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.
Unions, 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.