Alternatives to Teacher Tenure 

Alternatives to Teacher Tenure – What Will Work?

Summary: A professional educational system should strongly promote program improvement and teacher accountability. The current tenure-based system is not a good model. Merit or performance pay is not a good alternative. The best option is a renewable contract system.

 If we want to develop innovative teaching and learning practices for a 21st century world, we need to devise an alternative to the tenure-based system. Critics of tenure are right – for the most part, it does not support educational productivity and improved teaching and learning over time! I saw this first hand as a college professor. Many older faculty members just weren’t productive in a tenure track system. Their tenured status provided few if any incentives for improvement. They came and taught their classes, but did little else – little or no publishing and writing, and little or no participation in helping to deal with the issues that our college faced. When a budget crisis hit our college, it was the younger faculty – the most productive -- who got layoff notices, not the senior staff, many of whom were the least productive.

 Like the higher education tenure system, tenure at the K-12 level provides few if any incentives for long time educators to improve their teaching or participate in activities to solve school-wide and classroom challenges. While some teachers, who have the will and motivation, work hard to continuously improve their teaching, too many teachers see nothing to gain from putting in the extra time, energy and effort it takes to improve teaching and adapt their educational approaches to a new educational era.  There are few incentives for educators to attend or become engaged in any but the minimal professional development activities. Early in their career, teachers are generally encouraged with pay incentives to get college credits and master’s degrees: unfortunately, many of the programs, courses and credits they take have little impact on their teaching skills or on student learning.

 Many states also have a minimum number of required hours for professional development, to be completed within a stipulated number of years,  that are easily met with in-service programs or college level courses. There is usually little accountability for how the programs or courses affect teaching and learning. Many of the most potentially profitable experiences, such as lesson study and curriculum work, are not accepted for state in-service requirements. Also, much of the time, district/school professional development work provides little help in improving teaching and learning. Districts and schools often apply a top down, quick fix approach to professional development, with little input from teachers and “this year’s new thing” as a major focus. Of course, next year has another new thing, so the yearly quick fix changes each year. In many cases, there is little incentive for teachers to work collaboratively to figure out their problems, deal with individual students, and work to improve what they do long-term. There is also little incentive for using summer time for collaboratively learning new practical skills, designing curriculum, or lesson study activities.

 Pay for performance – also known as merit pay -- has been proposed as an alternative, but this too has serious flaws. Several recent commentaries and some current research outline many of the reasons it is not a workable system. Its focus on “results” – standardized tests – often leads to short sighted classroom changes that have little relevance to what’s necessary for a strong education in the 21st century. It has been tried again and again since the 1920’s, and has generally not worked to improve teaching and learning. Bonus dollars also don’t seem to work. Corporations generally don’t use it because it doesn’t seem to make a difference in how hard people work and how successful they are. And, even if it did make a difference, it’s very hard to determine which teachers are the most successful when teaching and teaching results are complicated to assess and evaluate[i].

 An alternative that is given little attention by educators and the media may be the best  – renewable contracts that provide some long-term stability, but also make strong demands on teachers to demonstrate success and improvement.

 A five-year renewable contract system is one specific model. Over a five-year period, teachers are expected to participate in a variety of professional development activities, many of their own choosing, that will help them improve their teaching and student learning. During the last year of the contract, a teacher must develop a portfolio of items that justifies contract renewal. The portfolio might include a video with an analysis of instructional practices, a list of professional development activities over the last five years with reflections on how each contributed to improved teaching (or did not), and one or more sample unit designs. It should also include a sampling of his or her most effective instructional activities. High quality student work and sample student assessments should also become part of the portfolio. The fifth year of contract renewal might also include a special set of classroom observations and reflections by administrators and other teachers.

 Every teacher up for renewal (roughly 20% of a school’s faculty) would put together his or her portfolio and be interviewed about their portfolio by a panel of teachers and administrators. Each teacher would make a presentation describing his or her teaching style, present portions of his or her video with analysis, reflect on professional development activities over the past five years that have made a difference, show the results of classroom observations and reflections, and conclude with a brief plan for improvement over the next five years.  The panel would recommend renewal or non-renewal, but also built into the system would be a review process in case there were controversies or difficult decisions. It is even possible that teachers who work collaboratively could make their presentations together (although each teacher would have his or her own individual portfolio).  The process might be adapted from the certification process developed by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards![ii] A significant pay raise can be tied to the success of this process. Also, teachers with the highest ratings might be designated “master teachers”, so that they can have special opportunities to mentor new teachers, conduct in-service programs, and help improve teaching and learning over the next five years.

 One implementation problem is finding the time for these panels and presentations. In order for this to happen, teachers and schools might develop a different yearly scheduling system that includes some weeks during the summer. The long summer hiatus is an anachronism from a different age that needs modification anyway. For example, a three week summer professional development program for all teachers would provide time for the 20% of faculty up for contract renewal to refine and then present their portfolios, while the rest of the faculty would work collaboratively on curriculum and instruction issues, form study groups, use the Internet to find and research useful information, and take courses and workshops on substantive topics in their content areas (some through the web and media). This three week time period would constitute a major effort to work on issues of substance relevant to students, curriculum, and the like. “Continuous improvement” would not just be a phrase, but would tie together this summer work with collaborative professional development efforts during the school year.

 Contact renewal will require many schools and districts to also think differently about professional development, since teachers should have a much greater incentive to participate in it and apply its lessons to their own teaching. Schools and districts will have to think hard about how to make room for relevant, engaging, and supportive professional development. Time for greater collaboration among teachers will be required. Workshops on how to analyze student data, conduct lesson studies, and create study groups will be necessary. Some outside consultants, workshops and conferences will be necessary to introduce new ideas, but these should focus on relevant topics that are of interest to most teachers, and have considerable follow-up work to increase application. The Internet provides new and significant options for “attending” outside conferences and workshops, while working at home and in small groups. Strong professional development options will go hand in hand with a contract renewal system.

 In sum, if we are going to find a way to vastly improve education and learning and create incentives for professional growth and development over time, a new system needs to be created to substitute for the tenure model. Contract renewal is a strong alternative. It has considerable merit – stability for a given period of time, an accountability framework, incentives to improve and adapt instruction to a new age, new ways of thinking about professional development options tied to improvement, pay incentives, and the identification of master teachers. It also provides a way for teachers who no longer are productive to be counseled out of the teaching profession. It has a strong potential for improving educational outcomes, and helping districts and schools catch up to the 21st century.



[i] These arguments come from Diane Ravitch, Thoughts on the Failure of Merit Pay, Letter to Deborah Meier, in Education Week, March 29, 2011 ; Also Springer, M.G., Ballou, D., Hamilton, L., Le, V., Lockwood, J.R., McCaffrey, D., Pepper, M., and Stecher, B. (2010). Teacher Pay for Performance: Experimental Evidence from the Project on Incentives in Teaching. Nashville, TN: National Center on Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt University.

[ii] For further information, go to