Tenure Survey

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I received an e-mail from a teacher at an independent school in New York today who is preparing to give a presentation at the National Association of Independent School’s People of Color Conference later this year. Her topic: tenure, due process, and the solidarity of faculty. I was asked to complete a survey about my current position and about my current school. For those of you who do not know me, I have not disguised the fact that I favor a system of tenure or at least granting an extended contract period for faculty and staff.

In 2004 while living in Little Rock, I was asked to give a presentation in Houston at a Teachers of Color Conference. I had already been doing similar research on race and curriculum as part of a grant with the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Moreover, it was my UALR work that got me interested in faculty members of color and independent schools. As I told the participants in Houston, the average time spent at one independent school by elite teachers of color was only four years. According to an earlier survey the reason for this was desirability. People of color often cited the number of offers presented to them by other schools. Furthermore, according to a survey I conducted four years ago, many teachers of color described themselves as being liberal to very liberal. This ideological description was true for those working in what they described as a threatening working environment. In a recent article published in Education Next, blacks — who tend to be very liberal, gays, Jews, and women stated that tenure is a major concern. University faculty members fear the difficulty of earning tenure because those who make tenure decisions are either white males, or white Protestant males. Thus such a group looks to protect its old boy network. Minority groups teaching in independent schools outside of the New England states also expressed the same concerns. Blacks and Jews tend to be among the most liberal faculty members, which means that the tenure/due process survey I received today comes as no surprise to me.

Tenure is one of the most complex processes in the dynamic relationship between management and labor. For the most part, here is how it works: If one teaches at a college or university, he or she is expected to have positive teaching evaluations and to have made a significant contribution in publishing (book, journals, etc.), and to have presented various ideas, concepts, and papers at conferences. Once an individual has done this for a period of 5 – 7 years, he or she comes up for tenure review. If rejected tenure, it is expected that the tenure candidate will leave the university before the start of the new academic year. However, to be granted tenure is the ultimate prize at any level. It means that one is free to be creative intellectually without fear of being punished for not espousing the same ideological views as his/her employer. Colleges and universities without a tenure process have been viewed as a second tier institution by many academics.

As for tenure at independent (private) schools, the process is not as clear nor is it as universal. Some national elite schools follow a similar system to that of universities. Faculty members are expected to have received positive teaching evaluations, made a contribution in terms of athletics and/or other types of extracurricular activities, as well as demonstrate a record of academic contributions, be it taking additional graduate school courses, attend various conferences as a participant or presenter, draft a few papers for a conference, and/or serve on various committees. My current school operates on a year-by-year contract system, thus my job security and the security of my colleagues will not be known until early March. I know of another teacher (not at HCHS) who was dismissed because the school needed to hire a teacher who could also coach football; I wonder where this school’s priorities are. Tenure would have protected this person, seeing that he was at school X for 7 or 8 years.

The greatest benefit of having tenure is that it protects one’s political and intellectual freedom. The process is designed to encourage teachers to challenge students’ intellectual prowess via tough issues and questions without fear of being terminated. This model is very different from that of most jobs. But, with that in mind, jobs outside of academic circles are designed to generate profits; and, although schools are designed to encourage discourse, they too can be motivated by economic factors. It is not unusual for lesser-established private schools to be driven by economic forces. For example, it is more important to put bodies in empty chairs than it is to promote discourse of intellectual matters that might not meet the approval of a few of the school’s clientele. At this point, an institution must have confidence in itself as an academic center.

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9 thoughts on “Tenure Survey

  1. What do you think of this from Sam:

    Teacher tenure, aka due-process employment, essentially provides teachers a guarantee that they cannot be fired for no good reason. At its best, this means that biology teachers are protected if they teach evolution, history teachers are protected if they teach about now poorly the U.S. government treated Japanese-Americans during WWII, and teachers in general who have personality conflicts with their administrators cannot be summarily dismissed without cause. At its worst, poor quality teachers who shouldn’t be teaching are permitted to continue because they’re careful not to give administrators cause to be fired.

    We need to figure out a way to keep tenure’s protections for teachers who teach effectively while easing the removal of teachers who simply cannot teach. While I have some specific ideas, I won’t pretend to have a good overall solution. This is a call for a discussion, and with luck we’ll be able to collaborate and develop a good solution to this problem.

    Suggestion #1: We need to develop a good answer to the question “Why should teachers be protected from firing without cause if most private employees don’t get such protections?” If we agree that some form of tenure is valuable, we need to be able to defend both why it’s valuable, and any changes we make to the existing tenure programs.

    Suggestion #2: Develop yearly metrics to track the achievement of students from year to year and then attach that information to the students’ teachers. For example, if a student starts 6th grade at a 4th grade reading level but leaves at 6th grade, he’s gained 2 years in one and that indicates that the English teacher is probably better than a teacher who has a similar student who leaves 6th grade still at a 4th grade reading level. The hard part is developing the metrics, testing them, providing feedback in a timely manner, giving poorly performing teachers time to improve their teaching, and doing all this without spending 3/4s of the year “teaching to the test.”

  2. You know what would be cool? Tenure. But I won’t ever have it as a physician or as a chemist. If the rest of the world doesn’t get it, neither should teachers. Fighting for survival is good for you. It keeps you from complacency. Even in my mediocre part time job I have to do things right and well in order to keep it. The peace of mind one would recieve from tenure, theoretically making it possible to focus more on research only takes things away from students. Leave researching to researchers and teaching to teachers and if you don’t want to teach, then don’t. This is a huge problem with the university system in America. Undergraduate courses are taught by graduate students who are far more concerned about their research and their own classes than they are about teaching. A good researcher and a good teacher are not the kind of person.

  3. “Leave researching to researchers and teaching to teachers and if you don’t want to teach, then don’t.”

    Kristi – I have found in my work place that the best teachers are those who travel, attenend conferences that offer innovation and ideas, as well as those who practice the craft that they are teaching. It is hard to seperate the two. In my world that statemen makes no sense. I have a heavy teaching load, but have found time to engage myself in the things I teach my students. This is the difference I believe from myself or Carson. Elite teachers do more.

  4. “Leave researching to researchers and teaching to teachers and if you don’t want to teach, then don’t.”

    I’m Studying Mathematics and hope to become a mathematics professor. And like most in the University system I’ve had a number of teachers who clearly haven’t a clue how to teach, but are great researchers. That’s true.

    But, the best teachers I’ve had, without exception, were also completely engaged in their field. They do research, goto conferences, and encourage us to do the same.

    Yes, being an undergrad at a big school can suck, because of the lack of professor attention. That’s what small schools are for. But, then, not all grad students are horrible. Some of my best teachers were grad students … they still remember what it’s like to not understand the material!

    I think tenure encourages intellectual involvement in your field. You can be a good researcher without being a good teacher. But, at this level, you can’t be a good teacher without being fully engaged in your field. And that requires research, conferences, papers, etc.

    thanks Carson for the post.

  5. I am with you (saij) and teacherwoman; in order to be good at what you do, one must spend sometime engaging in his/her craft. All of my high school teachers and the majority of the college ones were good. I think it is all about passion for not just teaching and research — but for the subject.

    Math….That is cool!!! I want to hear more about this.

  6. Then shouldn’t this extend to all fields? And shouldn’t we be more concerned about the fact that we don’t have enough teachers in general, much less good ones? And, the best teachers I had were teachers that taught, not teachers that researched. I attended three universities during my undergrad education, (this does not make me stupid, there’s a story there) and the absolute best teachers were at Harding. These people do not do research actively. They teach. They spend their lives teaching and it shows. Teachers that attend conferences and present papers may have more knowledge, but how much does that knowledge matter if they are spending so much time at conferences that they miss out on much (and even such small amounts as a week or two add up during high school and college, particularly in heavy classes) of the time spent in the classroom?

  7. You have a very good point. There must be a healthy balance. For those at the university with a PHD who teach with a research degree but do not utilize the skills gained with such — what is the point? It is not knowledge. How is an HU person’s job different from mine or others at very good independent schools. Balance is good.

  8. We don’t have traditional tenure; however, teachers’ contracts may be terminated if they display incompetence, insubordination, inadequacies in core knowledge/abilities, etc. This is predicated upon the administrators following the due process steps, though, which is where the process breaks down because diligence and careful organization is required.

    An improvement process is provided and those teachers who do not improve can be terminated after the due process steps are followed.

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