Sunday Commentary: The Need For Tenure in the Wake of Vergara


teacherThe past month has seen a low-level court (in Vergara vs. California) throw out tenure, basically arguing that tenure violates a student’s civil rights as teacher tenure prevents students from accessing quality education because it prevents ineffective teachers from being fired.

The state legislature has moved to streamline the ability for districts to discipline and terminate teachers accused of gross misconduct. However, the issue of ineffective teaching remains difficult to assess, let alone address.

A discussion with a Sacramento Bee reporter late last week once again tied the issue of Nancy Peterson’s treatment of a volleyball coach to the issue of tenure for teachers. The obvious nexus here is the lack of workplace protections for a volleyball coach allowed an aggressive parent, elected to the school board, with a vendetta against a specific coach, to exercise her misuse of power in a way that was detrimental to the district.

The consequences for both the district, the coach, and Ms. Peterson herself were devastating. And while, in the end, Ms. Peterson paid a huge price for it – so too did the district in the form of monetary costs, impact on other priorities, and reputation.

A coach ended up being fired and only later to be rehired. A school board member had to resign. Another school board member ended up failing in a big run for city council.

Former Athletic Director Dennis Foster also spoke of the culture within the athletics community, where people with agendas make accusations, fail to respect the chain of command, and ultimately engage in conduct detrimental to all involved.

Mr. Foster spoke of a level of micromanagement, complaining by the parents and meddling by upper administration that was troublesome.

He stated that this is part of the culture in Davis that has to change – coaches need to be allowed to do their job, in his opinion, and in our opinion you could replace “coaches” with teachers and with city employees, across the line.

Parents begin to insert themselves at levels that they should not with the Superintendent, the HR Director or the Board of Education.  This throws the structure off and parents end up putting political pressure on the upper administration, who then imposes decisions on the site level administrators.

Imagine then, a situation like this that plays out, not with a coach, but with teachers. Davis parents are extremely competitive and take their academics and the ability of their children to get accepted to high level colleges very seriously.

Tenure is put into place to protect teachers from this type of political pressure.

This is a column that the Vanguard published back in February, that still holds as to issue of tenure and how it relates to the volleyball controversy.

This is Why We Have Tenure

Imagine the scenario, which actually isn’t that far-fetched in Davis, the daughter of a school board member is looking to get into Harvard for college, but one day gets too drunk partying before a key test and flunks the test.  For the term, she gets only a B instead of an A and ruins her 4.0 grade point average.

After the teacher fails to change the grade, the school board member, using her powers of persuasion, convinces the school district not to renew her contract for the next year.  But this is a popular teacher and the parents rally to her side.  The rest of the school board meet in a special session and vote 4-1 to restore her contract with the school board member, whose daughter got the B, dissenting.

The next year, the student is again in that teacher’s class and, being a discipline problem, the teacher sends her to the principal several times, ultimately forcing the school to suspend her.  The school board member files a complaint and ultimately the teacher is suspended and fired.

If this seems impossible, consider – in a world without tenure – that is the potential minefield that a teacher might face.  It might not be the child of a school board member, but perhaps a large donor or powerful community member.

Tenure is a controversial subject, and many see it as a means to protect bad teachers.  In reality, it is a protection mechanism to protect the ability of a teacher to be able to teach their class as they see fit, give grades, and offer discipline without fear of being politically railroaded.

Those protections are not in place for coaches and principals, and we have seen firsthand in the last few years the hazards of the ability of the school district to fire or terminate the contract of at-will employees.  And while the public can pressure the school district, privacy and personnel laws make it difficult, if not impossible, for the public or the media to get to the bottom of these stories.

Critics like Michelle Rhee criticize tenure as a means to protect “incompetent teachers from being fired.”

However, while tenure does not guarantee lifelong employment, it does make firing teachers a difficult and costly process – unlike the dismissal of a coach or principal.

That is by design, as it makes the process for firing teachers “deliberately slow and cumbersome, in order to dissuade school boards and parents from ousting a teacher for personal or political motives,” as Time Magazine noted in a 2008 article.

Time notes, “The start of the tenure movement paralleled similar labor struggles during the late 19th century. Just as steel and auto workers fought against unsafe working conditions and unlivable wages, teachers too demanded protection from parents and administrators who would try to dictate lesson plans or exclude controversial materials.”

Critics argue that we have made tenure for elementary and high school teachers too easy.  College professors are required to record a sizable amount of published research with long probationary periods.  K-12 teachers, on the other hand, can win tenure after working as little as two years.

But the controversy over the dismissal of the volleyball coach should depoliticize the issue of tenure.  The reality is that, in places like Davis, the failure to have tenure would turn the very act of teaching into a circus.

Just as we see the controversial firing of athletics coaches, we would see teachers under pressure, fearful that giving a B to the wrong student might result in their dismissal.

What is clear is that this is not just a problem that resides in the fact that the coach lacks tenure.  The school board knew or should have known that a problem existed here long before the issue came up again this past week.

The school district clearly needs to take steps to prevent parents who sit on the school board from using their authority to retaliate against coaches and teachers that they believe have acted detrimentally to their children.

By the same token, critics of tenure will argue that it has gone too far, making it difficult to remove teachers who are performing poorly in the classroom.  And there is little doubt this is true, but the problem is finding an objective way to separate the teacher who is performing poorly in the classroom from the teacher who is unpopular or who has upset a powerful entity in the community.

That is the heart of the matter here.  From what we can tell – based on the timeline that was published today and public discussion, it may actually be only one parent that has a problem with this coach, but because it is a parent strongly situated in the school district, the result has been not one but two dismissals.

The fact that the coach was reinstated last year and has appealed this year notwithstanding, we can see the potential in a system of at-will employees for abuse.

The question going forward in the broader public discourse is this: informed by such potential for abuse of power or undue influence, given the vulnerability that a teacher has, given the competitive process which many parents have for academic achievement, particularly in a community like Davis – is there a better way to handle poorly performing teachers while leaving key protections in place for other teachers?

I confess, I do not have a great answer to this, but I think critics of tenure need to confess that this is not an imagined danger.  We see it right here before us, in our very own community.

—David M. Greenwald reporting


About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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19 thoughts on “Sunday Commentary: The Need For Tenure in the Wake of Vergara”

  1. TrueBlueDevil

    The courts have finally made a move to do what state leaders have refused to do for decades. We’ve come to a place where even grossly negligent teachers, even teachers accused of having sexual relations with students, are nearly impossible to fire.

    Schools and school districts need to come up with a way to evaluate teachers that the CTA doesn’t brush aside with endless misdirection plays.

    Given the example David paints, maybe we need to consider restricting the parents of current students from being on school boards, if this will hamstring teacher reform. The issue is too important.

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      A Superior Court has made a move that my guess will not be upheld by appellate courts. The legislature and governor have an opportunity to address the misconduct issue.

      As to whether whether we can restrict parents of current students, I’m not sure that deals with the broader issue of parents in positions of status or power in the community pressuring administrators and board members to remove teachers who assign less than stellar grades to their kids.

  2. Barack Palin

    The example that David paints is one to the very extreme, how often does a case like this happen where a parent/trustee is involved? But on the other end how many thousands of children can or will be tainted by a bad teacher that can’t be fired because of tenure? No system is perfect but we have to be able to get rid of the bad teachers.

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      I agree it is extreme. The more likely scenario is a key person with power or status in the community whose kid receives a lower grade than hoped could pressure the board/ administration. It may also ironically enough lead to grade inflation as teachers will err on the side of caution rather than go to war against parents.

  3. Tia Will

    I suspect that tenure is the very reason that such extreme cases are so rare.
    I have read many times on these threads the comment that the principle and other teachers at a school know who the good and bad teachers are. I have also heard the argument that leaving firing decisions in the hands of the local educational hierarchy puts teachers at risk of being fired for other than reasons of teaching competency ( political or religious beliefs, legitimate differences in teaching style, personal disputes with powerful private citizens…).
    However, I also believe that there could be a common ground.
    I have a question for those who have more knowledge in the field of teaching than I. Has an attempt been made to construct a system in which information from all interested parties is weighed by an independent panel whose job it is to arrive at an employment decision based on the facts rather than on which side can generate the most sympathetic response or the most heat from the community ? I can envision such a panel being comprised of education experts not personally acquainted with the teachers, principle or other major players involved who would make their decision based solely on review of factors previously determined and agreed upon as relevant to a teachers performance by parents, educational administrators, and teachers.

    1. Frankly

      If the performance criteria for the principle and for the teachers is comprehensive and actually utilized, then the this I have also heard the argument that leaving firing decisions in the hands of the local educational hierarchy puts teachers at risk of being fired for other than reasons of teaching competency ( political or religious beliefs, legitimate differences in teaching style, personal disputes with powerful private citizens…). risk is minimized.

      It is already such a minimal risk given all the laws to give power to the wrongly terminated to prevail in claims against their employer, that it isn’t really even worth discussing. It is in fact a false argument by the teachers union to defend tenure. Only white males under 40 lack recourse for wrongful termination, but there are few white male teachers under 40.

      If the principle’s job security and bonus is based on the right performance criteria, he/she will be naturally motivated to favor the strongly-performing teachers and to develop the moderate performers and to weed out the low performers.

      When the boss’s hiring and performance criteria is dysfunctional – for instance, hired for racial or gender preference rather than demonstrated skills and experience, and evaluated on things like sensitivity and inclusion rather than school outcomes and demonstrated employee leadership – then the boss makes dysfunctional decisions about employee performance.

  4. SODA

    I have had teaching positions at professional schools which I think is a little different than we are talking about; the classes were taught in a team fashion and so my colleagues as well as the students had the opportunity to observe me and I would hope, if my teaching was shown to be inferior, I would have received feedback and help. I also have had experience in precepting professional students in medical rotations where again, other faculty as well as students could observe (as could I).
    My point though is to contrast these experiences with those of my high school history teacher son and my high school science teacher husband. When they have taught, other than student teaching and a young teacher mentor program, neither have been routinely observed and given evaluations and positive feedback on their teaching. When the classroom door is closed, it is closed.
    Where is the opportunity for the ‘bad teachers’ to be identified?

  5. Tia Will


    In medical schools currently, and within Kaiser we have invested in training sessions for doctors who are identified as having difficulty with patient or peer interactions as well as those who have been identified as demonstrating leadership potential.
    These sessions include videotaping sessions of the doctor interacting with model “patients” or interacting in peer settings. These videotapes are used for purposes of self reflection on your own techniques ( nothing trumps watching a film of yourself in action for becoming aware of how you may appear to others ) and for coaching on ways to improve from those who are identified as high achievers in either patient satisfaction, best outcomes, or ability to achieve consensus and leadership goals depending on the session.
    I am wondering if such an objective means of evaluation might not be effective in evaluating classroom performance as well. I am also wondering what objections might arise to filming in the classroom.

    1. SODA

      Hi Tia
      Your experiences sound good as addressing my post.
      I agree that including video taping assessment (self plus others) together with other measures at the K-12 level would go along way. Student achievement, observation, some sort of ‘customer satisfaction’ (ever been tried in K-12??) are some ideas I have.

      1. KSmith

        I agree that some combination of these evaluation tools would be a good start.

        I would be cautious, though, about necessarily weighting student/parent evaluations significantly in this process, though, because oftentimes those “customer satisfaction metrics” rest solely on the grade the student got (I have a lot of experience with this at the university level). If the student slacked off and got a C instead of a B (or even lower grades–or in the case of Davis parents, an A instead of an A+), you’re suddenly a bad instructor because those students refuse to take responsibility for their part of the “transaction.”

        It occurs to me that one parent/community observation opportunity at Da Vinci may work as a model for a type of evaluation that could become part of a teacher’s portfolio. At the end of each learning unit, students present their project to the community. Parents and community members are asked to come “panel” (observe the presentations and help grade students–a parent cannot “panel” for his/her own child’s group).

        Having served on these panels, I can see how community members could get a feel for teacher effectiveness by not only seeing the results of the projects, but also by seeing how effectively the teachers relate to the students during the presentations (asking probing questions, getting students to think about a problem/concept in another way, etc.).

        At least for schools based on the Da Vinci model (and maybe this could somehow be extended to other schools in this district), a parent or community member who is a frequent participant in these panels could provide some dimension of evaluation.

        1. SODA

          Yes, you raise an obvious (no disrespect intended) reaction to ‘customer satisfaction’ but I still think it is an important component to attempt to measure, maybe before grades given, maybe a small component of the total, etc.
          My husband taught only 2 years and in a magnet school. The principal stressed before each back to school night the importance of parent engagement and satisfaction since most parents had to drive their children to attend the school, etc.

  6. Ingrid Salim

    David, I think your piece is timely and accurate. Routinely in Davis parents break all chains of command to pressure teachers to change a grade, file an incomplete, retake a test, not count a missed assignment, etc. Whatever the impediment to an impeccable GPA, many (certainly not all) Davis parents feel they are entitled to ask for a different outcome. Some of these parents, when denied, do go to the principal, superintendent, and Board of Education members, and pressure is sometimes then brought to bear back on us. Some teachers buckle under the pressure; others hold up, because we know we can’t be fired. Were that possible, though, the threat would feel very real indeed.

    Tia, the short answer is no. One of the reasons it is difficult to fire teachers is that the evaluation process in California (relying only on one or two formal observations) is vague and superficial. It does not require a portfolio of teacher lesson plans, student work, or any other artifacts that might represent a teacher’s work. There is much debate over what a ‘fair’ evaluation could contain (student surveys? parent surveys? informal, drop-in observations?), and until that is sorted out in a meaningful way, the data around an evaluation is easily challenged. Your concept, of external observers, makes a lot of sense.

    Another reason it is difficult is that to fire a teacher requires that they be made aware of their deficiencies and given time to amend those — with coaching or mentoring, professional development. Actually, if problems are identified early on and reasonable coaching is provided, this method is very effective. But if there are no resources for intervention, it often means that ineffective teachers just remain longer.

    Finally, there are often the same pressures on administrators not to fire teachers. This isn’t the fault of teachers having tenure, but of the nature of that tenure. Most teachers do not want to have incompetent colleagues on their campuses, and support their removal. However, we’ve all witnessed the dismissal of just-hired teachers (who lack tenure) and wondered why that happened. We have a strong interest in making sure that there is no possibility for arbitrariness, favoring, or discrimination in such decisions.

    I actually disagree, after 24 years in the field, that staff ‘knows’ the good and bad teachers. That saying is out there, but it represents the worst of human nature. Most of us have never observed each other. We may have been in a few other classrooms with teachers we worked with, but only for small bits of time. Occasionally we may have done a one or two-day observation (this isolation is a problem in education in the U.S.). We may have heard about lessons another colleague is doing, from that person or from students, but we rarely co-design or co-teach lessons. Our concepts of fellow staff are formed by how students talk about them, how other colleagues talk about them, or how they come across in meetings, and not on rigorous analysis of their lessons or student work. My point is that rumor is the basis for deciding whether a teacher is ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ and that the idea of effective or ineffective teaching is highly complex and multi-dimensional.

    Yes, it should be a no-brainer that someone accused of criminal offenses should be put on leave, and, if convicted, fired. Yes, a teacher who routinely walks in the door two minutes before class starts and uses the same lesson plan and worksheets she used 10 years ago should be confronted and required to change.

    And similar other obvious extremes. But there is much in the middle that is more muddled for me, and that while I hope we will figure out some ways to evaluate teachers, I also hope we will protect their ability to make education-related decisions in the classroom without fear of reprisals of any kind.

  7. MrsW

    I have a few comments inspired by this post.

    At DJUSD, a parent who is concerned with a B+/A- is treated exactly the same way as a parent who is concerned about a F+/D-. Blown off.

    We’re talking about appropriate responses to low probability high risk situations–like a train carrying oil spilling in Davis.

    The topic keeps coming back to DJUSD giving excuses why their inaction on poor teachers who are teaching reasonabily high acheiving students is okay with them. Where this discussion should be, is at the nexus of poor teaching and low acheiving students.

    1. wdf1

      MrsW: At DJUSD, a parent who is concerned with a B+/A- is treated exactly the same way as a parent who is concerned about a F+/D-. Blown off.

      Having had two kids who dwelt in the F+/D- range for a time, our experience with several teachers was actually very positive. And maybe it’s just me, but as a parent, in general I wouldn’t intervene with a teacher on an issue of B+/A-.

      The topic keeps coming back to DJUSD giving excuses why their inaction on poor teachers who are teaching reasonabily high acheiving students is okay with them. Where this discussion should be, is at the nexus of poor teaching and low acheiving students.

      I think that problem comes back to how we define low-achieving students. We are too focused on cognitive outcomes — how high a level of math can our kids do, how big their vocabulary is, how much history they know, how advanced is their knowledge of science.

      Sure, a lot of that information is useful, but there is vast field of education that involves non-cognitive skills that are generally un-measurable in any efficient or convenient way, things like leadership, creativity, working with others, understanding individual responsibility to a group of peers, delaying gratification, ability to do long-term planning, hands on activities, etc.

      No Child Left Behind has only exacerbated our focus on quantifiable, measurable aspects of education, such as come from standardized test scores. Education has been sanitized of nearly all other valuable aspects that I list above. Instead allowing students to speculate on what they want to do in adulthood, we want them to grow up to become great test takers. And low-achieving students are defined as those who can’t perform well on those tests, or who are having an existential crisis over not seeing the point of all the test-taking and just don’t give a damn.

      And we also define bad teachers as those whose students get poor scores on standardized tests. It comes down to this: if you evaluate teachers based on standardized test scores, then how do you evaluate the choir or band teacher? the athletic coach or PE teacher? the shop teacher?

      You might notice that we don’t know what the hell to do with those teachers or how to evaluate them, so we usually cut them when money is limited.

      A cartoon that makes my point.

      1. Frankly

        The slide to teaching to a narrower and narrower template learner started long before NCLB. I don’t disagree with much of your assessment and points above, but not this continued finger-pointing at NCLB. It was bad policy to try and solve a problem that was education’s own making.

        I had the opposite problem with my two boys. A-grade early elementary students with creative minds and natural curiosity for most topics. About 6th grade we started hearing from other parents (don’t get this teacher or that teacher). For some reason my two kids always seemed to get “that” teacher. And stupid me thought that my kids could power through and learn the life lesson of working for and with people that don’t perform well.

        But especially with crappy math teachers, they fell behind. Then we hired tutors and it kept them in the game.

        Next they got to middle school and the grades started heading to the B area… with some Cs and a couple of Ds. Again, we hired tutors and talked to the teachers.

        My assessment of the entire experience is that my kids did not connect well to most of the teachers. They were made to feel like they were not smart enough or that they were just too stupid to get it. They were not engaged. They were bored. Many of the teachers were just plain uninspiring… knowing the subject matter but unable to effectively teach it except to the Davis template learner that is biologically wired with academic gifts.

        I got the vibe from the administrators and many of the teachers. Here is what that vibe was…

        “If it wasn’t for all these problem kids, this would be an okay job.”

        But the definition of “problem” was/is not the real struggling kids. Those kids get attention too. And the district gets special funding to deal with them. The “problem” kids are mostly boys, and are those lacking those genetic academic gifts that Davis is full of.

        The ONLY way to remedy this problem is for the education system to see each and every child as a customer… that the teacher works for the student and not the other way around.

        For that to occur we either need rigorous teacher and school accountability and performance management, or we need to privatize the entire enterprise.

        NCLB is not a good solution, but it is not the problem.

        1. Barack Palin

          “About 6th grade we started hearing from other parents (don’t get this teacher or that teacher)”

          You’re point really hit home. Not only do other teacher’s know who the bad teachers are but also the parents know if they’ve had children already go through the sysytem. I once sat in the principle’s office for over an hour arguing with her because my child got “that” teacher that an older child of mine had already had and we knew along with many other parents that she was a bad teacher. We had already requested a different teacher and I wasn’t about to leave her office until she moved my child. Her point was that not everyone can steer away from the bad teacher, that someone had to be assigned to her class and one of those happened to be my daughter. I eventually won. If she could weed out the bad teachers we wouldn’t have these problems.

          1. Frankly

            BP – you did the right thing. Knowing what I know today I would have been that principle’s worst nightmare, and the teachers would have probably gone to their union bosses to take me out. I was way to nice and too trusting that they all had my kids’ best interests in mind. I believed the “excellent Davis schools myth”.

            Can you believe that mindset that some kids have to get the bad teacher?

            We might as well just be slaves since we have no choice. Give us a voucher and give us freedom. And then the current education plantation will have to respond in order to survive.

          2. Davis Progressive

            i think the worry is not getting the bad teacher, but rather having good teachers getting caught up in politics that could blow against them if they hold the line.

  8. tribeUSA

    Excellent article David, you’re spot on some of the main dangers of removing tenure.
    I strongly support continuing tenure; but of course with some provision of removal from tenure if there is a pattern of gross negligence of their teaching duties (in addition to the current removal for unacceptable or criminal behavior in the classroom or outside the classroom with children). Think there’s a lot of politics in education now–you ain’t seen nothing yet if tenure is removed and the battles start as to what constitutes ‘ineffective’ teaching and trying to demonstrate which teachers have or have not been effective or ineffective.

    The other point that seems to be always neglected in articles on this topic is: what type of people do we want to attract to the teaching profession? If teaching to the test becomes a major part of the job; what kind of people do we attract to the teaching profession that are interested in doing this for most of their lives? How about making the job more difficult and, at the same time by removing tenure, eliminate the assurance of job security; since even if they teach effectively politics (unspoken of course) will inevitably dominate in some situations, resulting in their removal from the job?

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