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.