Some costs of teacher tenure

Citing a study by Stanford University researcher Eric Hanushek, Howard notes that bad teachers have a much greater negative effect on student performance than good teachers have a positive effect. Based on student-performance data, Hanushek’s study concluded that dismissing the worst 8 percent of American public school teachers would put American students on par with those of Finland, which has the highest-scoring students in the world. Yet it’s nearly impossible to fire tenured teachers. In Los Angeles, an effort to fire just seven notoriously bad instructors cost the city $3.5 million, and only got rid of four of the teachers.

Jonathan Leaf, City Journal, reviewing Philip K. Howard’s new book Try Common Sense: Replacing the Failed Ideologies of Right and Left.


  • Why would one even give tenure to K-12 teachers? They typically are rote teaching well-established subjects. If they wander into controversial subjects, it’s usually because they are taking it upon themselves to proselytize or propagandize their captive students. Pre-collegiate study is hardly a place where we want to encourage the teaching of subjects that would cause a teacher to be fired. What is so controversial about calculus, english composition, physics, writing, history that it would risk an individual teacher’s career? Aren’t the depth and breadth of what is to be taught pre-planned and approved by school boards? Aren’t there standardized exams designed to insure the correct material is being taught? These are typically unionized jobs anyway, and so they have seniority to protect them.

    Tenure makes sense in a university setting, where supposedly cutting edge research and studies are pushing the envelope of various areas, and so more academic controversy and disagreement is likely to occur.

    K-12 aren’t meant for free expression; they’re training schools intended to socialize children into “proper” behavior for civilization. It’s meant to educate them just enough to be good useful taxpayers, and no further. That may not be a favored way to express it, but we all know that it’s true.

    • Why would one even give tenure to K-12 teachers?

      Teachers’ unions. They’re powerful and unavoidable, at least on the public school side.

    • In theory, tenure could be worthwhile for K-12 teachers speaking up against corruption and waste in the school administration. But has that ever happened? And perhaps such whistleblowers could be protected by the same sort of (more narrowly tailored) whistleblower laws as other public employees.

  • ruralcouncil,

    Well said.

    From a high school teacher who doesn’t need tenure to keep his job.

  • “Why would one even give tenure to K-12 teachers?”

    I suspect that the original reason was to prevent the school board/administration from firing competent teachers and replacing them with their friends/relatives/political supporters…patronage, in a word. The same reason we have a Civil Service system in government.
    Should the same rationale apply now that teachers belong to a politically strong union?

    Probably not.

  • Regardless of the need for tenure…

    Why do we blame the rules for difficulties getting rid of bad tenured teachers? Why don’t we blame management for giving tenure to unqualified teachers?

    • Why don’t we blame management for giving tenure to unqualified teachers?

      I could be wrong, but given that teachers’ unions are pervasive and strong, my guess is that much of the public school “tenure” process is based on seniority, rather than competence.

    • Why blame Management for inflicting upon them a decision made by Politicians? Politicians who, more often than not, were heavily supported while campaigning with funds from those same Teacher’s Unions…

      Yes, they might be at the level termed “management” in an actual business, but they don’t have any actual say over Union work rules. Thus, “Administrators” is the more apt term.

    • Sometimes, perhaps not infrequently, the problem is that teachers who were competent when they started out have burned out.

  • What I don’t understand is the willingness of unions to champion the most despicable of members.
    Most union members, if wired like everyone else, thinks of themselves as above average. And surely more than 99% think of themselves as not being among the bottom 1%.

    So why would unions go to the mat to protect the dreadful members that only drag them all down. At least appear willing to throw a few union members under the bus. At least appear to police your own, by offering up for firing the worst of the worst.
    But unions will never, ever, admit that any single member has failed to live up to standards, which means that the union has no standards.

    • I think you’ve missed one of the more dramatic effects of unionization.

      The use of seniority (rather than merit) to define pay and workload produces a playing field where the goal is not to excel, but to simply survive. The winners are those who do the least without being fired. As a result, while they all may be convinced that they are part of the “good” 99%, in their subconscious minds they know they have fallen into the same trap as all the others. If anyone can be fired for sub-par performance, so can they all. This is what drives the protectionism of the worst few.

      I’ve witnessed this first hand, where many an idealist are suddenly confronted with the reality of a union environment. Once they see how longevity is rewarded and hard work scorned, they quickly fall into place. It is truly disheartening to see.