Outside of schools and colleges, tenure is rare, and for good reason. People should be paid for a job well done. If they're demonstrably failing, a system that insists on paying them anyway is not just patently unfair but a disincentive to keep up the effort.
It's a testament to the dedication of teachers that most continue to work so diligently when they could get away with doing less. The problem is those teachers whose chief goal is to skate toward retirement, or who are simply burned out, or who never had the skill to engage young minds in the first place. They are a minority, but they are not a rarity. Just about every public school student gets a few of them between kindergarten and senior year; just about every parent knows who they are and will go through all sorts of manipulations to avoid them. One bad teacher can set a child off course for years.
Once teachers have gotten past probationary status -- a decision that is made in the middle of their second year of teaching -- firing the incompetent ones is such a quagmire that most administrators don't have the time or stomach for it. Charter schools have done away with such practices -- and that includes Green Dot Public Schools, whose teachers are unionized -- with no widespread reports of unfair treatment.
Randi Weingarten, who heads both the AFT and the New York City teachers union and is one of the more progressive union leaders, has declared the seemingly impossible: that tenure is a legitimate issue for negotiation. But discussion is a long way from agreement, and the union in Washington has been hostile to school district Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's proposal to give a big pay raise to teachers willing to give up tenure. That's not the radical step it might seem; it would be voluntary, so probably only the district's high-performing teachers would participate. At least it would set a precedent that might lead to further change.
Teachers deserve meaningful job protection. Senior teachers should feel safe from administrators who could save money by hiring lower-paid beginners and from parents who can turn vindictive when they don't get their way. Instead of sheltering weak instructors, though, teacher contracts should specify fair and effective ways of assessing their performance -- and ushering them out the door.