The myth of teacher tenure
By Perry Zirkel
If only we could abolish teacher tenure, propose liberals and conservatives alike, surely we could improve our nation’s public schools. Right?
Wrong. Although hailed as a panacea, getting rid of teacher tenure will not solve the problem of incompetent teachers or noncompetitive student achievement in the global marketplace. Separate the lore from the law, and a clearer picture comes into focus for evaluating this prescription.
It is a myth that teacher tenure provides a guarantee of lifetime employment. Tenure is no more than a legal commitment (set by the state and negotiated union contracts) to procedural due process, ensuring notice and providing a hearing for generally accepted reasons for termination, such as incompetency, insubordination, and immorality.
Tenure’s primary purpose is economic job security, tied to the otherwise uncompetitive pay in comparison to other professions; however, tenure is not a lifetime guarantee.
Nor does tenure necessarily mean a costly and complicated process for terminating a poorly performing teacher. The balance between a teacher’s individual rights and the school board’s institutional responsibility can be a fairly efficient process. The extent of the procedural process that is “due” depends initially on the will of the public at the state legislative and local contractual level. It may be no more than reasonable written notice of the charges and a one- or two-night board hearing with prompt impartial review.
The prevailing belief is that the outcome of litigation is usually in favor of the plaintiff-teacher, not the defendant-district.
Quite the contrary. Schools districts consistently win the vast majority of the court decisions concerning the involuntary cessation of a teacher’s employment based on incompetency. In a comprehensive canvassing of court decisions based on teacher evaluation for compe tency, I found that the defendant districts prevailed in more than a 3-to-1 ratio, and that there was no significant difference between the outcomes for nontenured as compared to tenured teachers.
Indeed, in an often-touted table from the National Center for Education Statistics’ 2007-2008 School and Staffing Survey, the standardized percentage of teachers in the United States who lost their jobs due to poor performance via the non-renewal of nontenured teachers (.7%) was half of that for the termination of tenured teachers (1.4%).
Unless and until a multifaceted reform package, including the investment in compensation and professional development attracts and retains a competitive supply of excellent teachers, removing tenure will not change the termination rate, much less the student achievement gap.
Instead, we should look to tailor, not abolish, teacher tenure. Streamlining should include lengthening the probationary period, elevating the standard for moving from nontenured to tenured status, and integrating a growth model of student achievement as a proportional, not primary, piece of the evaluation system.
However, such steps amount to merely moving the deck chairs on the Titanic without progress on other key reforms.
Some are radical and difficult. For example, how do we get teaching competitive with other, more respected professions, such as medicine? One way would be to change the compensation level and mix for teachers from low salaries and defined-benefit pension plans to high salaries and joint-contribution pension plans similar to other professions.
As evidenced by Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s controversy in Washington D.C., moving in the direction of these structural reforms is a matter of political will and personal savvy.
Another part of the solution, which is more specific to teacher tenure, is more subtle, essential, and potentially easy. If we held administrators accountable -- not just institutionally in terms of school and district Adequate Yearly Progress measures as
defined by No Child Left Behind, but individually in terms of their own performance evaluation tied to pay and retention -- for rigorously implementing the existing legal requirements for teacher evaluation, the courts will predictably provide the requisite message that tenure is quite the opposite of ironclad protection for bad teachers.
Thus, the message is not so much to change the law as it is to change the lore regarding teacher tenure. Systematically “deselecting” the least-effective teachers -- like stemming the tide of creative teachers leaving the profession -- is possible by correcting the current beliefs and practices that amount to myths and mediocrity.
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| July 13, 2010; 6:30 AM ET
Categories: Guest Bloggers, Teachers | Tags: ayp and teachers, eliminating teacher tenure, eliminating tenure for teachers, myth of tenure, no child left behind and teachers, teacher tenure, teachers
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