by Gary Beach

Do You Have Tenure?

Dec 16, 2009

Tenure is dangerous for America's competitiveness

Do you have tenure at your job? I don’t.

Most workers in most businesses and professions don’t either.

Except teachers.

The principal of tenure was founded in the 19th century as protection for university professors against donors and boards of trustees who might fire them for saying something controversial (usually religious in nature) in the classroom.

Fast forward to the 21st century and it is a concept used in America’s K-12 classrooms to give teachers – both good and bad – tenure for life, usually after three years on the job. Good work, if you can get it!

In this blog post I would like to lay out my rationale as to why tenure presents a huge problem for America’s continued global leadership in science, technology, engineering and math.

There are about 3.5 million K-12 teachers in America.Each year 19% of first year teachers leave the profession and 46% of new recruits leave within five years of their hire date. I have talked to lots of people on this topic and sadly the ones leaving are not the rotten apples so to speak but competent, smart, enthusiastic teachers who just can not operate within an educational system suited better for the 19th century than the 21st.

Am I saying there aren’t competent, smart and enthusiastic teachers staying on the job? Absolutely not. But I ask you this question: could your company compete effectively losing 20% of your first year hires and nearly 50% of those hires within five years?

Probably not.

For continued American prominence in science, technology, engineering and math we need to get the best and brightest middle school math and science teachers in our classrooms. We need to pay them dramatically more money and NOT offer them tenure.

Fantasy? Not really.

Michelle Rhee, the high profile superintendent of the Washington, DC school system is negotiating with DC’s school union chief to abolish tenure and raise teacher salaries by as much as 40%. According to Mr.Rhee, “tenure is the holy grail of teacher unions but it has no education value for kids….it only benefits adults (teachers).” She sees tenure as a great job perk for adults who go into teaching to get long summer vacations, pensions and lifetime health insurance. 

Getting back to middle school math/science teachers…. I would argue for a minimum starting salary for a middle school math/science teacher be in the range of $50,000 which is high enough to attract – and keep- smart science and math undergraduates to the teaching profession.

On the other end of the spectrum,America must reach  out to employed/unemployed 45+ year olds with undergraduate science,technology, engineering and math degrees and decades of experience in the workforce, and create a national program to recruit these professionals to second careers teaching math and science to our nation’s middle schoolers.

America should also form a  Peace Corps type organization….let’s call it for this blog the United States Science/Math Advisory Corps….that reached out to currently employed workers in the 25-35 year old bracket who would act as science and math “consultants” to our nation’s 13,000+ school districts. Possibly this could be an extension of the Teach For America organization.

26 years of  talk about STEM education reform is enough (read the report “A Nation at Risk” written in 1983). 

We need action and we need it now.

In my opinion America’s future competitiveness rests squarely on our nation’s ability to recruit the best math and science teachers into our nation’s middle school classrooms.

We need to pay these teachers more money.

And, we need to abolish the “right” of tenure right now.

What’s your thoughts?

Gary Beach,Publisher Emeritus, CIO Magazine