Should High School Teachers Get Tenure?
Imagine if you could be fired because your employer doesn’t like your political background. Did you watch the Republican response to the President’s State of the Union address? You’re gone. Do you oppose same-sex marriage? Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.
Many employees face this issue every day. Employment in the United States is at-will, so anyone can be fired as long as the employer doesn’t discriminate on the basis of religion. However, in many states, teachers are protected from this type of employer scrutiny. Why shouldn’t teachers be bound to the same employment laws as the rest of us?
In Los Angeles, nine high school students are posing this question in court. The students are challenging five California statutes which the students believe have a discriminatory impact on them. The students claim that California’s tenure system protects ineffective teachers and that most of those teachers are located in schools which are made up of racial minorities.
Three of the statutes are procedural laws which requires years of documentation just to fire a teacher. The fourth statute requires schools to grant or deny tenure to teachers after only 18 months of work. The fifth statute is California’s “last in, first out” statute. This type of law requires schools to let go of junior teachers before senior members of the staff. Teacher unions, the state Department of Education, and Governor Brown are defending the laws. They claim that removing the tenure laws would lower moral, violate the teachers’ due process, and unfairly discriminate against older teachers.
It is somewhat unreasonable to complain that older teachers might be discriminated against if the tenure laws were removed. Although age discrimination has been defined as discrimination against people who are 40 or over, the reality is that “last in, first out” laws often discriminates against young teachers. That is equally unjust, but it also makes little sense to defend older teachers over younger teachers. Younger teachers are more likely to have relevant job or college experience which they can pass on to their students. Students can also relate to younger teachers more easily. Granted, not all younger teachers are better than older teachers. In any case, shouldn’t merit decide who stays and who leaves?
Of course, that question is partly the reason tenure was given to teachers in the first place. Who decides what merit is? Students can’t be trusted because they’d be biased and short-sighted, as would their parents. Teachers in Kansas face intense pressure about teaching evolution in science classes. Some parents freak when Harry Potter or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are on the summer reading list. There are also parents who seem to care more about their child’s football games than their child’s math scores.
Although students and parents might want to remove teachers who present controversial materials, those are the teachers society should keep. When students are presented with material that they aren’t exposed to at home, they will learn critical thinking skills that Americans need to succeed in a global economy. A high school graduate should be able to accurately explain how evolution works and what questions the theory of evolution answers or doesn’t answer, regardless of the student’s or the parents’ own beliefs about the subject.
However, promoting critical thinking does not directly tie into tenure. If the state wanted to protect teachers from political pressure, the state could easily make a statute doing so. Even if anti-discrimination laws didn’t exist when tenure was first created for university professors in 1990, they exist today for race, religion, and gender. It would not be difficult to extend such protection to political expression. Instead, California and other states keep an outdated system which protects teachers more than it helps students.