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Tenure and Teaching Portfolios

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We need deliberate decisionmaking, not merely a default process.

News coverage of education over the summer has pointed to the continuing public concern that revolves around the issue of tenure for public school teachers. ("In Push for Accountability, Tenure Becomes a Target," June 25, 1997.) At present, teachers in most states acquire tenure after completing a three- to five-year probationary period of teaching in the same district. Even some supporters of maintaining tenure argue that too often principals who evaluate probationary teachers don't do an adequate job of weeding out the incompetent or marginal teachers, thus sticking the district with inadequate or mediocre teachers for years to come.

Given the expense and time required to follow due process to fire incompetent teachers, a more stringent procedure for acquiring tenure would seem to be warranted.

One of these more rigorous alternatives would be to require teachers to apply for tenure and to be reviewed by a school's tenure committee, consisting of the principal, a group of tenured teachers, and perhaps parents. Teachers seeking tenure would have to prepare a teaching portfolio for review by this committee. Guidelines for what the portfolio would contain and how it would be evaluated could be developed by each district. Portfolios generally would have evidence of the teacher's work and the results of that work. For example, they might contain such items as videotapes of teaching performance, course outlines, lesson plans, examinations constructed by the teacher, examples of students' work, evaluations conducted by classroom observers such as the principal and other teachers, evidence of professional growth, and other materials that would assist the tenure committee in judging the teacher's worthiness for a continuing, rather than time-limited, contract.

There would be several advantages to this procedure for awarding tenure as compared with the current system. A major one would be that by requiring teachers to apply for tenure and to complete a rigorous review, the quality of the tenured teaching force would improve over the years. Another advantage would be to make the acquisition of tenure a much more professional, meaningful, and prestigious experience. Granting tenure under this procedure would also be easier for school boards to defend to the public as a deliberate decision rather than a default process, thus satisfying some of the public demand for accountability.

During the initial years of probationary teaching, teachers would be signed to single-year contracts. If their probationary teaching was satisfactory, they could then be hired for three- or five-year contracts that could be renewed indefinitely. Whether or not to seek tenure would be a decision left entirely to each teacher.

The use of teaching portfolios in evaluating teacher performance is expanding, having been given particular attention by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, which requires teachers seeking national certification to submit portfolios to assessors for examination. Under the new system for attaining tenure, it might also be desirable to extend the time period before which tenure could be sought from three years to five or six years, thus allowing more time for teachers to collect and compile examples of their work and their students' work.

School politics could influence tenure deliberations, but the same point could be made about almost any meaningful decision affecting the school.

Arguments against this proposal might include concerns that teachers would not have time to prepare teaching portfolios; that the principal and other teachers would not have time for the significant review the tenure procedure would require; that school politics would influence the deliberations; that there would be too much subjectivity in the decisionmaking process; and that many experienced teachers would be teaching without tenure, thus making them vulnerable to arbitrary dismissals.

On the time concern, one could argue that the construction of the portfolio could and should be spread out over several years. All teachers would know that such an undertaking was required for tenure, so they could compile materials over several years of teaching. Such an important decision is worth whatever time and effort are needed to construct a portfolio and have others carefully assess it. Certainly, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards believes the time and effort are worth the results of national certification.

School politics could influence the tenure deliberations under this plan, but the same point could be made about almost any meaningful decision affecting the school, including the current process used to grant tenure. By involving teachers in the decisionmaking, along with the principal (and perhaps some parents), teachers would assume a significant professional responsibility, one entirely consistent with the precepts of site-based decisionmaking. Determining whether or not one's colleagues warrant continuing contracts is a serious and professional responsibility that should be a positive force in the professionalization of teaching.

Concern about the subjectivity of the decisionmaking process can be addressed by developing guidelines on what materials would go into portfolios and how those items would be evaluated. Clearly, the context in which the applicant was teaching, including the students' abilities and the difficulty of the teaching situation, would have to be taken into consideration. Some would argue that subjectivity is being reduced, rather than increased, by requiring a teacher to prepare his or her own best case for receiving tenure. In any event, the current process, in which the principal alone evaluates the teacher, is fraught with subjectivity.

It is true that this proposed plan would result in many teachers who in the old system would have had tenure teaching under multiyear contracts, making them potentially vulnerable to capricious or arbitrary dismissal. That is why thought would have to be given to creating safeguards against dismissals based on such reasons as wanting to hire teachers with lower salaries or disagreements over educational policy. Teachers need and deserve such protection.

The procedure I am suggesting is quite similar to what happens in higher education. A teacher (an assistant professor) is reviewed by peers and by administrators, using materials provided by the applicant and administrators, to determine the applicant's qualifications for tenure. Such a procedure has much to commend it and with carefully constructed safeguards could work well in public school systems. I also believe that the process itself would contribute to teacher professionalism, increased accountability, and better teaching for the students in our schools.

James M. Cooper is a commonwealth professor and a former dean of the Curry school of education at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va.

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