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Teacher Tenure Overhaul

For too long, tenure was virtually automatic for teachers. But that is no longer the case, as news from several states shows. I support efforts to ensure that tenure is granted only to teachers who have demonstrated that they are effective in the classroom - not merely to those who have worked a stipulated number of years. But what are the criteria that will be used in making the determination?

I'll focus primarily on New Jersey because it is the home of the nation's oldest tenure law. Teachers there will now have to teach for four years and earn ratings of "effective" or "highly effective" for at least two years ("Christie Signs Bill Overhauling Job Guarantees for Teachers," The New York Times, Aug. 7).

I have several questions. What weight will standardized test scores be given in judging teachers? There is no stipulated ratio ("Christie Does Tenure," The Wall Street Journal," Aug. 10). What about the value-added metric? Will it be a factor?

In New Jersey, mentors will be used in the tenure process. But who will these mentors be? What are their qualifications? Will their evaluation be final, or will the principal's? These are important questions because of the high stakes involved. Unless the answers are unambiguous, the new system will be subject to favoritism and abuse.

The new law also dramatically alters dismissal once notice of tenure revocation is filed. Teachers will have 105 days to contest the action, and the matter will be under the control of an arbitrator. Once again, who will choose the arbitrator? Will the arbitrator be a single person or a panel? Although arbitration costs will be capped at $7,500 and paid by the state, it's important to know the backgrounds of those chosen.

Making it harder for teachers to gain tenure is also underway in New York City, home of the nation's largest school district. Only 58 percent of teachers were granted tenure this year, compared with 89 percent last year ("Big drop in tenure teachers," New York Post, Jul. 28). The change was the result of requiring principals to consider a teacher's achievement with students, instructional practice and contribution to the school. In Idaho, tenure has been abolished. Teachers are given one-year contracts, which have to be renewed. In Florida, new teachers are also given one-year contracts. Other states will surely follow suit.

These changes are hailed by reformers as long overdue. But remember that too many well intentioned changes in education in the past have wound up having little or no impact on educational quality. For example, all tenured teachers in California are supposed to be evaluated every other year by their principals under the Stull Act that was passed in 1971. Teachers are required to submit sample objectives and planned evidence of professional growth. Student achievement is to be part of the evaluation. But the law is widely ignored. Today, only a few of California's more than 1,000 school districts are in full compliance.

In a response to a suit filed by parents in Los Angeles, a Superior Court judge ruled in June that the Los Angeles Unified School District must include scores on state standardized tests in evaluating teachers. But the judge left it up to the district in its negotiations with the teachers union to work out the details.Then on Aug. 10, the California 2nd District Court of Appeal nullified a settlement that permitted the LAUSD to overlook seniority in determining which teachers would be laid off at 45 schools ("L.A. Unified settlement bypassing seniority-based layoffs nullified," Los Angeles Times, Aug. 11).

Despite these developments, I expect to see tenure eventually eliminated. In its place, teachers will be given one-year contracts. In addition, seniority will no longer be a factor in the event of layoffs. These changes will please corporate reformers because it's the way business operates. But they come with a price that is given short shrift in the debate over how to improve educational quality.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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