The reason tenure exists in K-12 education is because teachers-and especially their union leaders-saw a model in higher education for lifetime job security that they could carry over to their own schools. Today, however, tenure is fading in post-secondary education. Will the same thing occur in K-12 schools?
Let us earnestly hope so, for the negatives of tenure have come to far outweigh its positives.
In almost every private conversation I’ve recently had with a college dean or university provost, they’ve confided that their institutions are phasing out tenure. Sometimes the shift is dramatic, particularly when spurred by lawmakers, such as the changes underway at the University of Wisconsin in the aftermath of Governor Scott Walker’s 2015 legislative success. Tenure-ending bills were introduced this winter in the Iowa and Missouri legislatures and, while they didn’t make it into law this time around, kindred efforts are bound to continue in many state capitals.
Often, though, the impulse to contain tenure on campus arises within the institution’s own leadership and takes the form of hiring fewer tenured or tenure-track faculty, instead filling classroom vacancies with what the American Association of University Professors terms “contingent” faculty, i.e., non-tenured instructors, clinical professors, and adjunct professors. In many medical schools, tenure has been severed from pay, so that professors may nominally win tenure but that status carries no right to a salary unless they raise the money themselves from grants or patents. This sort of change is underway across much of U.S. postsecondary education. Whereas tenured and tenure-track faculty comprised 56 percent of the instructional staff in American higher education in the mid-1970s (excluding graduate students who teach undergrads), by 2011 that figure had shrunk to 29 percent. In other words, seven out of 10 college instructors were “contingent” employees—and almost three-quarters of those were part-timers.
The data since 2011 are scanty, but there’s reason to believe these trend lines have continued and perhaps steepened—if for no other reason than pressures to hold down costs and, sometimes, to retrieve an institution’s capacity to innovate.