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Tenure Should Not Be for Life

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Russell B. Moore

One of the hottest school-reform topics these days, particularly in the popular press, is the need to evaluate and revise the laws governing teacher tenure. The public often sees these laws as providing unreasonable job protection for ineffective, mediocre, or even incompetent educators. And even those in the know have begun questioning whether the job security tenure provides can become counterproductive, serving as a disincentive, in a time of reform, to making meaningful changes in teaching methods. Legislatures in some states are considering proposals to eliminate tenure altogether, based on the premise that to do so would improve the quality of the teacher workforce by making it easier to dismiss the incompetent. (See Education Week, April 17, 1996.)

Currently, teachers and administrators in the state of New York, for example, are granted tenure after three years of full-time teaching experience. That is a job safeguard that remains with the educator for the rest of the time he or she spends in that particular district. Once an educator has earned tenure, dismissal becomes much more difficult, time-consuming, and costly. While certain other professions may afford similar protection through negotiated contracts or regulations, such as civil service, a teacher's position is considered a proprietary asset by New York state law, a protection not available to most.

Tenure advocates believe one approach to addressing the difficulty associated with dismissing ineffective educators would be to streamline the required due-process procedures, thereby reducing the enormous costs associated with weeding out the incompetent. Some suggest addressing proactively the quality of educators entering the profession, rather than attacking tenure laws, by upgrading teacher education and preparatory programs, using objective evaluators who are external to the school system to make tenure recommendations, or improving programs for the induction and development of teachers.

While all of these suggestions have merit, none addresses the real issue of the appropriateness of tenure protection as it now stands. I have been involved in education for 20 years, 10 as a teacher and 10 as an administrator, and I have experienced the advantages and disadvantages of tenure from both perspectives. While I agree with the need to alter the tenure laws, I disagree with those who would eliminate tenure altogether in the name of improving education.

Based on my experience, the vast majority of teachers are quite good at what they do, and spend long hours devoted to educating children. Many are excellent; few are practitioners an experienced evaluator would classify as "bad." In fact, the truly bad teachers should not be the target of tenure-law reform. It is, after all, the responsibility of administrators to evaluate and discharge teachers during probationary periods--before they obtain tenure. Moreover, truly incompetent veteran teachers are not that difficult to get rid of; they generally provide ample reasons and opportunities to do so. Of course, we all have read of the notable exceptions to the rule, cases that drag on for a year or more, resulting in expensive legal outlays. But these are exceptions. Relatively minor changes in due-process regulations, if implemented, could simplify the procedures while still providing due process, could reduce the time required and the cost of hearings and appeals, and could give districts and teachers an appropriate forum to resolve issues.

But because the vast majority of teachers do not fall into this category, our efforts should be broader. They should address changes in tenure laws that would have a positive effect on all educators and, ultimately, the quality of the education system. The emphasis in the call for tenure reform seems to be focused solely on teachers. It shouldn't be. Tenure laws apply equally to administrators as well as teachers, as they should. Any discussion of tenure laws or changes made to tenure laws should encompass all professional educators.

What should be the goal of tenure-law revision? In my opinion, it should result in a process that would ensure that all educators remain knowledgeable and proficient in the factual base, philosophy, and methods of their fields, and that they continue to learn and develop as educators. The only way to guarantee this is to link job mastery directly to job security. Tenure should not be for life, even though most educators continue to do a fine job year after year. Our communities, our children, and our job demands change; tenure laws should reflect that and should make sure that educators change accordingly.

To best meet this need, tenure needs to be made a renewable license, with an educator required to complete a rigorous professional-development component on a regular basis. In New York, for example, the state board of regents, not the legislature, should set minimum requirements for tenure renewal, with school districts allowed to establish additional, specific local requirements. Examples of professional-development opportunities that might lead to renewed tenure would include curriculum development, implementation of alternate-assessment programs, completion of graduate or in-service courses, presentations at local or regional conferences, or teaching college-level courses. There are numerous examples of appropriate activities for meeting such requirements. The important point is that a tenure license requiring renewal, perhaps every 10 years, would provide educators ample time to devote themselves to true professional development--and school districts adequate time to evaluate their professionals.

It is difficult for real reform to occur in many districts because schools are made up of individuals, some of whom have little incentive to change their classroom activities or their teaching methods. A renewable license would provide a way to implement systematic change and could open the door to significant reform of the entire system.

Russell B. Moore is a high school principal in Loudonville, N.Y.

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