Tenure has become a dirty word. The political right with the assistance of too many Democrats has masterfully succeeded in redefining tenure to mean lifetime employment for teachers without the possibility of being fired for cause. Thus, the narrative goes, there are hordes of incompetent, ineffective teachers standing in front of the nation’s public school classrooms effectively preventing the neediest students from achieving all that they are capable of becoming. So completely have the enemies of public education subverted the meaning of tenure that public discourse about the status of America’s schools is more focused on negative effects of tenure than on the real enemy of student achievement, poverty.
At the recent summer meeting of the National Council of Urban Education Associations (NCUEA), I listened to a legal update by NEA General Counsel Alice O’Brien. In talking about the about the recent Vergara decision that struck down California’s tenure law, O’Brien very conspicuously avoided the use of the word tenure, substituting “professional status” instead. That’s a much better, more positively charged expression than the current understanding of tenure.
A new teacher to a district serves a probationary period, in most place of three years duration. During that time they are carefully assessed and are essentially at will employees, meaning they can be fired in most places with as little as thirty days notice. After a three year period to prove their worthiness, they are awarded professional status. Having proven themselves worthy of professional status, they become entitled to due process before that professional status can be taken from them. Medical doctors accused of unprofessional conduct get a due process hearing as do most licensed professionals.
The battle for the public mind is often a linguistic challenge. O’Brien’s suggestion in this regard is a good one. Let’s start talking about professional status and forget the T-word.