Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Tenure Trap

We had a contentious Music Boosters meeting last week: the High School Band Director was let go, and the Principal came in to explain his decision.  I’ve been in the Principal’s shoes before – having to explain why a well-liked person was fired.  But I was surprised to learn how much of the Principal’s decision was impacted by the tenure rules he has to follow. 

In California, if a school employee is slotted against a defined position, that person has to be given tenure, or released, at the end of 2 years.  Think about that for a minute.  What do you know about a person after 2 years?  If they are a rock star, you’ve figured that out.  Grant tenure and congratulate yourself on a great hire. If they are a D player, you’ve got that covered too.  But what if they’re in the middle?  They seem ok, but they aren’t lighting the world on fire.  Or they were dealing with personal problems over the last 6 months, so work wasn’t their 100% focus.  Or they look like they are about to turn the corner and grow into the rock star you know they can be.  In the corporate world, we have tools to deal with that situation – the person meets expectations, gets a low salary increase and you focus performance discussions on how to get to the next level of performance.  But in the school system, you don’t have that room.  If you grant tenure, this person cannot be fired except for egregious actions.

After 2 years, the music program was improving, but not as much as the Principal expected.  Students loved the teacher, and parents were fairly happy as well. But there was still room to grow on the overall excellence of the program, and the Director wasn't necessarily "owning" the vision for the department.  So the Principal had to make a call: keep the Director, who is a great person, but hasn’t risen to the level you expect, or say "we can do better" and release the employee?  Make a bet that a B player will grow to be an A, or cut your losses? 

Despite the pressure from students and parents, the Principal made the decision to release the Director. As he said, if he has the slightest doubt on whether or not to give tenure, he’s not going to do it. It’s far better to go through the short term upheaval of recruiting a new A player than get by with a B player for the next 15-20 years. 

I agree with the Principal’s decision – because I think it’s the right principle to establish in this situation.  To me, the idea of making this long-term decision after only 18 months of performance is ludicrous.  Other states grant tenure after 5 years, which gives an employee more room to take risks and grow earlier in their career.  But if we’ve removed the idea of lifetime jobs from other industries, why is it still acceptable in education?  How would you feel about granting tenure in this situation?   Educators, or parents with kids…what do you think? 

[Image from Thinkpublic used under creative commons]

10 comments:

talentedapps said...

I posted my thoughts on this topic here

http://talentedapps.wordpress.com/2009/03/20/involuntary-attrition-of-03-is-not-high-performing/

I am sad to see how a good idea like tenure can go so terribly wrong. Especially in such a critical area as education. I'm at least glad for you that you live in a district where they are willing to make the hard decisions. You can imagine there are a lot of schools that do not.

-Meg

John said...

There are good reasons for tenure in higher education—the far too common cry is that it's about academic freedom, but it's as much about linking you and the institution together. I'm not sure what the reason for tenure in primary and secondary education is, however. Regardless, you're right in that 2 years is far too short a time.

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Anonymous said...

Very interesting post. I think the most important lesson as you outlined at the very end is that the rules that you have to grant tenure at the end of 2 years is crazy.

Anonymous said...

Having been a teacher in Chicago, California and now Florida..most people would not believe how political Principals are and how they play favorites. The Favorites are given classes that have the highest test scores and the best behaved. The teachers who are not Principal's favorites are given behavior problems and low test scores.Most of the problems in schools are not teachers but behavior problems.Some high schools in major cities, require armed police, metal detectors at the door to check for guns and knives. Students in Middle and HighSchools get high in the bathroom, have sex in the bathroom..have little respect for the teacher...try and take away an ipod or iphone in class from a student and you are up for a fight "its my ipod..not yours and you can't take it from me" When we talk about "failing' schools we ignore bad behavior ignored by Admin and disruptive to learning.In my first teaching job at Atgeld Elem in Chicago a K-6 school we has three Pregnancies needed an armed Chgo cop to escort us to our cars 2 at a time only. WAKE UP TO REALITY