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Teacher Tenure Must Be Earned

For too many years, tenure was granted to teachers almost automatically. Although critics charged that this practice undermined taxpayer confidence about the quality of education in public schools, their complaint never went anywhere. But things are finally changing.

In New York City, home of the nation's largest school district, only 58 percent of teachers eligible for tenure this year received it, compared with 99 percent five years ago ("Once Nearly 100%, Teacher Tenure Rate Drops to 58% as Rules Tighten," The New York Times, Jul. 27). That's because teachers are now rated on a four-point scale, rather than merely satisfactory or not. The scale (highly effective, effective, developing or ineffective) is determined by student test scores, classroom observations, parental feedback and other factors.

While the change is a step in the right direction, there are still problems that need to be addressed. For one thing, the rating rubric contains criteria that are not altogether clear. As a result, many teachers are left guessing about how they will be rated. This prevents them from using that information to improve. For another, some principals recommend against tenure for reasons having little, if at all, to do with instruction. As I've written before, principals can take a personal dislike to certain teachers and make their lives miserable. Unless the principal flagrantly engages in a pattern of harassment, there is not much the union can do.

Interviews of 40 principals in schools in Chicago conducted by the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute last year, for example, found that 37 admitted to cajoling, pressuring or threatening to get teachers to quit. They said they did so in order to bypass the tedious removal process mandated by the union contract. No matter how these principals rationalized their behavior, it was wrong. If they had evidence about a teacher's ineffectiveness, they had a duty to present it to the teacher, rather than engage in bullying tactics.

Contrary to what union busters maintain, teachers have little tolerance for protecting their colleagues who do not measure up. When the American Federation of Teachers surveyed its members about their views regarding underperforming teachers, 69 percent said high professional standards were more important than job rights. A new survey by the National Center for Education Information went a step further. It found that nearly all teachers, whether certified through traditional or alternative routes, support removing ineffective teachers, regardless of their seniority.

Bad teachers have no place in the classroom. I believe that as long as due process prevails, the risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater will be avoided.

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