Curtailing tenure won’t solve state’s education problems

The remote possibility of gaining federal funds by winning the second round of the President’s Race to the Top is insufficient reason to rush a bill through the Legislature that would transform the teaching profession in Colorado. Surely President Obama, who shows great empathy for teachers, would not intend for his incentives to strip from them their only protection against unjustified changes of working conditions or arbitrary dismissal from their positions.

Senate Bill 191 (the Educator Effectiveness Bill) grew out of the general concern that our schools are failing. Apparently legislators think that tenure has been responsible for allowing incompetent teachers to crowd out the good ones, leaving the students to flounder. Getting rid of tenure, they assume, will enable school administrations to clean out the ineffective dullards, and bring in new graduates full of energy and drive.

The most obvious fallacy here is thinking that tenure is the problem. It is highly unlikely that taking tenure away from teachers will improve the level of instruction or enhance student intellectual development. It could have just the opposite effect.

Outside of a love for teaching, there is little reason for young people who have other options to become teachers today. For some, however, the job security offered by tenure is an incentive that could induce them to accept the hard work and mediocre wages of the profession. This is not because they are shirkers looking for an easy ride, but because tenure frees them to become more creative, experimental and effective teachers.

In reality, the attack on tenure is a smokescreen over the real problem. When some of the current education reformers were in school, teaching was the preferred profession for young college-educated women. According to a study by Lawrence Mishel, et. al., in Education Week, “women teachers were paid 14.7 percent more than other women with similar education” in 1960.

Because at that time college-educated women had fewer career options open to them, they provided a steady supply of highly-capable, well-prepared candidates for teaching jobs. The fact that they worked for and gained tenure did not limit their abilities, as some of today’s reformers can probably attest.

But, Mishel reports, “that trend reversed, and by 2000, women teachers were being paid 13.2 percent less than their education level peers in other fields.” Between 1996 and 2006, the pay gap accelerated from a 4.3 percent discrepancy to 15.1 percent between women teachers and other professions, like accounting, journalism, nursing, ministry, and public administration, requiring similar preparation,

In 2008, teachers earned, on average, about $154 — or 14.3 percent — less per week than their peers in other professions.

The report listed Colorado in a sub-category of states in which the discrepancy between teaching and benchmark professions exceeded 25 percent.

Unless the state is prepared to compete with private sector salaries for the most talented individuals, it will need other incentives to attract dedicated teachers. Positive working conditions, rich intrinsic rewards for teaching well and a strong support system to help struggling teachers reach their potential will contribute more to building an effective teaching force than the “two strikes and you’re out” approach proposed by SB 191.

The problems in our schools, which have been developing for years, did not result from giving teachers the security of tenure. For every unproductive teacher protected by the system, numerous good teachers have been assured the freedom to inspire as well as instruct their students.

Tempting though the gamble for federal money may be, it does not justify removing the fundamental protection that has insulated teachers from overly zealous administrators, discontented parents, ambitious politicians and assorted community zealots so they can teach with minimal fear of reprisals. For every featherbedding teacher protected by the system, numerous good teachers have been protected against unjustified attacks.

When, after careful study, a new approach to educating our children evolves, the most valuable asset we have will be the dedication to their profession and loyalty to their students that keeps teachers in the classroom even as the material rewards diminish. Tenure is one important way to recognize and reward that excellence.

Bill Grant lives in Grand Junction. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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