The recent controversy surrounding the recent legislation on tenure criteria was made possible, in significant measure, by a lack of awareness outside of education on what tenure actually is.

Tenure is nothing more than due process. Simply put, it means that after the successful completion of a three year probationary period, educators must receive a hearing before they are disciplined or dismissed. At that hearing, just cause must be established for the discipline or dismissal to go forward.

Where there is no tenure or analogous due process, teachers are in an “at will” contract: they can be dismissed without a hearing, at any time and for almost any reason. Without tenure, a teacher could be dismissed for a whole host of causes completely unconnected to her performance of her job, from her political or social views to her personal life-style to a personality conflict with a supervisor. Most Americans would be surprised to learn that, after the recent ruling in Garcetti v. Ceballos, the Roberts’ Supreme Court does not recognize First Amendment protections of job related speech of public employees, so without tenure, public criticism of school district officials — such as the criticism one finds on this and other blogs — can be grounds for dismissal. Without tenure, a teacher’s only protections are the constitutional and legal prohibitions of a number of specifically defined instances of discrimination [e.g. racial and sexual discrimination.]

The New York State tenure law was first passed in 1917, and from its beginnings in the ferment around World War One, was understood as a bulwark for academic freedom. In 1980, it was extended to all K-12 public school educators in New York State.

During the three year probationary period, a teacher undergoes an intense evaluation process to determine if she is a satisfactory teacher. In New York City, Department of Education regulations require that a probationary teacher be formally observed a minimum of six times during a year. Approximately one-third of novice teachers in New York City public schools do not successfully complete probation, and are either dismissed or leave at some point during the three years.

The most common misrepresentation of tenure, and one seized upon by Chancellor Klein, is the notion that it is a lifetime guarantee of a position, as if it were analogous to appointment to Supreme Court. In fact, there area number of well-established grounds for dismissal of tenured teachers — incompetence, insubordination, immoral character, physical or mental disability to perform the job, and neglect of duty, to name the more common — which are often used. All that tenure does is require the school district to demonstrate that these grounds actually exist.