Here’s Matt Yglesias on the trendy practice of companies offering employees “unlimited paid vacation”:
[An employee’s] job is to do a good job, and giving them discretion about how much time to take off is a way of looking generous while knowing perfectly well that people won’t actually take much time off.
To put that in more abstract terms, the point is this: a benefit that costs little to offer and that employees generally will not use is a low-cost way for an employer to attract talent, especially if prospective workers overestimate its value to them.
Of course, it would be unworkable to give teachers that much flexibility with their work schedules because they need to be at work when the students are there. As I’ve said before, however, most school districts offer another benefit that operates (in part) on the same principle: tenure.
Teachers value tenure because they believe it provides them with job security. This is true, but not as true as they think. In practice administrators are loath to fire teachers or even to give them low performance reviews, even when tenure protections are relaxed or removed. And since districts tend not to fire teachers anyway, tenure is a low-cost benefit for them to offer.
To use Yglesias’ words, districts offer tenure in part because it “is a way of looking generous while knowing perfectly well that people won’t actually” use the protections it provides.
Now, the analogy between unlimited vacation and tenure isn’t a perfect one, in part because some of the benefits of tenure are very real. Tenure protects teachers from age-related discrimination, for example. And both teachers and administrators probably appreciate the reduction in burdensome evaluations that usually accompanies tenure.
Nevertheless, tenure is a popular target for many education reformers because they – like many teachers – misunderstand its real effects. If you think teacher tenure needs to be reformed or eliminated because its primary effect is to “protect bad teachers”, you don’t really understand how tenure works.
The primary effect of tenure is to attract and retain teachers, which means that eliminating tenure is tantamount to making teaching a less desirable profession.