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Teacher Tenure Needs Revision

As readers of this column know, I strongly support teacher tenure.  But the situation in California is hard to defend ("California has long placed teacher rights over student needs. A fair compromise is finally on the horizon," Los Angeles Times, May 29). 

Specifically, California requires school districts to decide after only two years whether probationary teachers are granted permanent status (tenure).  Because of notification rules, that really means after only 18 months. I find it hard to believe that such a short period of time is adequate.  Research has shown that it takes most new teachers four years to fully reach their potential.

A bill in the California Legislature would extend the probationary period by one additional year to four, which is what almost all other states demand.  What I would also like to see, however, is more support for struggling teachers.  It does not serve students well by allowing them to be taught by weak teachers.

Then there's the matter of firing bad teachers who have been granted tenure.  As things stand in most states, doing so is a protracted and expensive process.  Yet I hasten to emphasize the need for due process, lest teachers who are unpopular with their principals are singled out. Teachers' unions have not been effective enough in protecting teachers.

Reformers will argue that these principals are rare.  I suggest they review events at Brooklyn Tech, one of New York City's elite high schools.  In 2004, an abusive principal harassed even exemplary teachers to the point that they requested transfers from this coveted school ("Principal's War Leads to a Teacher Exodus," The New York Times, Jan. 28, 2004).

I don't see the interests of teachers and students being incompatible, as reformers charge.  For example, teachers' unions have fought for smaller class size.  Does this help teachers?  Of course it does because they have fewer papers to grade.  But it also helps students who receive more attention. 

Public schools are entering a new era that I believe will make them unrecognizable in the decades ahead.  Yet I refuse to accept the assertion that they will be necessarily better if tenure were abolished.

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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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