February 28, 2014

Tenure Is About Protecting Good Teachers

There’s been a lot of talk about "teacher tenure"* as a major cause of the problems facing our educational system in California and across the country. Time and again, I read media coverage about how “bad” teachers remain in classrooms because tenure (more properly, the right to due process) protects them from ever being fired. It’s simply not true that poorly-performing teachers can’t be fired.

But what’s more disturbing to me is this fundamental misunderstanding and misinformation about what tenure is and why it exists.

When I think of teacher tenure, the first person that comes to mind is Sal Castro. Castro was a Mexican-American born in Los Angeles in 1933. He served in the army and returned to Los Angeles to earn his teaching degree. He started as a playground assistant and worked his way up to being a social studies teacher.

Castro saw that, despite the large number of Chicano kids in Los Angeles (the full Spanish name is Nuestra Señora Reina de Los Angeles de Porciuncula), our schools lacked bilingual and relevant cultural education. There was a deep bias in the system that tracked many Latino kids towards menial jobs rather than college, and forbade them to speak Spanish at school.


As a teacher at Belmont, Sal encouraged Chicano students to run for student office and even to give their speeches in Spanish. Sal’s message inspired many students but frightened LAUSD administrators who tried to fire him.

But he had "tenure"—the right to a hearing before dismissal—and the hearing officer[s] upheld his right to teach. Tenure allowed Castro to advocate for his kids without the fear of retaliation from those who enforced the harmful policies. But the administrators did force him to transfer to another school – Lincoln.

There, he helped his high school students and students throughout the area to understand that they had educational rights. Eventually, he helped them make demands of the LA School Board to incorporate their heritage in the curriculum – though those demands fell on deaf ears.

In the tumultuous times of the late 1960s when this was happening, students began holding walkouts to protest a discriminatory education system. Kids from Wilson High in East LA staged the first one, followed by other schools – Roosevelt, Lincoln, Garfield and Belmont in what became known as the Chicano Student Walkouts. Castro was with them. It became a defining moment in educational civil rights in Los Angeles.

But Castro was arrested for his role in the protests and charged with disturbing the peace and conspiracy to disrupt public schools. The charges were eventually dropped, but the school board and his administrators – who fought him bitterly at every turn – would have fired him if they could have. They certainly tried. Tenure again protected Castro, kept him in the classroom and speaking out for students’ rights. When Castro died in 2013, LAUSD Supt. John Deasy called him a “hero” in the LA Times. Tenure enabled Castro to become a hero, because it gave him the protection to be an activist and a voice for students. 

When we talk about the ills of tenure, we are talking about demolishing teachers’ ability to fight for kids, because Castro was far from alone. As the President of CFT, I see it and hear about it all the time. 

For example, a few years ago, at a metal plating plant opened up next to one of our elementary schools in south-central LA. Within a few years, students, teachers and parents reported unusually high incidences of health problems, including cancer. Many believed the emissions from this plant could be the cause. Many teachers were concerned and wanted the plant closed but only the tenured teachers had the protection to join with parents to speak out. After years of organizing, a coalition of parents, teachers and students managed to get the plant closed. Without the due protection afforded permanent teachers, who knows how long that plant would have continued to poison the environment around the school.

So the next time you read about tenure in the media, think about Castro and the activist-teachers like him who need tenure to do their jobs – a part of which is protecting our kids. Teachers are on the front lines with students every day, spending hours and hours with them. They have a unique position to see kids’ struggles and needs, and as educators, a deep desire to help. But it’s unfair and unwise to ask them to put their jobs on the line every time they need to advocate for something unpopular or difficult. They deserve – and their students deserve – to have teachers who can speak out without fear of reprisal to their livelihoods. 

Tenure isn’t about protecting bad teachers. It’s about protecting the good ones.

*The word "tenure" does not appear in the Education Code in reference to K-12 teachers. It is a shorthand approximation of the situation of professors in higher education, who have stronger job protections than their K-12 kin.