Richard Greenwald: A Modest Proposal for Teacher Tenure Reform

[Richard Greenwald is a labor historian and social critic. He is currently a professor of history at Drew University. His essays have appeared in In These Times, The Progressive, The Wall Street Journal among others. He is currently writing a book on the rise of freelancing and is co-editing a book on the future of work for The New Press, which features essays from the county's leading labor scholars and public intellectuals.]

Teachers today feel ever more under the gun, as state fiscal crises and resentment of public servants dominate the debate over educational reform. In the world of No Child Left Behind, where “accountability” has become the new rallying cry for reformers, we are witnessing a real moment of crisis for education.

At the center of the storm is a lightning rod: teacher tenure. To critics it represents all that is wrong with the system—protecting ineffective and unprofessional teachers. But tenure was never meant to protect bad teachers and, for the most part, it does not. Rather, tenure was designed to protect professionals from undue political interference in the work of education. It was meant to protect the classroom as a place of inquiry.

Principals, until recently, ruled their schools like czars who could hire and fire at will. The fight for tenure came out of a fight for First Amendment protections, as well as a sense that teachers as professionals deserved some freedom in how they ran their classrooms. Tenure freed teachers from the tyranny of administrators, who were often political appointees or friends of the superintendent....

The current system of K-12 teacher tenure is...politically and professionally unsustainable. So here’s a modest proposal: Retain, but reform, tenure for schoolteachers. Currently, teacher evaluation is a moving and confusing target. Some districts evaluate teachers thoroughly every year, but most do not. Teachers need to be evaluated—education is too important for them not to be. But there must be clear, coherent criteria for that evaluation. And as professionals, teachers must be involved in the evaluation process as partners....

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