a successful teacher for more than a quarter century, and now a professor emerita, I especially appreciated what Valerie Strauss shared with us back in October of 2012,

    -> To Parents: “If you effectively raise your children before you send them to school, we can teach most of them. If you do not, we cannot.”

    -> To Reformers: “Academic achievement gaps, robust and intractable, are well-established long before the first day of kindergarten. Those gaps are not caused by teachers and cannot be fixed by teachers. What you like to call ‘reforming’ schools does nothing to help children who spend their first five years living in inadequate, often chaotic, households. If you want to help those children, you must do something to change those households. Any other approach is foolish, wasteful and destined to fail.”

  10. Sheila Stark says

    Dr. Williams says it better than most teachers could. I am seriously hoping the Goldberg has the opportunity to read this piece; it makes things clearer to her and others who believe that old thing about “teachers can’t be fired”. Of course we can! Due process is critical and we need to do a better job explaining what that is. Dr. Williams said it clearly. Thanks for publishing his piece.

    • sheila stark says

      I was typing on my phone in the previous comment, and just noticed a couple of typos. Please excuse them; I don’t seem to be able to edit them. I should NEVER post from my iphone.

  11. Lisa Cooley says

    Yohuru, you know I agree with your position…but I have this nagging thought at the back of my head that won’t go away. Why is it that teachers’ unions didn’t come out opposed to standardized testing until it threatened their evaluations, and eventually their jobs?

    • Lisa Cooley says

      Actually, they did in Massachusetts — about 15 years ago regarding MCAS — but their concerns were largely dismissed.

    • Alec Timmerman says

      It is about balance. When used for their designed purpose, standardized tests can help efficiently guide instruction within an individual classroom. Even the designers of the tests will tell you they are not being used for their intent anymore. I started speaking out against standardized tests when they started closing schools, throwing our most vulnerable students into a disruptive hurricane. Nothing in this debate is simplistic. So, no, it is not true we opposed standardized tests just because they were used to evaluate us. We opposed them when they spun out of control and started targeting our most vulnerable kids and turning schools into test prep factories.

      • Lisa Cooley says

        I disagree that tests have any usefulness at all, and this is after many years of consideration and waffling, and thoughts of, “Welllll, maaaaybe, if they are used right.” But I now think it is entirely BS. The use of standardized testing within a classroom or school should be superfluous to a teacher’s knowledge of where his/her kids are. It only fixates teachers on the least important part of learning. There is no reason why any individual school should not know how they are doing without it. If you really feel that you need this almost-useless measure, then lets do it far less often. But don’t say that it benefits the student; it benefits the bureaucracy.

        From Alfie Kohn: “One place it leads is to the recognition that the problem with tests is not limited to their content. Rather, the harm comes from paying too much attention to the results. Even the most unbiased, carefully constructed, “authentic” measure of what students know is likely to be worrisome, psychologically speaking, if too big a deal is made about how they performed, thus leading them (and their teachers) to think less about learning and more about test outcomes. This point is overlooked even by some of the most incisive critics of standardized testing and traditional instruction”

        The stakes attached to testing went up and up and up in the 90s depending on your state, and then exploded after NCLB. The unions, in their zeal to foster the best learning experiences possible, should have denounced them in 2003. I know many teachers did; but your UNION did not.

      • Lisa Cooley says

        Kohn again: “There is good research to support this general point. Some of it has shown that the extent to which students are interested in the subject matter is a good way of predicting how well they’ll learn it.37 Other studies have demonstrated more specifically that, regardless of age, race, or reading skills, students are more likely to remember and really understand what they’ve read if they find it intriguing. Indeed, the interest level of the text has been found to be a much better predictor of what students will get out of it than how difficult it is”

        Greater achievement is reached through interest.

    • Jo Lieb says

      Standardized were not previously used as punitive instruments. Standardized tests were used as a positive tool to help both students and teachers. Why would unions object to them when used in a positive way?

      • Lisa Cooley says

        I was very specific in what I said: after NCLB, when standardized testing was attached to high stakes and no teacher could pretend they were used in any kind of positive way, there were some scattered voices objecting, but no unified opposition from teachers by way of their unions. I support unions for the most part, and I support teachers, but this is a fact that I feel I need cleared up.

        BTW, There is no positive result of standardized testing that cannot be better achieved without it.

    • Lucianna Sanson says

      What does your question about standardized testing have to do with Dr. William’s article about Tenure? Please don’t confuse the issues. Thanks.

    • joan grim says

      Teachers have always used standardized tests judiciously and understood their purpose in education. Teachers aren’t against standardized tests or curriculum based tests when used correctly.

      But when No Child Left Behind was passed, using standardized tests & test scores fraudulently was given the full weight of federal law. Teachers had no choice in how to use them. Race to the Top is even worse than NCLB as it put the full weight of the federal government behind individual teacher evaluations.

      None of the research on testing supports the the way NCLB & RTTT mandates they be used to test & punish. Yet policy makers, govt officials in both parties, and lobbyists in the financial industry have codified misuse in federal & state laws. Teachers have no recourse other than their unions to push back.

      • joan grim says

        Why didn’t your union push back? I understand that teachers didn’t like it; but the unions didn’t feel enough pressure from their members to oppose it with energy. Why?

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