Teacher tenure only helps the bad ones

April 25, 2003|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO - A little insecurity is a potent motivator. We elect our representatives to Congress every two years so they'll stay perpetually focused on earning and keeping our allegiance. If members were elected for life, they might perform their tasks a bit less conscientiously.

We all understand that simple fact of life, but we don't apply it to a job even more important than passing laws: educating children. Public schoolteachers virtually everywhere enjoy tenure, a luxury available to almost nobody else in our economic system. So it shouldn't be surprising that if you want to find the most productive, efficient and accountable institutions in America, public schools would be one of the last places you would look.

In Illinois, though, the General Assembly is moving to take an unhealthy custom and expand it. A bill passed by the state Senate would make tenure available to elementary and secondary school teachers in all districts but Chicago after three years of teaching - instead of the current four. Any 25-year-old who can perform adequately in the classroom for that brief period would essentially be assured a job for life. Maybe we should be grateful: The Illinois Education Association originally hoped to cut the qualifying period to a mere two years.

The union says the change is necessary because some districts make a practice of firing teachers just before they qualify for tenure. But if principals and superintendents are determined to get rid of non-tenured teachers, this measure won't stop them. It will only induce them to do it after the second year of service instead of the third - and to resolve close calls by dismissal.

Administrators facing the choice of whether to keep a young teacher don't have the luxury of asking: Is he doing his job well? They have to ask: Will he do his job well 10 years from now? Twenty years from now? Thirty? A bad guess is a mistake they - and students - will suffer with for a long time.

For schools, tenure makes hiring akin to marriage in the days before no-fault divorce - easy to get into and hard to get out of. For teachers, by contrast, the arrangement is more like dating. Anytime they aren't happy with the relationship, they can skip out and find a new one.

As George Orwell said of saints, tenure should be presumed guilty until proved innocent. If it were such a useful policy, after all, it would be the norm, not the exception. Corporate managers, retail clerks, car salesmen, nannies, electricians, secretaries and journalists would all operate on the assumption that once they're hired, they are virtually exempt from firing. That would work just fine, if you think the Soviet economy worked fine.

"Tenure protects you not only if you're doing a good job but if you're doing a bad job," says Harvard economist Carolyn Hoxby, who specializes in education. Rewarding people who do poor work is a foolproof way to get more of it.

In higher education, tenure is regarded as a bulwark of academic freedom - allowing bold scholars to do their work without fear that they'll be punished for politically unpopular findings. That justification doesn't have much relevance in a third-grade classroom or a high school science lab, where the focus is on basic instruction, not trailblazing research and provocative theories.

But it's worth noting that in a college setting, tenure typically takes anywhere from six to 12 years to acquire - giving school officials ample time to evaluate what they're getting. Even in a university, attaining ironclad job security has been known to sap the ambition and drive of many a promising scholar.

Who benefits from tenure? Not good teachers. They can always find work, a circumstance especially true today. Thanks to growing enrollment and efforts to reduce class size, the demand for qualified instructors is strong. Over the last decade, teacher employment has expanded by more than 20 percent.

It's the bad teachers who get the most from job protections, since they're the ones most likely to be targeted for dismissal and the least likely to be able to sell their services on the open market. Thanks to tenure, though, they can keep drawing a paycheck even if they couldn't teach a bloodhound to slobber. The result is to put a burden on children - and on good teachers, who have to try to undo the damage done by lazy or incompetent colleagues.

The proper determinant of whether a teacher keeps her job should be a simple one: Are his or her students learning? Instead, the question is largely irrelevant in today's public schools. For that, we can thank tenure.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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