Tenure as a Division of Power

A California judge recently declared tenure unconstitutional. A lot of people are rejoicing, because they think this means that bad teachers will no longer be excessively protected from being fired. While the public school system needs a remake, to put it lightly, people might be jumping the gun on tenure. It may have costs, but tenure also has benefits. The problem with public schooling isn’t tenure, anyways; the problem runs down to the roots, school administrations.

Tenure limits administration’s power on teachers. It can give teachers the independence to choose their own approach to educating their students. Sometimes it turns out badly. More often, it stops the administration from dictating the curriculum. It puts a limit on pressure placed on the teacher to change their curriculum for the worse. This element of the debate reminds me of the argument in favor of independent central banking. Some people noticed the Federal Reserve’s poor response to the recession and called for an end to central bank independence. The problem with that is a central bank directly controlled by government is one in a position to help that government at the expense of the people — such as when government uses its central bank to finance its spending. The benefits may outweigh the costs.

School administrations can be very political. I have first-hand experience through my dad, who is a high school teacher. Yes, I did let him know what most libertarians think about public schools. If it wasn’t for tenure, my dad would have probably been fired a long time ago. You might be thinking, “He probably deserved it because he was a horrible teacher.” You would be wrong. The administration pressures him to raise the grades of students who don’t do their homework, who don’t study, who fool around in class, and who generally just don’t care about their education. The administration wants to look good in front of the parents and they want their statistics to shine. These create perverse incentives. My dad is an AP Spanish teacher and to punish him they took away his AP Spanish Literature class. AP test scores in that class plummeted. The administration doesn’t always punish instructors for good reasons, they do it for very bad reasons.

Few people look at the administration. Maybe this might catch your attention: Sweetwater Union High School District, in San Diego country, was recently rocked by a corruption scandal. Top school administrators were caught siphoning “gifts” received for preferring certain contractors over others. That shows how much they care about the kids.

Oftentimes schools push sports rather than academics, because that’s what some parents want — some parents couldn’t care less about their children’s education, or they think that there isn’t a trade-off when they push for funding elsewhere. Yes, many parents are negligent; you see this a lot in lower income schools (see also “Have and Have Nots“). The administration wants to look good, and this creates perverse incentives. Removing an institution that limits their ability to control  teachers risks making our schools worse off.

I am not saying teachers are saints. I oppose teacher unions. I told my dad it was ridiculous that he was protesting the reduction in his salary after the economy collapsed. He doesn’t seem to understand that if there’s less money to pay him, he might have to take a salary reduction or else risk losing a job (actually, he has seniority — tenure aside —, so it would just be a hypothetical future hire who is now unemployed). I also disagreed with his decision to oppose a recent reduction in healthcare benefits. I thought, “Great for the taxpayer.” But, actually, no. As is turns out, most of the money saved from reduced healthcare benefit was just allocated somewhere else — and definitely not towards improving the quality of the schooling, because the teachers had to fight to reduce things like classroom size, as well.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that tenure, strictly speaking, doesn’t protect teachers from teaching poorly. Bad teachers can be fired. It might be more difficult, but that’s because the reasons for firing the teacher have to be legitimate and well documented. The thing is, the administration is so bad at doing its job that it’s negligent at the time of monitoring and documenting bad teaching. School administrations are a libertarian’s worst nightmare: extremely inefficient bureaucracies. Bad teaching is more common than it should be not because the administration has its hands tied, but because the administration is inept.

By the way, libertarians should be receptive to the notion that tenure is an institution that establishes some degree of “teacher independence.” In many cases, your favorite libertarian thinker is able to publish a constant stream of libertarian-oriented literature only because he or she has tenure. Otherwise, that person would be writing on some other topic — some topic that would keep that person employed —, at the expense of the libertarian movement. But, tenure doesn’t necessarily cause these professors to reduce the quality of their teaching. (Sometimes the worst teachers are the most liked by the administration, because they’re the ones who focus too much on their research and too little on their students. Publishing in top journals makes the school look good, though.) Oftentimes, tenure creates a positive effect on education, like the ability for a tenured professor to teach the students more on Friedrich Hayek or Robert Nozick than the curriculum normally allows for.

Blaming teachers is the easy thing to do. But, sometimes the easy way is the wrong way. Maybe the problem with public schooling runs deeper. We need to focus more on the machinery of the system, a machinery prone to corruption and waste.

One thought on “Tenure as a Division of Power

  1. Stadius

    Funding has got to be a large problem; based as it is on local rates (and therefore property values), meaning a direct link between familial wealth and standard of education.

    Also, from what I can tell, teaching is a low-pay profession in the US, and not at all well regarded. This will put off able graduates, who can find more lucrative employment elsewhere. Probably another part of the problem.

    In Britain, we have a specific problem in attracting enough qualified teachers of mathematics and the physical sciences, because those people can find better opportunities elsewhere. State schools are unable to raise pay and conditions for these areas without doing so for all others, and the teaching unions are largely to blame for that, but there’s also a general feeling that pay isn’t sufficient, working conditions and job security are deteriorating and that the profession is under attack from a very ideological education secretary.

    Especially in times like these, governments seek politically expedient cost savings. Unfortunately, these turn out to be false economies, as years down the line we end up with an underskilled workforce and infrastructure that needs to be rebuilt after decades of neglect.

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