The traditional case for tenure at the university level rests on two pillars. The first and most prominent is that this gives professors freedom to express unpopular views in their writings and lectures. The second is that professors in the same field are the best ones to judge the qualifications and promise of potential new hires and existing colleagues. This is why departments rather than central administrators choose who to hire and who to let go. Tenure insures the existence of a core of faculty with a long-term commitment to their departments who make the hiring and firing decisions.
For reasons I have expressed elsewhere (see my 1/15/06 “Comment on Tenure”), I do not believe that these arguments are powerful enough to justify the rigidities introduced by having the tenure system at colleges and universities. Whether that conclusion is correct or not, neither of these arguments made for having tenure in higher education has close applicability to teachers at the K-12 level. They publish very little, and mainly teach materials that are not controversial. There are exceptions, such as teachers of Israeli-Palestinian relations, or theories of evolution, but teaching materials of this type are exceptions and not the rule.
The second reason used to justify tenure at the university level, that senior colleagues are the ones with the qualifications to choose new hires and to decide who to hold on to in their departments, is not applicable at the K-12 level. For unlike what happens at universities, administrators at K-12 schools, such as principals, do the hiring, not teachers with tenure. Since administrators (or older teachers) cannot readily judge which of the hires will turn out to be good teachers, that provides a strong reason why K-12 teachers should not get tenure, especially not after only a short time of teaching.
Sometimes K-12 tenure is justified with the argument that the quality of teachers is not known or objectively measured, so that principals and other administrators will play favorites in choosing who to retain in the absence of a tenure system. I do not believe this argument is correct since whereas it is hard to judge when hiring a new teacher how good she will be, it is not difficult to know teaching quality after someone has been teaching for a few years. The principal gets feedback from parents and students, and also from other teachers. I am confident, for example, that I know who are the good and bad teachers in economics at the University of Chicago.
Every large public school system has many excellent and good teachers. Unfortunately, every public school system also has really bad teachers who cannot be fired. Some miss many classes, others do not know the materials they teach, while others do not really try to teach, and prefer to joke around or mainly give their opinions. They should be fired, but they cannot in part because of the tenure system. Having the power to get rid of the bad teachers would improve everyone’s teaching, partly by raising the incentives and morale of other teachers.
Teachers’ unions are the major force opposed to abandoning the tenure system, as they are the major opposition to pretty much every major school reform that has ever been suggested- including charter schools, school vouchers, and evaluations of teacher performance. They are an important hindrance to improving the quality of teaching and the performance of students.
I oppose teachers unions and the tenure system for teachers (including university teachers) partly because they are especially detrimental to the education received by students from low income and more disadvantaged backgrounds. Nevertheless, I do not believe that elimination of unions and tenure would vastly improve the performance of students from these backgrounds. As the 1966 Coleman Report showed decades ago, family background is a much more important contributor to the overall performance of students than are the type of schools that students attend.
Nevertheless, it is very worthwhile to improve what schools can do by eliminating tenure, reducing the power of unions, and introducing more competition into the public school system. To improve family life is not easily achieved and requires a long time horizon. So it is best to do what can be achieved that will help student performance, especially help students who need the greatest help from the schools they attend.