Ending the Myth That Tenure Protects Bad Teachers

by Christopher Paslay

High teacher attrition rates show that tenure is not preventing the bad apples from being weeded out.        

There’s a very real belief in the United States that tenure and collective bargaining are keeping large numbers of burned-out, incompetent teachers in classrooms where they rob students of their right to learn.  The Philadelphia Inquirer’s editorial “Firing bad teachers” is a case in point:

“One way to improve public education is to speed up the process to remove bad teachers from the classroom.

Unfortunately, getting rid of bad apples has become nearly impossible under union tenure rules that were crafted to protect teachers’ rights but too often deny children a decent education.

The antiquated system fails to hold teachers with a bad performance record accountable. They should not be allowed to wear tenure like a badge of honor that entitles them to a lifetime appointment in the classroom.”

Does tenure provide lousy teachers with a lifetime appointment in the classroom? 


The truth is that it’s extremely difficult for an incompetent teacher to remain in the classroom for an extended period of time in the 21st century.  The idea that American public schools are housing a significant population of burned-out educators milking the system just isn’t true. 

A closer look at teacher attrition rates—as well as the profiles of America’s teachers—yields interesting results.  Here are some statistics from the 2007 policy brief “The High Cost of Teacher Turnover” and the report “Profiles of Teachers in the U.S. 2011”:

  • Teacher turnover is costing America $7.3 billion annually
  • 17% of all of public school teachers quit every year
  • 20 percent of urban teachers quit yearly
  • Over half of America’s new teachers (56%) quit within five years
  • In Philadelphia from 1999 to 2005, the teacher turnover rate (70%) was higher than the student dropout rate (42%)
  • In 2011, over a quarter of America’s public school teachers (26%) had five years experience or less 
  • 21% of America’s public school teachers are 29 years old or younger

Teacher attrition is similar when it comes to alternative certification programs and charter schools.  Over 50% of Teach for America educators leave their assignments after two years.  A study tracking teachers working for KIPP schools (Knowledge is Power Program) in the Bay Area revealed annual turnover rates which ranged from 18 percent to 49 percent from 2003-04 to 2007-08.      

The truth is, despite teacher tenure and collective bargaining by unions, public schools are not overpopulated with long term educational louses hiding in the cracks.  In fact, the notion that tenure creates a lifetime appointment for teacher incompetence is greatly exaggerated.            

America’s public school system is self-regulating.  In other words, incompetent teachers don’t last very long, as the above data shows.  The biggest factor driving bad teachers from the classroom are the kids themselves.  If teachers can’t connect with their students, if they argue, butt heads, and create a toxic learning environment, the odds are they won’t survive.  It’s too draining a situation—physically, mentally, and emotionally. 

The same is true for parents and school administrators.  Incompetent teachers are in constant disharmony with the mothers and fathers of their pupils and spend the majority of their energy battling principals.  Couple this with more rigorous classroom observations and school overhauls at the hands of No Child Left Behind, and most so-called “lousy” teachers are at the breaking point; it is all but impossible for them to hang on to their jobs for “life”.     

Bad teachers do exist, of course, but in no greater quantity than in any other profession.  You can argue test scores prove the existence of bad teachers—that an unacceptable percentage of students aren’t reading or doing math at grade-level—but does this prove teachers are lousy or incompetent?  Does the fact that homicide rates in big cities are unacceptable prove our police force is rife with deadwood?  Is our country’s unacceptable obesity rate an indictment of American nutritionists?   

Interestingly, school teachers and their unions remain society’s whipping boy.  Dom Giordano’s recent commentary, “To help Philadelphia students learn better, let’s start grading teachers,” is a prime example:     

“Unfortunately, that is why you have schools in which an all-star teacher is helping children learn and excel; next door, an incompetent teacher is protected by collective bargaining and is allowed to give kids an inferior education. We are told by their union that no difference exists. Tell that to the parents of kids stuck with the inferior teachers.”

Incompetent teacher right next door, protected by union tenure?  Sounds like someone needs to call the cliché police on Mr. Giordano, and quick.  The chances are the teacher in Giordano’s example doesn’t even exist, and if he does, the odds are that he’ll eventually be run out of his classroom by displeased parents, an angry principal, or the draining effects of disruptive students.    

Scrapping tenure isn’t going to improve the quality of America’s teachers, although it may do irreparable harm to our nation’s best educators.  Collective bargaining is simply no match for the Darwinian principle of Natural Selection.

1 thought on “Ending the Myth That Tenure Protects Bad Teachers

  1. I disagree with the assumption that the lousy teachers are the ones that are “burned-out.” In my experience, the lousy teachers (the ones who throw worksheets at kids everyday and don’t encourage any higher order thinking) are the ones leading the least stressful existences. It is in fact just the opposite – the teachers who pour their heart and soul into this profession every day, constantly networking with other educators, seeking out new instructional methods, challenging their students to think critically, are often the ones most burned-out. This is why new teachers leave the profession; nothing can prepare you for the reality of the classroom. You are assuming that all or most of the teachers who “quit” are lousy, when that is in fact not the case. Your thoughts on why teachers leave – the reason being the kids themselves – also assumes that the teacher is the problem, when in many cases, the kids (maybe their parents?) are the problem. No teacher can go home at night with their students, make them open their books, give them intrinsic motivation and a desire to succeed in life. We have them 45 minutes a day in the classroom. We can jump through hoops, but if they are still reluctant, despite our very best efforts, and receive no support from home, what can we do? In an age where parents have 24 hour a day access to their kids’ progress, what is stopping parents from being accountable for their children’s behavior and academic performance? I would add, what defines an “effective” teacher? How can we even say that we have these teachers in the classroom today with the evaluation system as broken as it is? There is nothing stopping the type of teacher that I mention above from robbing their students of the opportunity to learn. As long as they can put on a show for a few (sometimes announced) observations a year, they can keep their job. “Hey kids, do this ‘exit ticket’ tomorrow when I’m being observed and I promise you’ll never see one again.” No lie, it happened. I would encourage you to read this article on teacher burn-out; it may provide a different insight as to what burn-out truly is, not what we have traditionally thought it was (let’s face it, how difficult is it to get tenure, then float your way to a pension on a sea of worksheets and 10-year old PowerPoints?).

    Here is a good excerpt from the article:
    “Teachers often blame themselves for problematic student behavior, failure to “cover” every standard, and not differentiating instruction to suit the needs of each student. Know that you are not alone, but part of a growing majority of educators questioning their abilities to continue teaching. You are teaching at a time when it takes profound commitment and creativity to meet expectations. There is pressure to teach excessive quantities of information and differentiate instruction to meet the needs of all students — yet the supporting resources needed are dwindling.
    Burnout feelings are not a reflection of your teaching skills. Teachers who question their ability to do their jobs properly are often among those who hold themselves to the highest standards. They also put in the greatest effort. When they must deal with external forces — beyond their control — that limit their ability to attain their goals, self-doubt builds, confidence drops and burnout sets in. “


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