Tenure: An idea whose time has gone?

Megan McArdle’s recent piece in The Atlantic makes this claim.  My favorite part was her response to the argument that it is tenure that allows professors to produce important research:

How about valuable scholarship?  Well, define valuable–in many liberal arts fields, the only possible consumer of the research in question is a handful of scholars in the same field.  That sort of research is valuable in the same way that children’s craft projects are priceless–to their mothers.  Basically, these people are supporting an expensive hobby with a sideline business certifying the ability of certain twenty-year-olds to write in complete sentences.

Another point is equally compelling: tenure is supposed to encourage professors to take risks.  But because the process of applying for and receiving tenure is highly political and consumes one’s early career, it often has the opposite effect: scholars early in their professions, when they are most likely to produce groundbreaking work, are far more risk-averse; by the time tenure is granted, a professor is more definitively committed to a specific academic trajectory with far less chance of groundbreaking research.

Lastly, McArdle points out that the process does not do much for the vast majority of tenure applicants who are not successful:

At the end of the process, most of the aspirants do not have tenure; they have dropped out, or been dropped, at some point along the way.  Meanwhile, the system has ripped up their lives in other ways.  They’ve invested their whole youth, and are back on the job market near entry level at an age when most of their peers have spent ten years building up marketable skills.  Many of them will have seen relationships ripped apart by the difficulties of finding not one, but two tenure-track jobs in the same area.  Others will have invested their early thirties in a college town with no other industry, forcing them to move elsewhere to restart both their careers and their social lives.  Or perhaps they string along adjuncting at near-poverty wages, unable to quite leave the academy that has abused them for so long.

The entire piece is well worth a read, but it also made me think: if the arguments for tenure are so fragile for higher education, why in the world is it a fixture in K-12 education?  (and commenters, please let’s not have a pedantic linguistic fight about “tenure” vs. “non-probationary” – duck, walk, quack, etc.)

The most cogent arguments for tenure in higher education almost uniformly do not apply to K-12.  McArdle, in her discussion of tenure, notes:

I’m sure it’s protected more than one scholar from getting fired after making stupid remarks to a class.  And we would all of us–not just academics–like to be immune from getting fired for making stupid remarks.

Tenure in higher ed can at least appeal – correctly or not — to the importance of of university research. It’s the rare argument that tenure improves undergraduate teaching.  K-12 has no such shield, and the claims that tenure improves student learning seem to me to be even more sparse.  I sure understand why K-12 teachers like the protections of tenure.  I’m just not sure its benefits accrue to anyone else within the system.

8/12 Update: A similar and expanded view in Slate

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