Earlier this week, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, announced his plan to change teacher tenure for public school teachers in New York City. He made the announcement as part of the Education Nation summit organized and broadcast by NBC to promote education reform efforts by local and national political and corporate leaders. In his speech, the Mayor revealed serious misgivings about the origins and purpose of tenure.
Tenure, as applies to New York public school teachers simply means that as part of a termination, a hearing will take place. Tenure does not mean “a job for life,” whether in literal or practical terms. A teacher can, at any point, be terminated for cause.
The Necessity of Tenure
The very first U.S. public school teacher tenure law enacted in the New Jersey. The intent of the law is to prevent the capricious and nefarious termination of undeserving teachers on the basis of nepotism, political favoritism, and otherwise arbitrary dismissals. (Citron 1985). While the tenure law removes discriminatory and subjective terminations as an option, there is still a bevy of grounds available to a principal or superintendent seeking to remove a teacher that is not fit for their position. The grounds listed below are those outlined in the NYS Education Law § 3012:
- Conduct unbecoming a teacher
- Physical or mental disability
- Neglect of duty
- Failure to maintain certification
- Immoral character
The argument against tenure is that it allows for the perpetual employment of ineffective and incompetent teachers. However, under the current law, those grounds are exactly that which would constitute just cause in the termination of a teacher. All a superintendent would have to do to effectuate the termination is prove the allegations.
The anti-tenure argument then becomes that the hearings required to prove the allegations are lengthy and costly. Public school teachers are not to blame for this bureaucracy and inefficiency. It seems scarcely just that they, as a profession, should be forced to relinquish rights for circumstances beyond their control.
How Tenure is Earned
The granting of tenure requires that a teacher hold a valid teaching certificate. Acquiring a valid teaching certificate usually requires thirty or more credits in one’s subject area at the undergraduate level, a master’s degree in education which provides a specific amount of credit hours in both the subject area and instructional methods. Then there are other requirements such as a background check, successful completion of three or more required examinations, and child abuse prevention workshops. These requirements are only for an initial teaching certificate. The initial certificate expires after a couple of years and before a teacher has taught the three years required before they are eligible for tenure, they must complete even more training to obtain a professional certificate.
As described by the 2010 UFT New Teacher Handbook:
the process for determining whether or not you will get tenure is rigorous, and tenure is not automatic at the end of the probationary period. You must: Complete all your state certification and city licensing requirements, file an application and receive professional certification. Have a record of satisfactory service during your probationary period. Be recommended for tenure by your principal.
Bloomberg on Tenure
On Tuesday’s episode of Brian Lehrer on WNYC, Michael Mulgrew, the president of the UFT suggested that Bloomberg may be understating his contribution to the “rubber stamp tenure” status quo to which he is so vehemently opposed. Bloomberg has had control over the New York City school system for approximately a decade, but seems to have chosen now as the time to address teacher tenure. Further, his attacks on tenure advocate changes to the system which are not changes at all as there are mechanisms to prevent the harms he insists need to be avoided. Specifically, those are that only good teachers receive tenure and that teachers should not be guaranteed a job for life.
I look forward to hearing from Mayor Bloomberg a specific actionable plan for how tenure can actually be changed. And because we must pander to the whims of education reformers by allowing them the benefit of backwards induction, I would further challenge the Mayor to produce evidence of correlation between any proposed real changes to the current tenure system to actual benefits to students and student learning. Without such hard evidence Bloomberg’s position appears irrational and raises questions about his credibility and ability to lead.