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Teachers Need So-Called Tenure More Than Ever

Imagine that you are the only chemistry teacher in a small community with only one high school. You are recognized as a great teacher by your principal, parents, and students. But during the summer, you are told by the superintendent that your services are no longer needed. You later learn that your replacement is the niece of that superintendent, a young woman who has just graduated from college and needs a job. It happens when teachers do not have so-called tenure.

Imagine that you are a single, young teacher in a very conservative and religious community. A school board member drives by your house early one morning and sees a married man coming out of your house. You are fired without an opportunity for a hearing, and you are not able to disclose that a fellow teacher was just giving you a ride to school that morning and came inside for a cup of coffee. It happens when a teacher has not earned so-called tenure.

Imagine that you are an ineffective teacher in an affluent school. The principal moves to have you dismissed because of his own evaluations of your practice and complaints from parents. Your lawyer is able to save your job because she proves that you have some of the highest test scores in the school. And isn't that what teaching is all about? It happens when evaluations and tenure are tied to test scores.

These are all true stories of events that occurred while I was a teacher leader in North Carolina. So I say to politicians who want to eliminate so-called tenure---more accurately termed fair employment and dismissal procedures---and make tests scores the basis for teacher evaluations, be careful what you wish for. It may be that you have chosen the wrong path to assuring that all children have great teachers.

Teachers need the opportunity to earn the status of tenure with procedures that protect good teachers from nepotism and arbitrary, personal, political, and capricious retribution. We know those things do happen. Tenure should be awarded with the full knowledge and clear documentation that the individual will be a good teacher, not a bad or mediocre teacher. This should be the most important task a principal performs, and it could be a task shared with some of the best teachers in the school.

I urge school boards and administrators not to do a premature happy dance just because recalcitrant legislators are talking about eliminating fair employment and dismissal procedures, procedures that, for decades, have worked successfully when principals have had the time and the skills to do their job. America's teachers do have constitutional rights. They do get to go through the judicial system to protect their 14th Amendment rights to due process and against wrongful dismissals. If these legal protections are removed, do not complain when you have enabled the cost of dismissing a bad teacher to skyrocket for taxpayers. Unions have huge legal defense funds. They will do what is necessary to protect the rights of their members. Legislators who want to eliminate due process procedures should be willing to add millions of dollars for school boards to pay lawyers, court costs, and settlements. It is clear to me that this punitive action toward teachers will hurt taxpayers more than anyone. Could it be that our current procedures are more financially efficient than punitive action?

Enlightened legislators may want to choose instead the more cost effective path of developing teachers and elevating the teaching profession. Strengthen teacher preparation programs with high standards for admission and graduation. Strengthen recruitment and hiring practices to assure quality control. Incorporate "Peer Assistance and Review" programs like the one in Montgomery County, Maryland, which has the best track record in America for screening out mediocre and poor performing teachers. That program works because it focuses on practice, not test scores. Offer high salaries, provide autonomy for teachers, encourage and support teachers who wish to seek National Board Certification, and respect and revere the teachers who have dedicated themselves to your children, their students. Is that too much to ask to ensure a great teacher for every child?

Let's all take a deep breath and refocus on the things that matter for teacher quality. Stop the madness of using tests inappropriately, stop the madness of punishing teachers, and stop the madness of undermining the Constitution of the United States of America. Stop the madness of eliminating basic legal protections for teachers. After all, we all want the same thing---a great teacher in every classroom!

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