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Administrator Magazine: Leadership
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Weigh In: Is Tenure for Teachers Over?

 Administrators debate the future.

By Jacqueline Heinze

"Teacher tenure is antiquated," says Robert Copeland, superintendent of Piscataway (NJ) Township Schools. "It's a notion whose time has come and gone. The first teacher tenure laws were in New Jersey, at a time concurrent with the suffrage movement, to ensure fair employment practices in schools, but perhaps the purpose has outlasted itself.

"I don't think the number of teachers protected by tenure who are failing to meet the needs of students is huge. But we run across maybe six or seven teachers a year whom we would not hire again if we had another chance to make that decision. The fact that only one of these teachers has been dismissed since 2005 speaks to a problem, one that legislature should deal with.

"Also, it's unrealistic [for government] to force a school district into accountability regulations and then stand by blithely and say, ‘But we're going to force you to give lifetime employment to people who don't deserve it.' It just doesn't make sense."

"I do see value in teacher tenure," says Linda Thompson, superintendent of Flint Community (MI) Schools. "The major reason teacher tenure was established was so that people could not arbitrarily lose their jobs, but I think it has morphed into this kind of lifetime protection for the teaching ranks. We have to hold people accountable. We would never tolerate this in any other profession. We need to look at our profession in the same manner.

"I would not eliminate teacher tenure, but it can be overhauled. One way to do that is to look at the length of time it takes to receive tenure. In the state of Michigan, it used to take two years to receive tenure—now it takes four. Four seems to be working a lot better for us. Four years is enough time to see whether, with the right professional development, the person has the ability to be a superior teacher. If, in fact, this profession is not the right place for them to be, we can let them go.

"It's scary for teachers to see their job security possibly going away, but at the same time, I also feel those who are good at what they do have nothing to worry about."

"No issue is more important to education than changing how we recruit, support, coach, evaluate, and compensate teachers,"  says Tom Boasberg, superintendent of Denver Public Schools (DPS). "Having a quality teacher in every classroom is essential to large-scale, dramatic improvements in student achievement.

"In DPS, we're partnering with the [Bill and Melinda] Gates Foundation on a three-year program that will overhaul our entire teacher-effectiveness system to significantly improve our ability to develop and retain great teachers. That will build on the foundation we set in creating ProComp—our groundbreaking incentive-pay system that rewards teachers for growth in student achievement and helps bring top talent to traditionally hard-to-staff schools.

"And now, with the recent passage of state Senator Michael Johnston's bill on teacher tenure, there is alignment in DPS and Colorado on this critical issue. The fundamental components of the Johnston legislation are creating a link between tenure and growth in student achievement and ending the practice of forced placement of teachers.

"That, however, is just a piece of the entire teacher-effectiveness system. Just as important is creating meaningful ways to train, support, and mentor teachers. Teaching is the most important work there is, and it's also some of the toughest. For too long, school systems have given short shrift to creating strong support systems that build close, cohesive teams of teachers."

"Teacher tenure must be dramatically altered," says Eugene Sanders, CEO of Cleveland Metropolitan School District. "School districts must be able to hire, retain, and dismiss faculty in order to keep our focus on student achievement. Continuing to grant tenure when a school is not achieving at a high level seems to me to be at best disjointed.

"We also have to be able to tie teacher evaluation to student performance. I would like to see an element of economic incentive—performance pay or an alternative compensation system—somehow tied to overall teacher evaluation, which in turn would affect tenure.

"We're at a critical stage in public schools in America. Teacher tenure, performance assessment, and accountability are all key variables that will spell our success or failure. If school districts are able to aggressively embrace individual accountability at all levels, those districts will have the greatest chance of succeeding and positioning our nation to remain competitive globally. So while teacher tenure alone may seem like a small component, it is one of the cornerstones of our public education system. Our ability to deal with it effectively will dictate the success of our nation moving forward."

"I believe that a measure of student progress is important in deciding tenure," says Gene Harris, superintendent of Columbus (OH) City Schools. "Creating a value-added measure to help determine tenure would have to be developed very carefully. I don't believe there ought to be an absolute standard. The progress measure has to be broad enough to be fair. It can't measure every single child that the teacher has. There are too many factors that children bring to the table that are not controlled by teachers. There also needs to be some opportunity, whether it's over three or four years, for a teacher to retool and get back on track.

"Our teachers are professionals, and they need to be treated professionally. I think finding that fair measure can absolutely be done."

"I think the question is really about pay for performance," says Arthur Johnson, superintendent of Palm Beach County (FL) school district. "Teacher tenure in the state of Florida is a two-year process: Every year, teachers get renewed for another year. You can't end the contract, but you can use either the evaluation or disciplinary process to try to terminate a teacher who is not performing at an acceptable level. I see the unions reacting more to the question of pay for performance than the question of tenure—although I know they don't like either.

"We're going to have to find a balance between what the public wants and what the unions want. For the past 30 years, polls have shown that the public feels teachers should receive pay for performance. The unions believe that some form of teacher tenure should be part of the compensation. This next generation of teachers does not want to wait 30 years to make a competitive salary. They want it now. With what's happening in Washington, D.C., schools and with a Democratic president pushing for performance pay, it's inevitable that the country is going that way, although it's been a very difficult journey."


About the Author

Jacqueline Heinze is a contributing editor at Scholastic Administr@tor.

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