On Due Process, Or What You Call Tenure

Jose VilsonResources14 Comments

For the purposes of this essay, I’m using the term “due process” in lieu of tenure because people like Whoopi Goldberg (and millions of others) confuse “tenure” for “job for life.” If that’s what we call “tenure,” then “due process” is more exact. More and more, what it means for K-12 educators and college professors is coming to a confluence.

As far as my contract is concerned, it’s not like, after my third year, I got a job for life. Due process just gives me a better chance at talking back.

Teachers earn (please know this) due process after three years of working and building up a portfolio of pieces that we’ve gathered showing that we have the right to object to our dismissal for frivolous reasons. This carries tons of implications, especially in places where school funding waxes and wanes depending on who the principal, superintendent, mayor, or governor were / are. It means teachers can’t get fired for frivolous reasons, many of which include being pregnant, speaking out of turn, dress code, or different racial make-up than the students they serve, or because the principal just doesn’t like you.

Within reason.

This part especially matters because the reason needs to be clearly stated and reviewers need to do their part, too, if there is a “bad” teacher in our midst. I do agree that we have toxic individuals working in our schools, but rather than blame it on unqualified administrators (which seems to be the crux of almost every argument pro-due process), I’d like to focus on the ones you call “good.” We still haven’t quite pinpointed what “good” and “bad” teachers are, and I know more than a handful of administrators who, even after looking at frameworks and articles collected out of Harvard and Stanford, still can’t actually tell me what a “good” teacher is. So, if good teachers deserve due process and bad ones don’t, then what’s your definition? “You know what I mean” isn’t a good answer in deciding this person’s livelihood, either.

Also, teachers have few incentives professionally to stay in the classroom. People who say “Well, if you don’t want to teach, then leave” as a response to this rarely want to talk about teaching conditions, and why teaching attrition has been horrible. This gets compounded in high-need schools where the hardest working teachers in any building might spend hundreds of dollars and upwards on providing a nurturing environment for their students, something other professions barely do. Many school districts aren’t in the position (and in the business) to re-do their education budgets and get smart about the way they operate.

Due process for educators at least gives teachers who want to stay a stake in the school system they serve. They’ve proven in their work that they can work well as teachers, as curriculum developers, as part of an education community and now deserve to think critically about their work with reasonable impunity. There are hundreds of instances where this is applicable. We all know of principals who form school committees around a specific idea, for example, and tell teachers to be as honest as possible in their findings in said committee. What happens when the teachers in that committee make a conclusion in that committee that the principal doesn’t like?

This situation happens far too often, yet, due process at least assures that, should a principal feel like firing the teacher for having an opposing view (again, happens very frequently), an independent arbitrator can come in and make a conclusion about what actually happened after all the facts have been presented.

We can argue up and down about different cases, and argue over different measures for teacher evaluation (a step in the right direction overall), but the last 12 years of Bloombergian rule have only shown me the bright side of due process. With so many managerial shifts happening above teachers, and students (and their parents) moving up and out of school systems, teachers tend to be the only stability that schools have. That’s important to any community, but especially in communities where instability reigns.

Schools close and open under different names with little to show for it. School chiefs come and go in what seems like rapid succession when sustainability gets thrown around like a bunch of other words that end in “-tion” (thinking: differentiation, etc.). Fads churn out almost as quickly as new teachers do, and so many drop about as quickly, without any sense of whether they worked or not. Due process seems to be the only way for educators to say, “If you can stick with us doing well for three years under this mess, you’ll get a little more voice.”

Obviously, this system, even with a revamped teacher evaluation, well-trained evaluators, and local unions playing ombudsmen, won’t be perfect. Teachers, like students, are variables, and American education is far from standardizing best practices and belief systems on education. Yet, I fear we’ll strip the imperfect in favor of … nothing. We consistently compare teaching to other professions, yet our governments have done next to nothing to make our profession anything comparable or commensurate to anything else, save a few commercials on ESPN.

Without due process, an administrator might look at this and say, “I don’t like what he wrote. He needs to look for another line of work.” Then we wonder why the most thoughtful folks in our field won’t speak to their own profession.


p.s. – See? I didn’t even have to bash anyone to make my point. Boo-yah.

photo c/o

Comments 14

  1. Excellent points, Jose. Due process is really the name of the game. And, let’s remember that in NYS, even after 3 years probation, the school can add a 4th probationary year. By that time the school should have a good idea of whether or not the teacher is one who they want to stay, or if he/she should be counseled out of the profession. (An aside – the last time I looked, the NYS Office of Professions did not list teaching, although it did list cosmetology, I believe)

  2. All good points, and the fact is schools may add even more than one probationary year, and have done so rather cavalierly at so-called failing schools, where no one can be assumed to be competent and everyone may have tenure extended. I know a teacher who was discontinued from the school that hired her largely for the offense of having three extensions.

    It is important that due process and tenure not be separated, because lately I’ve read multiple screeds about how teachers would still have due process if they didn’t have tenure. Another writer criticized something I’d written, claiming we’d all have civil service protections if we didn’t have tenure. The fact that we are not civil service and have no such protections didn’t slow down this writer at all. You see, being reformy means not only never having to say you’re sorry, but also frees you from the troublesome chore of doing any research whatsoever before making pontifications on topics about which you know nothing.

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      Thanks, Arthur. Here’s something that may or may not complicate things. For teachers who came into teaching in the last decade or so, there’s no real difference between tenure and due process. What it might have been or could have been hasn’t really been a factor for those of us who started teaching recently, so, as far as I’m concerned, pseudo-reformers seem to be going for this element of tenure, which, to teachers like me, is tenure.

      Yes, this is an invitation to school us on what tenure is in its totality because, even after reading up, I’m not really seeing the difference.

      1. There really is no difference. And tenure is what allows people like us to speak out. Without it, Gates could just do whatever he wished with no response whatsoever from those of us who actually do this job. All in all, I don’t see how that helps the kids we serve.

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  3. My father was a teacher. When he went from jr. high teacher to principal in the 1960’s, he worked for a school district in West Louisiana that served the Fort Polk area. According to my father, the superintendent there routinely replaced over 50% of the untenured faculty in that high school every year, including an incredibly talented and successful husband and wife tandem, the speech teacher husband and his wife, who, I believe, taught music in both public schools and private lessons. Both were replaced before reaching tenure despite their many successes. This turnover was a constant problem with which he had to deal in administering that high school. Apparently the superintendent used the teacher turnover as one method to maintain his considerable power over the local school system and to pressure teachers, principals, and supervisors in that system to stay in line. Tenure is not simply a way of protecting individual teachers: it is an important mechanism for protecting academic freedom from political influence at all levels. Reform is terribly misguided when it ignores protections for academic freedom. We do not praise democracy because it is the easiest or most “efficient” form of government to administer. We favor it because it guarantees everyone’s rights. Given the recent history of book censoring or attempted censoring in school libraries and individual courses, textbook and curriculum wars on American history (on topics such as multiculturalism, Reconstruction, the Progressive Era, etc) and biology (creationism vs. evolution) to mention only two, and most recently, the attack on the new Common Core history standards, we should be very careful about how much power we put in the hands of educational administrators and politicians, and how much power we take away from teachers.

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      Barry, this is great. Systemically, we need due process as a rebuff because, for lack of a better term, folks can just go all willy-nilly upon on our schools and their reforms without considering the individuals in these schools. Alas.

  4. My cousin’s on served as a Special Ed teacher in Alabama receiving wonderful reviews. But when the school denied him tenure, he saw the writing on the wall. It was being used to get rid of good teachers in order to save on the budget. This way a new teacher at a lower salary can take his place. And in time, no teacher will be able to receive any benefits with this revolving-door system. How can we on one hand talk about teacher retention and on the other play this game? He has decided to leave the profession he dearly loves.

    Now to step on your b00-yah parade. I have never seen teachers happy to have an ineffective teacher at their school. Yet every year they wonder why the principal doesn’t take action? Principals claim it’s the “paperwork”. Hmmm compared to the paperwork teachers are responsible for each and every day???? It is very difficult for good teachers to close their classroom doors and ignore this. It kills morale as well. This is why I wish RTTT would stop tying funding and evaluations to test scores and look at PAR (Peer Assistance Review), Montgomery County, Md. is the only district that uses PAR only because they turned down RTTT funding. Due process is still in place, and it gives teachers ownership of their school since they are part of the process. Teachers still have the right to a hearing. The outcome is that many teachers leave on their own accord, others are fired, and others receive an additional year of mentoring and usually improve. Test scores are not a factor (hence why they were not allowed to receive RTTT funding). Student progress –meaning real student progress is the main factor. If we had PAR here in NYC, then teachers like this would want to stay in the system…..http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/07/education/07winerip.html?pagewanted=all
    You can also read Michael Winerip’s articles on PAR.

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      Chances are, I’ve probably already read the Winerip stuff. Actually, most of this (and more) is usually rehashed every year, which is why I wanted to take another angle to this tenure discussion. As well-intentioned as many of our arguments are, the general public has been so duped that, when we mention administrators as the faulty ones, it often becomes “Well, you’re passing the blame there.”

      Instead, the focus ought to be, as your first paragraph did so eloquently, to show why it matters for teachers on the ground level. That’s a great lede, really.

  5. After reading Frank Bruni’s misleading article earlier this week, I left a comment that is embedded in this post: http://waynegersen.com/2014/08/19/there-is-no-tenure/
    As one who served as a HS administrator for 6 years and a superintendent for 29 I can attest to the fact that it is difficult to remove a poor performing teacher… but that difficulty is more than offset by the fact that due process shields excellent teachers from undue local political pressure. And to temper Schoolgal’s comments, in the great majority of cases where it was necessary for a principal to document for dismissal, in virtually all cases I found the union leadership supportive so long as we followed the mutually agreed upon guidelines set forth in the contract. Neither the rank-and-file teachers or the most effective teachers accept or tolerate bad teaching practices.

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