The bristly topic of teacher tenure ignited a spirited exchange during the most recent session of the Reclaiming the Promise of Public Education Conversation Series, a monthly panel discussion jointly sponsored by the AFT and the Albert Shanker Institute. "Teacher Tenure: An Outmoded 'Job For Life' or Essential Right to Due Process?" was the topic on the table when some of education's major thought leaders gathered Jan. 12 at AFT headquarters for the discussion, which was streamed to a national audience.
Joining AFT President Randi Weingarten on the panel and weighing in with sharp, provocative and often contrasting views of tenure were Jane Hannaway of Georgetown University's McCourt School of Public Policy; Richard Kahlenberg, senior fellow at the Century Foundation; and Marc Tucker, president and CEO of the National Center on Education and the Economy. The wide-ranging discussion touched on several important aspects of the tenure debate—from the historical pressures that gave rise to teacher tenure and their intersection with national labor laws to what some panelists argued was the need for a discussion of tenure within a broader, more appropriate context of support and improvement.
Predating America's major labor laws, teacher tenure emerged in the Progressive Era as a way to buffer schools from patronage hiring practices, a shield for academic freedom in the classroom, and a defense against race and sex discrimination. The concept today often "elicits such outrage and anger," Kahlenberg observed, because of a general misunderstanding of what tenure is and what it is not. Put simply, tenure "is not a lifetime guaranteed job but provides teachers who have demonstrated competence after a probationary period with due-process rights before being fired."
Among the topics addressed by panelists: Tenure as a recruiting incentive, how the tenure debate is shaped by public perception of teaching and by socioeconomic forces in public education, the connection between sound management practices and tenure, and the ways that supports such as peer review and career ladders factor into the discussion.
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