Tenure and Union Contracts Are Two Separate Issues

One of many teachers to speak during NBC's "Teacher Town Hall" on Sunday was this young woman, featured again on Monday's NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams:

While I don't know all the details of her particular situation or what it's like at her school, her first words concern me: "I think we don't understand tenure." She then goes on with a passionate speech about how the union contract at her school interferes with her ability to deliver the kind of education she'd like to see her students get. I'm worried that she's failed to distinguish between union contracts and tenure, and it's clear from our current national discourse that she isn't the only one.

Union contracts, sometimes called professional agreements or master agreements, define fundamental working conditions between the school board (or administration) and the teachers, including contract hours, sick days, early retirement, grievance procedures, and many other practical, often common-sense things that are found in many employer-employee relationships. These are generally negotiated at a district level and quality varies. And, as with anything territorial, these negotiations can become very politicized and what started as common sense gets twisted into spiteful actions and reactions. If this teacher works in a district that prevents her from volunteering her non-contract time to help kids who want to be helped, then there is something wrong with both her district's union contract and how it's enforced. She has every right to be upset.

Tenure is something quite different. Tenure is usually defined by state lawmakers, and to avoid the "job for life" misconception many states don't actually use the word "tenure." Colorado, for example, uses "non-probationary teacher." After teaching successfully for several years (usually 3), as shown by regular and multiple administrative evaluations, a teacher earns due process rights. While I am not a lawyer, my understanding of due process is this: a teacher with "tenure," when faced with dismissal from his/her job, has the right to be heard in front of a neutral judge. Unfortunately, given the high stakes of such decisions (for both sides) and the inefficiencies of the legal system, such proceedings are contentious, taxing, and expensive. Tenure protections were designed to protect teachers from the whims of political pressures, not poor performance. But in today's heated climate, however, poor teacher performance couldn't be much more political. Few would disagree that reforms are needed, but the rights of due process are not easily negotiated or redefined.

In some ways I'm happy that this teacher doesn't think she needs tenure. Maybe we finally live in a world where parents and administrators are more supportive when their teachers try innovative teaching practices. Maybe teachers are free to assign grades to students without outside influence. Maybe communities are more tolerant of teachers who affiliate with a religion, political party, or sexual orientation that differs from their own. Maybe teachers, such as the one in the video, can now be outspoken without risking their jobs. But let's get serious -- this is not the world in which we live and the teacher in the video, whether she thinks she needs them or not, is a noble professional who deserves some protection against these kinds of pressures. I want her to be able to argue for what's best for her students and not fear for her career because her sentiments might be unpopular, whether it's with her administration or union officials. Again, this is not about her performance. The protection from pressures I've described above should and can be dealt with separately from concerns of poor performance.

I admire the spirit of the young woman in the video and hope she sees the differences between her union contract and tenure. I also hope she is admired for speaking out and is received in her school with understanding and respect. I also hope she and others learn to calm the discourse, understand the critical distinctions in these important issues, and work to do not only what's best for children, but what's right for their teachers as well. Reforms done "with" are destined to be more successful than reforms done "to," and that kind of cooperation is going to take a refined level of debate.