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'Evergreen' Contracts: A Reasonable Alternative to Tenure

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Tenure can be an insidious impediment to needed change – particularly when a mature faculty is set in its ways.

As an educator who has divided his 32-year career almost equally between the public and private sectors, I believe I bring a unique perspective to the debate on tenure, having lived in school settings where it was a bedrock of the educational culture and in others where it was nonexistent.

I am currently serving my fourth year as the superintendent of a small school district in the suburban New York metropolitan area. I previously served for 15 years in New Jersey and Wisconsin as the head of two private schools. Before that, I also served as a public school assistant superintendent in Connecticut and as a middle school principal and assistant principal in New York state. I have also taught social studies in both public and private schools.

Let me preface what I have to say with an acknowledgment that the school system in which I now work and those in which I spent many years are favored suburban systems. In many ways they look little different from the private schools in which I worked. The teachers in both environments are on the whole more similar than different: dedicated, well trained, extremely competent; the parents, motivated and demanding.

But these teachers are different, and tenure is a main reason why. Tenure--the provision of an almost ironclad hold on job security--colors relations among teachers, administrators, and school boards. It supports a culture in which the teacher can feel free to explore controversial issues and challenge authority in a professional manner, but also one in which the teacher can block, either subtly or openly, initiatives designed to improve teaching and learning. Tenure can thus be an insidious impediment to needed change--particularly when a mature faculty is set in its ways.

The absence of tenure shapes the culture of the effective private school in a number of positive ways.

In most private schools, there is no tenure, and in most, the school's culture is neither oppressive nor coercive. (Most effective schools, private or public, have leadership which is inclusive, sensitive, and collaborative.) But the absence of tenure shapes the culture of the effective private school in a number of positive ways. Teachers are aware that their continued success at the school is dependent in part upon responding to the initiatives of the governing board, the school head, and other leaders. During my 17 years in private schools I occasionally heard complaints about job security or political reprisals; but on the whole people were too busy trying to do a good job to dwell often on these matters. In many schools where merit incentives exist, such loyalty is rewarded financially. This culture usually results in schools which are more responsive than their public counterparts to changes in their environment.

There are some obvious dangers. Administrative capriciousness is always possible, although many private schools have appeals procedures that provide protection for responsible dissent. But diminished job security is the trade-off that is consciously made when a teacher enters this world. What he or she gets in return is considerable autonomy in the classroom, smaller classes, motivated students, and a school with a faculty and parent body focused on a clearly defined mission and common expectations.

In regard to the difficulties tenure creates in removing incompetent or mediocre teachers, my concern is not about the former. A truly incompetent teacher is rare, but can be dismissed even within the current system. It is more likely, however, for a teacher to be mediocre--just not up to the job for whatever reason. Mentoring plans and other professional-development programs can help motivate and improve some of these marginal performers, but it has been my experience that on the whole they provide limited success. These are the people who are unfairly protected by tenure and the burdensome dismissal process. In many cases they could be revitalized and successful in another setting.

It is time for public school teachers to accept the greater economic risks and professional working conditions that accompany their level of compensation.

One cause of the growing public concern about tenure is the changed economic status of the public school teacher. In the New York metropolitan area, for example, many senior teachers make in excess of $80,000 for working a 180-day year. That equates to an equivalent yearly salary for most people of over $100,000--for a job with the extensive rules governing hours and working conditions normally associated with lower-paid hourly workers. Let me be clear: I believe an outstanding teacher is worth every penny of that salary--and more. The problem is that outside of education this level of compensation is generally associated with a professional approach to hours and working conditions, somewhat diminished job security, and greater accountability. Public school teachers have worked successfully to achieve this deserved level of compensation; it is time for them to accept the greater economic risks and professional working conditions that accompany it. This means eliminating tenure, among other things.

But how to do so without subjecting teachers to the potential capriciousness of a principal, superintendent, or board, often the result of pressures from disgruntled parents--the most persuasive argument in favor of tenure? I have a suggestion. I believe all teachers entering the profession, following a five-year probationary period (which includes a two-year internship), should be given multiyear contracts which automatically "roll over" at a date certain unless specific action is taken by a board upon the recommendation of the superintendent. Teachers would continue to be evaluated annually within this framework.

"Evergreen" contracts provide teachers with ample warning that their jobs are in difficulty.

Such contracts are commonly known as "evergreen" contracts. If such a contract were for three years, it would take three years and actions by three successive boards to terminate a teacher. This would provide the teacher with ample warning his or her job was in difficulty, allow for a period of intense professional assistance, and protect against the arbitrary action of one superintendent or school board. Should a superintendent or board so desire, the teacher's contract could be bought out, thus providing an economic cushion to soften the blow of an immediate dismissal. This practice is not unknown in the private sector.

On the dangers of dismissal because of long service and a resultant high salary: My experience in dealing with teacher dismissals in private schools in two states convinced me that state and federal anti-discrimination laws provide ample protection for such individuals. And enlightened private schools write due process protections into their personnel policies.

The time has come to eliminate tenure. Public school teachers need to work in an environment that provides greater incentives toward cooperation in improving programs and practices, entails risks commensurate with their current rewards, and provides reasonable protection from the vicissitudes of political and personal reprisals. "Evergreen" contracts appear to me to offer a reasonable alternative to tenure while accomplishing these objectives.

James B. Van Hoven is the superintendent of the Blind Brook-Rye school district in Rye Brook, N.Y. He is a past president of both the New Jersey and Wisconsin Associations of Independent Schools.

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