Teacher tenure comes under fire
by Daniel Denvir
A growing number of critics are zeroing in on tenure, a due process protection for teachers, as a central obstacle to improving public schools – some describing it as a protection racket to keep ineffective educators from being fired.
In Pennsylvania, teachers are granted tenure after three years on the job if they are found to be satisfactory. An overwhelming number of them are, and very few are ever fired because they are not good at what they do.
In the 2007-08 school year, just 16 of 11,000 Philadelphia teachers were rated unsatisfactory, and only six were dismissed for poor classroom performance. The School District did not provide more recent data.
"States do virtually nothing to establish a teacher's effectiveness in the classroom before awarding them permanent employment status," said a 2008 report from the National Council on Teacher Quality, which gave Pennsylvania a "D" grade for identifying ineffective teachers. "The state lacks any meaningful process to evaluate cumulative effectiveness in the classroom before teachers are awarded tenure."
Legislation to weaken or abolish tenure, or to tie it to student achievement on standardized tests, has been introduced in statehouses nationwide. While no major legislation has been proposed in Pennsylvania, Republican Governor-elect Tom Corbett has called for taking student achievement data into account when granting tenure or dismissing teachers and for making it easier to fire ineffective teachers.
The film "Waiting for 'Superman'" takes issue with the concept of teacher tenure and touts the idea that the country should rid itself of the least effective 10 percent of teachers.
Yet many researchers and advocates – and, of course, teachers unions – say the focus on tenure and calls for mass firings are a distraction from the lack of meaningful evaluations or professional support for educators.
And teachers say they need the protections that tenure affords. Tenure was a primary demand of the early 20th century teacher's union movement, and teachers still say they fear being fired for illegitimate reasons: to get rid of a veteran and thus more expensive teacher; to give the job to someone politically connected; to punish them for speaking out or teaching a controversial topic. Or, maybe, just because of a bad principal's whim.
"If someone's incompetent, they shouldn't be in the classroom," said Ted Kirsch, president of the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Federation of Teachers and past president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. Kirsch defended the protection offered by tenure while acknowledging that the evaluation process could be improved. "If people commit certain indiscretions dealing with kids, they shouldn't be there. All we are saying is they should have their day in court."
Critics of current practice say the bar for tenure should be set much higher than mere competence, citing a broad consensus that educator quality has the greatest impact on student learning of anything that takes place inside a school. In particular, the Obama administration and others are advancing the view that test scores need to be part of the evaluation process.
But administrators, not teachers, are ultimately responsible for an undeserving teacher being granted tenure. And clearly they have some latitude in making those decisions.
Linda Katz, president of the Children's Literacy Initiative, argued that there is no shortage of opportunities "to screen out the people who aren't qualified" before they ever take over a classroom: when teachers apply to major in education; during student teaching; when they apply for state certification; and in the hiring process.
"I think tenure should be very hard to get," said Katz. "Right now, it's automatic. It's ridiculous."
In Philadelphia, administrators observe tenured teachers once a year and non-tenured teachers twice. Tenured teachers who receive an unsatisfactory rating must receive semiannual evaluations for three years.
According to Katz, teachers need regular and intensive evaluations, by multiple evaluators taking multiple measures into account, to become better educators. And assessments should not be primarily punitive in nature.
Beginning in the 2009-10 school year, Philadelphia implemented a new system, evaluating 25 instructional practice standards. The post-observation meeting is supposed to be geared toward professional development.
In Pennsylvania, the federal Race to the Top competition has spurred efforts to overhaul teacher evaluations. While the state did not win a grant, the Gates Foundation is funding a $769,000 project to research and develop a new evaluation system for teachers and principals. The project could change in tone or direction under the incoming governor.
"The notion that teachers would have to reach a certain level of accomplishment before they are granted tenure is a more viable approach than just, when the clock strikes three years, you get tenure," said state Acting Secretary of Education Thomas Gluck.
He said that student achievement as measured by standardized tests should play a role in tenure decisions and perhaps in teacher compensation. But he is not sure how big that role should be, especially since many subjects and grade levels are not covered by such tests.