Tenure is intended to protect teachers with demonstrated teaching skills against arbitrary or capricious dismissal. Critics of typical tenure processes argue that tenure assessments are superficial and rarely discern whether teachers in fact have the requisite teaching skills. A recent reform of the tenure process in New York City provides an unusual opportunity to learn about the role of tenure in teachers’ career outcomes. We find the reform led to many fewer teachers receiving tenure. Those not receiving tenure typically had their probationary periods extended to allow them an opportunity to demonstrate teaching effectiveness. These “extended” teachers were much more likely to leave their schools and be replaced by a teacher who was judged to be more effective.
Teacher tenure has been controversial since the first tenure provisions were enacted over a century ago. Proponents typically argue that tenure prevents teacher dismissal for political purposes or due to capricious decisions by administrators or politicians. Tenure could guard against dismissal of more experienced, higher paid teachers during periods of tight budgets when school leaders may be more focused on reducing costs while meeting class size requirements than they are on student learning. Tenure does not require schools or districts to retain ineffective teachers but instead provides a due process mechanism to dismiss tenured teachers for cause. Critics, however, argue that the cost of due process does, in practice, lead districts to retain ineffective teachers and as a result tenure not only allows poor teachers to stay in the classroom but also reduces the incentive for teachers to be as effective as they could be. They argue that the due process mechanisms for removing teachers with tenure are so burdensome that they rarely are pursued.