WARNING: Serious teacher post ahead.
There's been a lot of talk lately about reforming (or even getting rid of) tenure in the public school system. Critics say it makes it virtually impossible for districts to fire bad teachers. Another argument is that it grants teachers more job protection than anyone else in our economy. Less talked about are the related issues of LIFO* (last in, first out) and basing teachers' salaries on their years of service. In Michigan, and in many other places across the nation, all of these under attack.
I'm not going to trot out all the usual defenses of these practices. What I will do is offer a glimpse of what would happen if they disappeared.
What critics will say is that teachers should be treated like any other employee. They should be rewarded for good performance and penalized when they're ineffective. No one wants a great teacher laid off just because she's young. Teacher pay should be based on effectiveness, not seniority. These sound like reasonable arguments. But in actual practice, tenure, LIFO, and paying teachers based on years of service provide certainty to districts and consistency to communities.
Changing the current system will lead to unintended consequences. The legislature would essentially be turning every teacher in the state into free agents. Without the job protection tenure affords (granted after four years in Michigan), teachers just starting out their careers (unmarried, mobile, embracing change) could hop from district to district looking for the right fit. Without the incentive of future tenure and the yearly pay raises, there would be no reason to stay, especially for the best teachers.
If you tie teacher pay to effectiveness rather than seniority, there is nothing to keep a great teacher from leaving and looking for a better deal. Most veteran teachers I know don't even consider leaving after seven or eight years because of the hit their salaries would take when they changed districts. And which teachers would be most likely to take advantage of this new freedom? The very best ones. If you're a great teacher, why would you stay in your school if another school is willing to pay you more? And just where do you think our very best teachers would eventually end up? In the poorest districts, where they're needed most but the work would be harder and the pay less? Or in the districts who could pay them the most but probably need them the least?
Tenure, LIFO, and paying teachers based on seniority might be unpalatable, but no one can argue that it doesn't provide districts with a high degree of certainty from year to year. Right now, as districts figure out their budgets, one thing they do not have to worry about is losing half of their veteran teachers to better paying districts. And communities can count on which teachers are going to be there for their kids in the fall.
Personal Aside: I should say that as a male teacher in elementary education, these proposed changes don't terrify me. Quite the opposite. Believe me, I'd like a little more leverage. In the system described above, good teachers would be in very high demand (especially if the state actually started awarding schools for high performance) and the school system would more closely reflect the marketplace in that those teachers in the highest demand would command the highest salaries. There are very few men teaching in today's elementary schools (9 percent of teachers, actually). Given the high number of children being raised without a father at home, I think that might work to my advantage.
Another Criticism of the Criticism: Right now, schools have a much higher incentive to cut costs than they do to provide a great education. If that remains the case, it's hard to see how getting rid of tenure is going to ensure the best teachers remain in the classroom. My suspicion is that without the impediment of tenure, school districts will simply lay off the teachers who cost them the most, regardless of their effectiveness.
*"Last in, first out" is the practice school districts use for laying off teachers. Simply stated, those teachers who were hired most recently get laid off first when cuts to staff are made. Veteran teachers have virtually no fear of losing their job due to staffing cuts.