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10 Telling Facts About Tenure

by Staff Writers

Considering tenure’s often ambiguous nature, it probably comes as no shock to anyone that it comes neatly packaged along with a right fair amount of controversy. And rightly so! With the education of kids and collegiates alike at stake, parents and professionals grow extremely vocal about everything from keeping the system intact, reforming it, or just doing away with tenure completely. There exist as many opinions as people to hold them. Just about the only thing they have in common is how they should probably do some research before cogently forming them. Plenty more statistics and facts factor into these perspectives, of course, but the following offer up a small sample of what’s available. Explore them, then go on to read about other studies and sides before deciding where you stand.

  1. "Only one out of 1000 teachers is fired for performance-related reasons:" The documentary Waiting for Superman revealed this particular statistic, and The New York Daily News wrote that only 88 out of 80,000 NYC-area teachers ended up canned between 2007 and 2010. Parents especially wring their hands over this fact, concerned that tenure might mean their kids end up stranded with less-than-qualified educators. A legitimate fear, to be certain! Although abolishing the concept altogether might not prove the most viable solution. Perhaps leaving it in place and holding teachers to higher standards will bolster public schools’ quality. Tenure could remain an attractive option luring in security-seeking educators, but tighter restrictions would challenge them to improve their performance. Everyone wins.

  2. It doesn’t just happen in college: Most people tend to think of college and university professors when the subject of tenure comes up, but in reality it happens at many different grade levels. Because of different state regulations and the presence (or not) of teachers unions, how the concept is handled varies from district to district. But yes, tenure does happen beyond higher education campuses, only it’s school districts who determine whether or not to offer it up.

  3. Fifty-eight percent of Americans aren’t too sure about tenure: A 2005 Gallup poll regarding teacher tenure revealed that 58% of Americans didn’t much know what to make of the idea. By contrast, 19% declared themselves in favor of it, and 22% expressed opposition. Thirty percent admitted they didn’t know much of anything about public school tenure, with those considering themselves "somewhat familiar" the next most common at 32%. Of the people who knew quite a bit about tenure, the majority (44%) favored it. If school districts hope to instill such a system, they should probably make available more information about their standards and the process through which a teacher earns the status. Such transparency might make parents more confident about sending their kids into tenured classrooms.

  4. Oh, it gets political, all right: Although tenure, like all things, possesses its own set of positives and negatives, at least one of its facets warrants serious concern. Specifically, how a teacher’s political and social views can be used for or against him or her. Tenure ostensibly rewards and retains quality, but some schools use it as leverage against employees with outspoken, unpopular or controversial beliefs. Jonathan R. Cole — who actually supports the concept — points out how the federal government and institutions themselves frequently police research, interviews, social media postings and more. He considers such nosiness an intellectual challenge, though one that could very easily go off the rails and deny excellent professors stable, secure opportunities for the wrong reasons. It’s one thing if they’re unabashed neo-Nazis or something, of course, but another entirely to merely voice opposition to America’s Iraq and Afghanistan involvement. And the latter has certainly stirred up controversy at institutions such as Columbia University.

  5. Tenured teachers can get fired: It seems as if many students, parents, staff and even faculty themselves believe that tenure simultaneously serves as a license to do pretty much whatever without getting fired. Educators with such a perk are sometimes difficult to jettison, but they aren’t completely untouchable. When situations grow litigious, school districts typically triumph, and at a 3:1 ratio, in fact. Their reason for dismissal varies from region to region, of course, but teachers don’t always break the law or behave unethically before ending up canned. Actually…

  1. … Tenured teachers get dismissed for poor performance at a higher rate than their nontenured peers: Strange but true. A 2007-2008 study conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics noted that more tenured teachers lose their jobs for performance-related reasons than those without such "protection." At almost double the rate, in fact! Over one percent of nontenured teachers were dismissed through non-renewal, versus three percent for the tenured. Pinpointing exactly why this phenomenon occurs proves difficult, but it may very well be the result of holding them to higher standards. If teachers don’t meet them, districts take no issue with refusing to renew or renegotiate their contracts. Just a theory, of course.

  2. Fifty-eight percent of NYC teachers received tenure this year: As of June 2011, only 58% of NYC educators qualified for tenure actually ended up with it. Five years ago, back when the only standard was three years of service, the number sat at a staggering 99%. About 39% of eligible teachers saw their tenure decision deferred, and three percent received a flat-out denial. Such statistics are cropping up as a result of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s increased scholastic standards, although local teachers unions think them problematic. Time will ultimately tell if this trend benefits NYC students and kick-starts a national trend or fizzles a bit before sputtering out entirely.

  3. The minority of professors consider tenure outdated: Interestingly enough, more women support tenure’s abolition than men. A 1996 UCLA study noted that 46% of female professors and 35% of their male contemporaries thought the concept held no place in higher education. Some theorize its increasing unpopularity comes about as a result of a generally opaque decision making process. Because professors don’t completely know exactly what needs doing to earn tenure, (or blow their chances entirely) detractors think the system needs either a complete overhaul or utter obliteration. But the relative job security (at least in higher education) keeps many more professionals embracing tenure’s tenets.

  4. Tenure doesn’t usually lead to increased slacking off: When it comes to impact, a 2003 Duke University study noted that tenure doesn’t negatively influence it. Even when provided no real tangible incentives, Si Li and Hui Ou-Yang discovered no correlation existed: the economics professors studied ended up referenced at roughly the same rate both before and after receiving tenure. Their quality remained largely unchanged, if not improved. Productivity was not measured, but they determined that it "may or may not" fluctuate; however, the researchers didn’t think tenure would really alter that factor any.

  5. Most American higher-ed faculty members are not on a tenure track: According to the American Association of University Professors, some of the most "teaching-intensive" professorships don’t qualify for tenure tracks. The year 2007 saw at least 70% of higher ed professionals off the tenure track, which they believe might signal its inevitable death knell in the coming years. Unsurprisingly, such a trend raises numerous questions and issues regarding quality and motivation. AAUP itself wonders if the "rigorous peer scrutiny of the tenure system" helps maintain quality and influence. Even non-tenured or tenure-track professors could still benefit from being held to the exact same standards.