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The Myth of Teacher Tenure

by Diana D'Amico - July 23, 2014

In the stories of exorbitant costs and incompetence, teacher tenure laws have achieved mythic proportions. Judge Rolf Treu’s tentative decision in Vergara v. California may be the death knell for teacher tenure. But what will change as a result? A look to the past reveals that teacher tenure never really protected teachers and nor was it supposed to. Using history as a lens, this commentary explores the origination of tenure policies and the debates that surrounded them. This commentary argues that embedded in the tenure debates is a much larger problem that should concern us all.

In 1917, the president of New York City’s Board of Education told a reporter that the schools are “burdened and clogged with many teachers who are unfit” because of their “permanent tenure.”1 For nearly a century, critics have blasted tenure for putting the needs of adults above those of children. In the stories of exorbitant costs and incompetence, teacher tenure laws have achieved mythic proportions. Judge Rolf Treu’s tentative decision in Vergara v. California may be the death knell for teacher tenure. But what will change as a result? A look to the past reveals that teacher tenure never really protected teachers and nor was it supposed to.  

State teacher tenure legislation emerged in the 1910s and early 1920s. Supported by both teachers and school leaders, these groups envisioned the function of tenure privileges in discrepant ways. Faced with massive immigration, public school leaders responded to both increasing demands for services and unprecedented diversity. In 1918, New York City’s school superintendent called on every teacher in the system to “be aggressively patriotic in word and deed.”2 But a research brief from the National Education Association pointed out that growing numbers of teachers were immigrants and thus “not prepared to transmit the best American political and cultural ideals to the children under their care.”3 For school leaders, tenure represented a way to stabilize the teaching population and to preserve school systems’ financial investment in induction programs.

For teachers, tenure was a pathway to professionalism that established their expertise. In 1919, the New York City Teachers Union called for “the cessation of all interference on the part of the principal” in the teacher’s work.4 Though they received tenure privileges, teachers never received the rights they imagined and continued to be dismissed during these years for holding subversive views, getting married, and having children.

The myth of teacher tenure hinges on images of slothful ineptitude. But sinecure had nothing to do with the historic framing of these laws. On June 3, 1921, California legislators approved their first teacher tenure law. After two years of successful service, teachers could earn “permanent” classification meaning that they would not have to apply for reappointment each year. According to the legislation, a teacher could be dismissed for “immoral or unprofessional conduct, incompetence, evident unfitness, [or] insubordination.” The New York state policy carved out additional space for dismissal on the grounds of “other sufficient reasons” or “treasonable or seditious utterances.”5 Though the myth of teacher tenure has grown overtime, in most states, these laws remain fundamentally unchanged.

In reality, tenure policies were designed to achieve two modest goals. As school systems grew in size, rehiring the existing pool of teachers on a year-to-year basis quickly became an unwieldy and unproductive task. Tenure policies would reduce unnecessary paperwork and entice the “right” sort of teachers to stay in the system longer. In early public schools, principals hired and fired teachers based on personal connections, whims, and politics. Tenure policies centralized these personnel decisions at the Board level and gave teachers the right to due process.

No sooner had tenure legislations passed than did the myth surface. Shortly after the approval of California’s policy, a school leader there feared that the legislation would shift the balance of power and labeled teachers “selfish” and “radical.”6 Policymakers recruited women to teach in the first publicly supported schools because they were perceived to be “naturally” nurturing, docile and pliable. These assumptions suffused the image of the professional teacher and infiltrated the school bureaucracy. The result was a gendered power structure where men managed and women taught. Tenure policies promised to carve out space for teacher voice in a system where otherwise there was none.

If teacher tenure is a myth, then why haven’t more teachers been fired? Criticisms of tenure policies mask a larger, more fundamental supply problem.  “The truth of the mater,” a member of New York City’s Board of Education told a local reporter in 1919, “is that the service is not attracting the teachers we need, both from the standpoint of number and mental caliber.”7 The city’s superintendent echoed these concerns a year later reporting, “it has been extremely difficult to secure competent teachers.”8 These words could have just as easily come from Arne Duncan. The ability to fire teachers correlates directly to the applicant pool and over the long history of the public schools, policymakers worried that there were not enough qualified people waiting to teach.  

But what of the very real fact that in some instances firing teachers has proved to be what Treu described as a “torturous process”?9 During the Progressive Era, the very same time period teacher tenure laws surfaced, public schools adopted highly layered hierarchies in the name of efficiency, and teachers occupied the lowest rungs. Decisions – and paper work –traveled through multiple levels in the name of organization and, like a game of telephone, messages shifted. Teachers were outmatched in this bureaucracy, so they created their own: labor unions. With the rise of collective bargaining in the 1960s, teacher unions wielded significant power. Attempts to fire teachers were rare occurrences in most cities. But when a case did emerge, it ignited a fierce contest to determine which bureaucracy was the most powerful: the school or the union? The dollars funneled towards these cases were only tangentially about the teacher in question.

Myths, though not real, are powerful and shape behavior. Thwarting tenure laws is a first step in the larger, well-publicized project of dismantling teacher unions. And if the California case is a harbinger, this aim may not be far off. But what will any of this accomplish? Are teacher tenure laws or their unions the root cause of teacher quality issues and persistent achievement gaps? The historical record offers a resounding no.

Policymakers widely criticized teachers and achievement gaps existed long before the creation of tenure policies and teacher unions. For over a century, the school bureaucracy has grown without pause, shaping the conditions in which teachers teach and students learn and shaping the conversations we have about education. Today that bureaucracy is bigger than ever before. But what role has this institutionalization played in creating difficult working and unequal learning conditions?  

On one hand, teachers should not fret over the loss of tenure. It never offered them the sort of protections and rights they envisioned. But there is a much larger problem here that should concern us all. The reform rhetoric surrounding teachers and the resulting workforce policies have costs centering on teacher morale, commitment and recruitment. If the research is right and teachers are the most important factor when it comes to student learning, consequences like these should matter. The California ruling further legitimized the historic finger wagging at teachers. Not only is this unfair to teachers, it is detrimental to the nation’s children. In continuing to take aim at the easy target, we’ve once again missed an opportunity to reflect on the real causes of inequality in our schools. In spite of more than a century of teacher reform, we continue to struggle with the same problems. It’s time we begin asking a new set of questions.


1. “Asks for Removal of Unfit Teachers,” The New York Times, December 23, 1917.

2. William Ettinger, “Address to the Teachers of New York City,” September 20, 1918; Series 392; Box 3, Scrapbook v.13; Municipal Archives, New York City Department of Records, New York City Board of Education Collection.

3. “How to Strengthen the Schools,” Journal of the National Education Association 14 (January 1925): 3–4.

4. “Teachers Uphold Demands of Union,” The New York Times, April 13, 1919.

5. National Education Association of the United States Meeting, Addresses and Proceedings of the National Education Association Annual Meeting (1922), 282.

6. W.J. Washburn, “Sees Perils in Teachers’ Plan.” Los Angeles Times, July 20, 1921.

7. “Teaching is not Attractive,” unknown newspaper, February 14, 1919; Series 392; Box 3; Scrapbook 13; Municipal Archives, New York City Department of Records, New York City Board of Education Collection.

8. William Ettinger, Twenty-First & Twenty-Second Annual Reports of the Superintendent of Schools, 1918-1920, July 13, 1920, 18.

9. Rolf Treu, Beatriz Vergara, a minor, by Alicia Martinez, as her guardian ad litem, et al,  vs. State of California, et al, 12 (Superior Court of the State of California, County of Los Angeles 2014).

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 23, 2014
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17620, Date Accessed: 1/24/2022 8:21:17 PM

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About the Author
  • Diana D'Amico
    George Mason University
    E-mail Author
    DIANA D’AMICO, Ph.D., an historian of education, is assistant professor and fellow in the Center for Education Policy and Evaluation at George Mason University. She is currently writing a book titled “The Failure of Reform: A History of Teacher Professionalization Policies.”
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