NYT Op-Ed Misses the Point on Teacher Tenure Debate

NYT Op-Ed Misses the Point on Teacher Tenure Debate

This op-ed by UC Berkeley Associate Professor Jesse Rothstein builds its argument around a single bad assumption, namely, that job SECURITY is what attracts the best candidates to a profession. Specifically, he claims, “One of the few things that helps recruit good people into teaching is job security.”

Really? Job security? Because when I look around at professions that consistently show a pipeline of highly qualified candidates vying for new positions, I rarely see job security, or at least institutionalized job security in the form of tenure, as the primary characteristic of that profession. Great candidates don’t want job security. They want CAREER security, meaning that they know if they enter a given profession they will be able to excel and thrive in that profession, no matter if a given job comes or goes.

I have a friend who is a top partner at a global law firm. Every year he has a huge pipeline of excellent candidates for associate positions at that firm. Which don’t guarantee anyone a job for one day beyond the point at which they are useful to the firm. In fact, my friend, who is a big rainmaker for that firm, knows that he too will be shown the door if he ceases to be one. And, yet, there’s an endless line of people wanting to get in because this job offers them a great opportunity to distinguish themselves and a stepping stone to other great things.

Really, look around at highly attractive jobs and very few of them offer anything resembling tenure. Doctors don’t have tenure. Software developers don’t have tenure. Investment bankers don’t have tenure. The President of the United States doesn’t have tenure. Yet all those professions have plenty of qualified people working in them.

People are drawn to careers for the opportunity to do good. For the opportunity to make a good living. For the opportunity to be recognized for their personal achievements. For the ability, in many cases, to do BETTER than other people in the same career. For the chance to keep learning throughout a lifetime. And for the knowledge that a given job can fall out from under them and, yet, they’ll still have plenty of new opportunity.

I’ll argue that tenure has the opposite effect of what Rothstein says. The tradeoff of this so-called security is that teaching wages are kept artificially low, that great teachers are rewarded the same as bad teachers, and that, as I stated two days ago, bad teachers are shuffled off to failing schools, thereby making things worse. Why is so much energy being devoted to protecting the mediocre and obsolete in teaching where there are so many brilliant educators out there? Nobody deserves a job for life just for showing up.

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