Tenure for public-school teachers is simply a set of rules and regulations outlining due process for teachers accused of misconduct or poor performance. But elaborate rules often make it nearly impossible to fire an incompetent teacher. Teachers who commit felonies, or otherwise commit acts of questionable morality, or those who are insubordinate to their administrators are far less problematic. But frankly, it can be difficult to get rid of an incompetent teacher. State law allows teachers to call for a tribunal to hear their case, and tribunals have lousy track record when it comes to dealing effectively with incompetence.
But is the solution to throw out tenure altogether as the proponents of corporate education reform suggest?
There is some level of consensus among education reformers and some teachers'-union leaders that the process could bear some reexamination. The most contentious areas of debate tend to be about how to modify what constitutes due process, rather than how to get rid of it altogether.
It is worth noting that most teachers are not dangerous or incompetent and that, as a group, they have been unfairly maligned. But with 3.2 million teachers in the U.S., even a small percentage of bad teachers gives rise to concern. In practice, it is far easier for a principal to encourage teachers to move to another school (or better, another district) than it is to suffer the writer’s cramp that comes with trying to remove them from yours. In the worst cases, teachers who are actually dangerous to children can bounce from one school to the next.
Unfortunately, ineffective administrators are a big part of the existing situation. The central problem with current practices is really about administrative courage and resolve, prior to granting tenure, and to do the work of getting rid of the poorest teachers. A fair system for evaluating all teachers is also problematic. Tribunal members must understand that suspending the license of incompetent teachers for a year or two and not requiring any other remediation, is a recipe for disaster. Unions must find some way of differentiating between the protections offered most teachers, and the protections offered those who harm children. Perhaps there are some offenses the union could acknowledge to be below their standards of professional excellence.
Tenure rules are hard to change for good reasons. At a minimum, teachers are understandably concerned that they won't be treated fairly by administrators. While a variety of federal and state laws promise to protect workers from unfair and discriminatory practices, there are too many cases where principals and superintendents have overreached to eliminate teachers for political or other reasons apart from teaching. Teachers' concerns are not groundless.
Multi-year dismissal processes that return poor teachers to the classroom — even when teachers' conduct is clearly inappropriate — as well as the growing awareness that today's teacher effectiveness measures are flawed and essentially unfair to a large percentage of teachers, complicates an issue that needs no complication.
Two options are currently being debated. One is to make achieving tenure a high bar so that it signifies not just the amount of time served but a performance standard that comes with monetary and other recognition. The other option is simply doing away with tenure altogether and giving teachers contracts similar to those of most other workers.
This from the Prichard Committee:
The often-contentious topic of teacher tenure was the subject of a debate between Bill Raabe, director of the Center for Great Public Schools of the National Education Association, and Andy Smarick, a partner at Bellwether Education Partners. Prichard Committee member Gene Wilhoit, former Kentucky education commissioner and executive director of the national Council for Chief State School Officers, moderated the exchange.Parts 1 (59 mins) & 2 (19 mins)
Wilhoit pointed out that, for the last 15 to 20 years, tenure has been more the subject of academic conversations that are not connected to policy. Now, however, tenure is part of a larger discussion about improving education.
Raabe’s key assertion focused on the importance of looking at the entire system of teacher recruitment, preparation, performance and professional development to determine what is “the most important lever” to pay attention to. Tenure was established to protect teachers from discrimination and to guard their academic freedom, he said. Some level of due process is still needed to ensure teachers’ freedom to experiment in finding the best way to teach students without fear that making a mistake would lead to their dismissal, Raabe added.
Smarick said tenure laws serve to hamstring administrators from making personnel decisions in a way that best serves students. He maintained that anti-discrimination laws and workplace rules have addressed the problems teachers encountered in the past.
“Tenure laws were a reaction to their time, which was very different from today” and they were put in place before data was available on high- and low-performing teachers. The laws, in Smarick’s view, protect lowest-performing teachers.
Both agreed that there is a need to review teacher compensation systems, which generally provide the same pay for all teachers based on education and experience and do now allow differentiation as a result of additional duties or special accomplishments by teachers.
Bill Raabe's opening points:
- Tenure exists because historically there have been lots of bad acts taken against good teachers
- We need to protect academic freedom and academic inquiry
- Full levels of discrimination are going on in school systems
- Good teachers need to be able to feel comfortable to be creative in class
- Even if we’re concerned about the bottom 10% of poor teachers, what about the other 90%
- Principals have a 4-year probationary period to identify and remove poor teachers
- Existing laws against discrimination have not prevented a whole list of reasons for which teachers have been terminated
Andy Smarick's opening points:
- These rules [tenure] hamstring great principals and administrators from managing their human assets
- Tenure is an adult-centered set of policies, not about students
- Discrimination is a part of our history and tenure was a logical reaction to that, however, we now have other things to take care of that. Newer laws ban discrimination based on race, gender… Also a whole set of workplace rules, making sure work conditions were OK
- We now have teacher standards that didn’t exist 100 years ago
- Data suggest there is enormous variation in teacher quality, and tenure has the effect of protecting the poor teachers who are disproportionately placed in the classrooms of disadvantaged students
Asked for their advice for Kentucky on the tenure issue, each speaker made specific suggestions.
Smarick noted:In other business...
- If a tenure law is retained, a teacher’s acquisition and maintenance of that status should be based on student performance.
- A law should have “real teeth” in the consequences it provides.
- As tenure rules are reformed, other elements such as teacher preparation and retention should be considered
- Review the current law to see if goals can be accomplished under its provisions.
- Closely monitor a teacher’s first four years on the job, before he or she becomes tenure-eligible, to gauge performance and provide needed supports.
- Ensure that a quality teacher evaluation system is in place to assess teachers’ performance after they have completed probation.
Keeping students in school, issues related to quality teaching
and new reports focus of joint Prichard Committee,
Teacher Team meeting
Topics ranging from high school graduation to a debate about teacher tenure provided the focus of a recent joint meeting of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence and its Team on Teacher Effectiveness.The meeting, held at General Butler State Resort Park, featured presentations by Kentucky educators and national experts on issues the citizens’ committee is emphasizing in its 30th year of advocacy for improved education for all Kentuckians.Jefferson County Superintendent Donna Hargens, Fayette County teacher Amy Harris and Clark County principal Dustin Howard discussed the importance of keeping students in school and the strategies they use to accomplish that goal. Hargens said raising the dropout age to 18, an option made available to districts in 2013 legislation, has been on Jefferson County’s agenda for two years.
Having dropouts is expensive to the community, Hargens said, and the investment in keeping students in school will be well spent. It is important to think about things differently in using the right approach with those students, and the new law will be catalyst for doing things a different way, she added. (The law allows districts to raise the dropout age from 16 to 18. Once 55 percent of the state’s districts do so, the law will become mandatory statewide within four years.)
Harris and Howard, who work in alternative school settings, said they used a variety of programs and strategies to keep students interested and in school. “Every day we have these students in our classrooms is another opportunity for reaching, teaching and giving them an opportunity to be successful,” Harris said. In Howard’s school, the approach is what works best for all kids. “We try to put a positive spin on alternative education.”
Before convening in a joint session with the Teacher Effectiveness Team, the committee also heard from a group of high school students who advocated that students have greater involvement in the committee’s work. The committee subsequently voted to direct its board to explore ways to make that happen.
The team has developed and released two issue briefs on key topics related to quality teaching. Supporting New Teachers: The importance of the First Year in Ensuring Success and Retention and Evaluating Teachers: Kentucky’s Approach to Creating a Successful System. The issue briefs were developed with the support of Committee for Economic Development...
The team also heard a presentation on alternative teacher compensation from John L. Myers of Augenblick, Palaich and Associates, and Jennifer Kramer-Wine of the Fairview Agency. The speakers said their work to date shows that alternative compensation systems that are developed at the local, instead of state, level have the best chances for success.
The Prichard Committee Team on Teacher Effectiveness is continuing its review of issues related to quality teaching. Its final report, including recommendations, will be issued by the end of 2013.
Videos & Photos from 2013 Prichard Committee Spring Meeting
Special Recognition: Bev Raimondo receives gifts and remarks during a retirement recognition (17 minutes)
The Case for Student Integration at the Prichard Committee presented by the Prichard Committee’s Student Voice Team and Facilitated by Rachel Belin (45 minutes)
High School Graduation Panel Discussion featuring:
(Part 1 -59 minutes and Part 2 -12 minutes)
Donna Hargens, Superintendent, Jefferson County Public Schools
Amy Harris, Teacher, The Learning Center at Linlee, Fayette County Public Schools
Dustin Howard, Principal, Phoenix Academy, Clark County Public SchoolsA Debate about Tenure featuring:
(Part 1 -59 minutes and Part 2 -19 minutes)