Letters to the Editor: Rebalancing Teacher Tenure

Earlier this month, we released Rebalancing Teacher Tenure, a short set of recommendations for maintaining due process for teachers, while also protecting students’ right to a quality education.

We asked for your feedback: Does the tenure system need “rebalancing”? Do our suggestions make sense? This is a difficult, complicated topic, and we feel it's important to consider different viewpoints. Here are a few excerpts that capture the big themes we heard from you.

From our inbox:

“The suggestions made by TNTP support the original intended purpose of teacher tenure: employment protection for teachers who do good work with their students' best interests in mind.

In taking a closer look at the eight suggestions, some seem readily agreeable. Reassessing the hearing process seems justified, especially if it increases fairness for all involved while cutting down on costs and time. Also, it is important for teachers to maintain the opportunity to exercise an appeal. Finally, establishing tenure eligibility after five years of teaching with at least four years of satisfactory service make sense. It allows room for a learning curve for new teachers, while practiced teachers can more fully demonstrate their worth to the district in earning their tenure status. In addition, this may help refocus the original intent of teacher tenure and not to incorrectly perpetuate it as a perceived benefit for taking less pay than other professions of equal education or training. As TNTP has suggested in the past, districts should raise teacher salaries to incentivize quality work.

However, two of the suggestions may benefit from further discussion. Linking tenure to strong performance is logical, along with the expectation that teachers maintain this level of performance or exceed it. But how is effective teacher performance measured? If a teacher loses tenure, what do they need to do to earn it back?

To say that tenure is awarded by default feels a bit strong. Administrators are in the practice of observing teachers and providing feedback, which is used to determine if a teacher's work is satisfactory or unsatisfactory each year. It sounds like historical practices school districts use to assess their employees are not providing them with the information they need to decide who to keep on staff. Perhaps districts need more time; extending tenure eligibility to five years may help with that. TNTP also suggests incorporating the use of student progress data to determine if a teacher is effective. I am curious to learn in more detail the type of student progress data and how it will be used. How are scores taken into account if a child is placed into a teacher's classroom halfway or three-fourths of the way through of the school year? Is this in combination with traditional teacher observations and feedback?

On a final note, reducing professional stakes for teachers by not stripping them of licensure or certification when being dismissed is smart and compassionate. It allows a teacher who may not perform at optimal levels in one district to find another district that is a better fit. It reduces a climate of fear and promotes a culture of growth.”

– Jamie Fallon, former teacher, Shaler Area School District

“While I appreciate attention to this issue, I do have some concerns. The extent to which you propose lengthening a probationary period undercuts earlier assertions about the small number of teachers really of concern, despite the fact that they—and the large majority NOT a concern—entered through current probationary periods. Adding a year is one thing; more than doubling is another—and the latter hardly seems justified.

Linking tenure to strong performance invokes the same challenges to accurately gauging performance we have always faced. I would prefer local to state decisions, but recognize that each level is fraught with politics, just differently manifested. Given the vagaries of relationships between people in positions with quite different power differentials, do we really want one principal determining whether an individual teacher is “worth” remediating? Or even solely determining that remediation is needed?

I do want ineffective teachers, and certainly teachers whose behavior is criminal, to be removable through due process, but I also want due process to be demanding of those who would take someone's career. “Good faith” is invoked frequently here; you have more confidence in the quality of administrative judgments and in the universality of “good faith” among administrators than I have after nearly 50 years in the profession. Perhaps refining the process through which to deal with malfeasance should happen first, and not confuse that with more nuanced questions of teacher effectiveness?

Recommendation #7 [zero tolerance for abuse or sexual misconduct] may be your strongest element— might be wise not to mask it among so many more questionable ones. Recommendation #8 [lowering the professional stakes for teachers, so that dismissal from one school doesn’t mean a loss of certification] is obviously pro-teacher; I am glad to see it and do support it.”

– James S. Davis, Department of English Education, University of Northern Iowa

From Facebook:

“The protections that tenure provide are conditional. There is, and always has been, a process for addressing ineffective teachers. Failure to do so is a failure of onsite and district administrators.” – Tim T.

“Yes I know there are bad teachers, but there are also teachers having to teach out of content areas. I think I'm a good teacher, but I know that if you would place me in a first grade class, I would be horrible at it.” – Alexandria B.

“Teacher tenure sure needs review and improvement.” – David B.

“Tenure isn't broken and doesn't need fixing. Focus on the real issue: poverty.” – Jane S.

“I have never known a single teacher to be dismissed even though they were completely ineffective and I've been working for the public educational system since 1979.” – Lori L.

“I worked under wonderful principals and also under principals who would have fired me if they could have because I worked with the union. In one case I was an involuntary transfer to her school when she wanted someone else.” – Janet B.

“Formal dismissal for ineffectiveness from one school should not allow lemon dance placement to another.” – Sharon T.


We appreciate the time our readers took to respond thoughtfully to our recommendations, and we understand the anxiety—especially from teachers—around changes to tenure. In particular, we’re sensitive to concerns about the complexity of assessing good teaching and about the irresponsibility of some school principals who don’t take action during the probationary period. Even given these concerns, our view continues to be that the question is not whether to change the current approach to tenure, but how. We believe the process can work better for educators and students alike. If you have other thoughts or feedback, please email us, and stay tuned for more thoughts in this space…

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

About TNTP

TNTP is the nation’s leading research, policy, and consulting organization dedicated to transforming America’s public education system, so that every generation thrives.

Today, we work side-by-side with educators, system leaders, and communities across 39 states and over 6,000 districts nationwide to reach ambitious goals for student success.

Yet the possibilities we imagine push far beyond the walls of school and the education field alone. We are catalyzing a movement across sectors to create multiple pathways for young people to achieve academic, economic, and social mobility.

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