Policy Documents

Research & Commentary: Loosening Teacher Tenure in New Jersey

June 27, 2012

New Jersey is one of several states—including Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Nevada, South Dakota, and Virginia—that recently considered tightening qualifications for teacher tenure or replacing it with rolling contracts.

New Jersey legislators are considering two such proposals. One, sponsored by state Sen. Teresa Ruiz, would remove tenure from teachers who receive two successive evaluations as ineffective and would lengthen to four years the time required to earn tenure. Teacher evaluations would be tied to student test scores.

The state Assembly bill sponsored by Patrick Diegnan Jr. would require three years of evaluations as ineffective before a teacher could lose tenure and would have student test scores affect a teacher’s rating by a smaller percentage than the Senate bill. Neither bill removes “last in, first out” requirements, but both aim to pare down the extensive negotiations required to remove a shockingly bad or criminal teacher from the classroom.

Teachers unions argue tenure is necessary for K-12 teachers to protect them from being arbitrarily fired. They also say tenure prevents administrators facing budget shortfalls from firing the teachers who earn the most money instead of the least-effective or least-needed ones.

Reformers note due process protection from capricious or arbitrary firings has been enshrined in Western law since the Magna Carta and widely expanded in the U.S. Constitution, federal law, and state law. They also note schools would never fire their most-expensive workers if those were their best teachers. Currently, step-and-lane requirements in many state laws ensure the longest-tenured teachers, not the best ones, are paid the most.

Reformers also point out the destructive consequences of tenure, such as making it so impossibly expensive and time-consuming to remove poor teachers that it almost never happens, which degrades student learning. Tenure also makes it possible and even likely teachers will become lax and complacent after the two or three years typically spent earning it. Research consistently shows nearly every teacher receives tenure, without any attention to teaching quality.

The following documents offer more information about teacher tenure.


G.O.P. Governors Take Aim at Teacher Tenure
Lawmakers in several states are considering limiting or modifying teacher tenure in response to research showing it keeps poor teachers in the classroom, reports the New York Times. Teacher quality has become a prime concern for state and city leaders after years of mediocrity in school systems and research linking teacher quality to economic advancement and student success.

The Teacher Unions Strike Back
Teachers unions have a vested interest in making removing teachers as obnoxious and expensive as possible, leading them to resist most effective reforms, write Robert Holland and Don Soifer in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Unions have everywhere resisted these reforms, resulting in poorly staffed schools, wasted tax dollars, and lackluster student performance.

How to Succeed in Teaching Without Lifetime Tenure
Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Naomi Schaefer Riley profiles the Olin College of Engineering, which hires professors for five-year contracts instead of lifelong tenure. It has 140 applicants for every position in a highly competitive field, and professors love to work there. The culture of the school is aimed at constantly increasing excellence, she reports, and the absence of tenure attracts and retains people who are excited about their field and enjoy teaching.

What If the NFL Played by Teachers’ Rules?
An NFL Hall of Famer illustrates the problems with tenure and seniority by imagining what would happen if football teams ran by schools’ staffing rules. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Fran Tarkenton says, “The only difference between Tom Brady and the worst player in the league is a few years of step increases.” This, he says, would cause the players, like teachers, to reduce their effort and perform poorly.

High Cost of Firing Teachers Deters Action by Schools
Tenure makes firing a poor teacher so expensive that schools instead keep them in classrooms, reports Scott Reeder in an investigative report by the Small Newspaper Group. This dramatically reduces the quality of public education and increases taxpayer costs.

Tenure Frustrates Drive for Teacher Accountability 
Tenure makes it extremely difficult for superintendents and school boards to hold teachers accountable for their work, seeking excellence, or even just showing up, reports Scott Reeder in an investigative report by the Small Newspaper Group. It is nearly impossible and extremely expensive to fire a tenured teacher, even if the teacher doesn’t show up for work or screams at students. This is true even when teachers are regularly evaluated, he reports. Despite clear evidence of these realities, teachers unions claim such accountability problems don’t exist.

A Higher Bar for Teachers, Finally
Because teachers are the most important factor in student success, tenure is a high-stakes decision, writes Timothy Daly in the New York Daily News. This means a teacher should receive tenure only if there is hard evidence he or she is an excellent teacher. Unfortunately, Daly notes, a study he conducted found nearly all teachers now receive tenure regardless of whether they have proved their worth.

No One Buys Firing by Seniority
“Last in, first out” is the worst possible way to lay off teachers, writes Marcus Winters in the New York Post. Statistically, picking teachers’ names out of a hat would actually have a better impact on students and district budgets. The best way to reduce and rearrange the teaching workforce is to systematically remove the worst teachers.

Nobody Deserves Tenure
No one has a right to lifetime employment unrelated to their job performance or the employer’s continuing need for their skills and attributes, writes Chester Finn Jr. in Education Next. Tenure became the norm only around the 1980s, he writes. Due process is a right guaranteed to all by the Constitution and myriad other federal and state laws, and tenure is not necessary to protect teachers from arbitrary firing. Given that tenure creates a host of problems and inequities, it should be abolished.

Managing the Teacher Workforce
The consequences of last in, first out policies are steep and detrimental to students and taxpayers, conclude Dan Goldhaber and Roddy Theobald in a study published by Education Next. Teacher quality is the foremost school-influenced factor in student achievement, but seniority rules devastate teacher quality, directly harming kids’ education and thus their future quality of life and earnings. LIFO most directly harms poor and minority students. It requires districts to lay off more teachers and prevents them from removing terrible teachers who have managed to stick around longer than superior younger teachers.


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this and other topics, visit the School Reform News Web site at http://news.heartland.org/education, The Heartland Institute’s Web site at http://www.heartland.org, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database, at www.policybot.org.

If you have any questions about this issue or The Heartland Institute, contact Heartland education policy research fellow Joy Pullmann, at 312/377-4000 or jpullmann@heartland.org.